The European Commission’s regular reports on progress under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) have always elicited the same reaction in Bulgaria, as parties in government would cherry-pick the positives and the opposition would focus on the negatives. The latest report on November 15 2017 proved no different.
A day after the report, the first comment from Prime Minister Boiko Borissov acknowledged the shortcomings pointed out in the report, but also said that Bulgaria will meet all its commitments. He also used the opportunity to once again draw a favourable comparison to Romania: “You see that we are ahead of Romania. I am certain that by the end of 2018 we will have done everything that the European Commission is asking for. I am optimistic”.
Although Bulgaria and Romania, which joined the EU together in January 2007, are both subject to the CVM, which was put in place to bring them up to EU standards in the judiciary and in combating organised crime and high-level graft, the reports on the two countries are separate and the EC never openly draws parallels between the two.
Borissov, however, rarely misses an opportunity – with or without cause – to push this claim, even though Romania has secured sentences for dozens of officials (including a former prime minister, as well as ministers and MPs) and Bulgaria is yet to get a single conviction in a high-profile corruption case.
Justice Minister Tsetska Tsacheva described the report as “positive and motivating”, interpreting the absence of new recommendations as a positive development. She said that the Bulgarian government was fully in support of transitioning to an EU-wide mechanism monitoring that the rule of law is upheld.
Ekaterina Zaharieva, deputy prime minister in charge of judicial reform, was not on hand to comment on the report, but speaking from Kuwait, where she is on a two-day official visit, said that the government had no expectation of Bulgaria exiting CVM monitoring this year.
“I can say that I agree with all the assertions and recommendations made in the report. I hope that we will continue to work together in good partnership and co-operation as we have up to now,” she said, as quoted by Bulgarian National Radio.
On the other side of the political divide, the leader of the largest opposition party in Parliament, socialist Kornelia Ninova, did not even wait for the release of the report to slam, in a breakfast television appearance on November 15, the government’s progress.
Despite Borissov’s active foreign policy efforts, the European Commission’s report was still concluding that none of the requirements in fighting corruption and organised crime or judiciary reform had been fully met, Ninova said.
President Roumen Radev, elected on the socialist ticket last year and frequently at odds with Borissov’s cabinet on a number of issues, took a similar stance, noting the absence of new recommendations but also pointing out the lack of significant progress on existing recommendations.
Radev, who has a track record of making comments interpreted as dismissive towards the EU, also said that “Bulgarians no longer pay attention to these reports because they shift responsibility and instead of Bulgarian citizens, politicians use these reports to answer to Brussels.”
Inside the judiciary, the report also prompted unequivocal reactions: the prosecutor’s office, which has resisted calls for greater oversight over the prosecutor-general, emphasised in a statement the positive aspects of the report, while Lozan Panov, head of the Supreme Court of Cassation and a consistent voice for greater reform efforts, described the report as “political” and meant to ensure a degree of calm during Bulgaria’s upcoming six-month presidency of the Council of the EU.
He said he was opposed to Bulgaria exiting CVM monitoring, offering a counter-argument to Radev’s position: “In Bulgaria, unlike many other European countries, Bulgarian citizens and society have more trust in European institutions than Bulgarian institutions. Exiting the monitoring would have an opposite effect, not so much for Bulgaria as for the European institutions, because Euroscepticism could raise its head here too.”
(The Palace of Justice in Sofia. Photo: Clive Leviev-Sawyer)