The July 23 agreement among Bulgarian political parties on reforms of the judicial system is a “first step”, according to French ambassador Xavier Lapeyre de Cabanes, noted for his public criticism months ago of “rotten apples” in Bulgaria’s judiciary.
“This is a great success, almost a little surprising,” the French ambassador said that of the deal on constitutional changes reached among GERB, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, the Reformist Bloc, Patriotic Front, Bulgarian Democratic Centre and ABC.
As a result of the deal, on July 24 Parliament dropped from its agenda the original version of the constitutional amendments, pending the tabling of new proposals arising from the previous day’s agreement.
The new version will include three main points on which the six parties and coalitions agreed, including dividing the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) into colleges of prosecutors and judges,
introducing direct election of SJC members by the judiciary; and empowering the SJC Inspectorate to check the assets of judicial officers and monitor them for possible conflicts of interest.
The French ambassador told public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television that the success in reaching the deal was thanks to Minister of Justice Hristo Ivanov, with not only the government and the prime minister but also other political forces persuaded that the reforms were important.
Thanks to the prime minister and the president, gradually also there was consensus among almost all political forces in Bulgaria, unfortunately, still lacking the Bulgarian Socialist Party and Ataka, the French ambassador said.
Responding to a question about his “rotten apples” phrase, he said, “since then we have witnessed the fact that many judges feel more free and independent.
“As if they realise they are not alone and that there are people in Bulgaria and outside Bulgaria, who have understood that there is no independent judiciary if judges themselves are not independent.”
The system may be independent of the political power and of the executive, but if the judges themselves are under continuous pressure from the leadership of the court or the SJC, if they are so dependent on other forces regarding their careers, this means that they are not independent, he said.
“And if a judge is not independent, it means that his decisions cannot be taken solely in accordance with the law,” the French ambassador said.
In a separate interview with BNT, Justice Minister Ivanov described the deal as a “very good interim result”.
The agreement was good because it preserved the core of the proposals for change, but was an “interim result” because between the first and second readings in the National Assembly, there would be a reversion to some of the procedures that had been rejected.
This was a reference to the fact that on two issue, the appointing powers of the two SJC chambers in relation to the powers of the SJC Plenum, and the ratios between the parliamentary quota and the
judiciary quota for the members of the two chambers – the new bill will retain the provisions proposed in the original bill, with the agreement that the Constitutional Court will be asked for an opinion on both issues and the MPs will take its judgment into account during the second reading.
Ivanov, who has had backing from civil society in the form of public protests calling for judicial reform, but also has been targeted by small groups of “counter-protesters” demanding his resignation (as shown in media reports, sometimes without knowing his name or being very clear why they were there), said that there was a very simple way to receive his resignation, and that was through completing the reform.
Roumyana Buchvarova, Deputy Prime Minister in charge of coalition policy and also Interior Minister, said that the deal was a “great political victory” for this Parliament, “because the decision to change the constitution in practice opens the way to change the judiciary – to do what we want to do”.
Buchvarova said that the changes were the result of joint efforts in recent monmths and the absolute determination that this should happen.
Radan Kanev, co-leader of the parliamentary group of the Reformist Bloc, told reporters on July 24 that the bloc had made a “big political sacrifice” – a day earlier, in the final hours before a deal was reached, Kanev had spoken of a “historic compromise”.
Responding to those who had protested outside the National Assembly building that morning, Kanev said that the bloc had scored a great success by having its original proposal for dividing up the SJC retained in the version of the bill that would be tabled.
The Reformist Bloc had given up its proposal for open voting, instead of voting by secret ballot as has been practice until now and will be retained, because there was insufficient support for the change in Parliament, Kanev said.
On July 23, Kanev – who earlier, in the face of MRF objections to the initial bill and their demands for a rewrite, had said that the bloc would not back a mere imitation of reform, said that the deal represented, “not a pretence at judicial reform, but rather a thoroughgoing, full-fledged transformation of the SJC, which was the original idea behind the constitutional changes”.
ABC, the socialist breakaway party that has a seat in the coalition government, has indicated that it would likely support the first reading of the bill, but on the issue of the proportions of the quotas allocated to Parliament and the judiciary in naming SJC members – an issue that will be referred to the Constitutional Court – would vote against the second reading unless these provisions were changed.