As Bulgaria puts the finishing touches on preparations to hold the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU starting a few short weeks from now, the European Commission’s latest report on progress under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) lacked some of the harsher tones seen in recent years.
But while the EC noted that “significant progress has been achieved” on the 17 recommendations made in the previous report in January – which took stock of overall progress in the past ten years since the CVM was put in place when the country joined the EU in January 2007, to bring it up to EU standards in the judiciary and in combating organised crime and high-level graft – none of the benchmarks set at the start of the year were met yet.
Introducing the report, EC Vice-President Frans Timmermans said “We have seen progress in many areas but there is still more work needed. Bulgaria has met or made progress on several of our recommendations, but not yet all. I count on the Bulgarian Government to implement all the planned reforms, and to avoid backtracking, so that we can move towards the goal of ending the CVM under this Commission’s mandate.”
Political uncertainty caused by snap parliamentary elections led to some delays in the implementation of reforms early in the year, but the reform process has regained momentum since May, even if final outcomes are still to be seen in areas requiring legislative reform and government action, such as the fight against corruption, according to the report.
But the rush could also result in unintended negative consequences, such as earlier this summer, when a package of judiciary amendments was tabled without public consultation, sparking wide criticism that the bill was limiting judicial independence.
Even thought the most far-reaching amendments were withdrawn, “Bulgaria should ensure the irreversibility and credibility of the judicial reform process by establishing an environment of mutual trust and cooperation between institutions, crucial for the successful implementation of reforms,” the CVM report said. “Whilst there is a clear need to accelerate the pace of reform, this should not lead to the by-passing of consultation procedures, which would risk creating a climate of uncertainty and a lack of ownership.”
The report also took a cautiously optimistic stance on the new line-up of the Supreme Judicial Council, which took office last month, saying that it had “an opportunity to address the generally negative environment of debate which has reigned within the judiciary under the previous SJC, with evident divisions and mutual suspicions hampering an impartial decision-making process.”
Regarding the elections of the new council, the report noted the criticism that surrounded the appointment of the parliamentary quota members, which were the result of backroom deals between the parliamentary-represented parties and generated little debate regarding the nominees’ individual qualities. However, the report emphasised that “overall, the elections to the new SJC showed the merits of the new legislative framework which was put in place in 2016.”
The report also noted the election of the new head of Bulgaria’s Supreme Administrative Court, which was voted first by the outgoing SJC and then confirmed by the new council, but gave no appraisal of the process or outcome.
Overall, the Commission concluded that significant or important progress had been achieved on four of the 17 recommendations to reach six benchmarks outlined in the previous CVM report.
“While the Commission cannot yet conclude that any of the benchmarks are at this stage satisfactorily fulfilled, it remains of the opinion that, with a continued political steer and a determination to advance the reform, Bulgaria should be able to fulfil the remaining outstanding CVM recommendations in the near future,” the report said.