On Monday (5 October) MEPs, meeting for a plenary session in Brussels, discussed the situation of the rule of law and fundamental rights in Bulgaria. Sadly for the people of Bulgaria, there was poor attendance by Bulgarian MEPs and an almost empty chamber.

MEPs will again this week be asked to adopt a resolution on the ongoing protests against corruption and alleged “state capture” in Bulgaria.

A resolution will be put to a vote on Thursday (8 October) and is expected to be endorsed by the majority of members in full plenary.

A small, peaceful demonstration organized by Bulgarian nationals based in Brussels took place outside the parliament before Monday’s plenary meeting took place.

Protesters accused three-times premier Boyko Borissov, 61, of weakening state institutions to the benefit of powerful tycoons, keeping Bulgaria the European Union’s poorest country. One protester, who did not wish to be named, accused Borissov of eroding state institutions to serve the interests of private business interests.

Borissov has dominated Bulgarian politics since 2009 but thousands of Bulgarians have been rallying in central Sofia since early July to demand his resignation and that of Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev.  Geshev who is said to have failed to wage a genuine war on high-level graft.

Transparency International ranks Bulgaria as the most corrupt country in the 27-nation EU.

In the plenary debate, Bulgarian MEP Andrey Novakov cited the EU’s Compliance and Verification Mechanism of the Balkan country’s judicial system, saying this is “not just a box ticking exercise.”

When they joined the EU on 1 January 2007, Romania and Bulgaria still had progress to make in the fields of judicial reform, corruption and (for Bulgaria) organized crime. The Commission set up the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) as a transitional measure to assist the two countries to remedy these shortcomings. It aims to ensure that the country is enacting effective administrative and judicial systems needed to deliver on the obligations of EU membership

Novakov told the debate: “The CVM is not just a box ticking exercise but, rather, is about fighting corruption.”

The EPP member said: “There is, currently, very low trust in the judiciary in Bulgaria and concern about corruption and the Bulgarian people want us to do something about this and see it through. I believe we can produce tangible results but this needs good cooperation with the Bulgarian authorities.”

He said one means of doing this would be the need European Public Prosecutor’s Office, soon to start its work.

Novakov said: “This will be a useful contribution in helping the EU to fight against corruption and crime in Bulgaria. We will continue to work with Bulgarian authorities to this end.”

He noted that Bulgaria was one of five countries highlighted in the commission’s recent rule of law report which will be assessed next month.

He said, “There is a need to increase the trust of the Bulgarian people. This is needed not because Brussels wants it but because Bulgarian people deserve it.”

Novakov, an EPP member, was one of the relatively few Bulgarians MEPs present in the chamber for the one hour debate.

German Greens MEP Ska Keller said: “The Bulgarian resolution is very important. The parliament must not turn a blind eye to such violations but adopt the resolution that will send a strong signal to those countries with rule of law problems. We must call them out. This (respect for rule of law) is something they agreed to do when they joined the EU. If there is a regression, and that is certainly the case in Bulgaria, we need to do something about it.”

Michael Roth, speaking for the German presidency of the EU, said the debate on Bulgaria “touches on heart of the problem”, adding: “Yes, it may be painful and political problematic but it is necessary because if there are problems we must address them without it being seen as external interference of the affairs of a country.

“I am grateful for this debate so that all member states, including Bulgaria, can scrutinize the rule of law. Council will not stay silent on this.”

Also speaking in the discussion, EU justice commissioner Didier Reynders told MEPs: “We have a chance to take action (against crime and corruption) and this will start  with the public prosecutor’s office which is a good instrument to fight against crime.”

He said that as part of the rule of law report there will be a debate about 5 countries, including Bulgaria, in November, adding, “this is the best way to analyse the situation regarding the rule of law.”

He warned: “We use all the tools at our disposal against these 5 states, including Bulgaria.”

Spanish MEP Juan Lopez Aguillar, rapporteur on the dossier, spoke of a “toxic cocktail”,  saying: “In Bulgaria, we are witnessing a worrying a lack of accountability in the judicial system and its Prosecutor General and a Bulgarian Parliament that is repeatedly neglecting its role in the checks and balances of a government mired in allegations of corruption.”

He said the resolution “sheds light on the deteriorating state” of the rule of law in the former communist state. One of the areas of concern for MEPs is press freedom in the country, which they say is an “essential ingredient for a healthy democracy.”

Lopez Aguillar said: “The combination of these ingredients is forming a toxic cocktail where public trust is very low and people are regularly taking to the streets.”

He said the resolution “sheds light on the deteriorating state of the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights in Bulgaria”.

He added: “We are doing this for the people of Bulgaria, who we stand with in their fight for justice, accountability and democracy.”

The S&D member added: “European law matters; the rule of law matters. The rule of law is linked with defending the interests of the EU and fighting against corruption.

“Mapping corruption shows clearly that member states with structural deficiencies on rule of law are those most prone to resort to corrupt practices when managing EU budget and funds. That has to come to an end,” he said.

The debate comes a month after more than 50 MEPs, mainly from the Socialist and Democrats group, and the Greens, sent questions to the EC over their fears that there was an “imminent threat to the rule of law and democracy in Bulgaria.”

“The state of the rule of law in Bulgaria is an emergency,” the parliamentarians wrote, in a letter that observed that the battle against organized crime in Bulgaria took a step back after Brussels expressed a willingness to end its Compliance and Verification Mechanism of the country’s judicial system.

For the third year in a row, Bulgaria is 111th on the World Press Freedom Index, by far the worst ranking for any EU country. The resolution says that recommendations from the Venice Commission need to be fully implemented. Already adopted earlier at committee stage, the text tackles the deteriorating situation in Bulgaria in respect to the principles of the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights, including the independence of the judiciary, separation of powers, the fight against corruption, and freedom of the media.

During the debate on Monday several MEPs denounced the lack of corruption investigations and called for increased transparency regarding media ownership and distribution networks. Deputies also condemned “any kind of violence against peaceful demonstrations” and denounced the spread of hate speech.

They also raised concern about “violence against people of Romani origin, women, LGBTI people and other minorities” and called for cooperation between the Bulgarian Government and the European Commission. MEPs also highlighted the need for the Bulgarian Government to ensure stricter control of the way EU funds are spent and to address “immediately” the concerns that taxpayers’ money is being used to enrich those associated with the ruling party.

The text of the resolution focuses also on persisting systemic issues in the judiciary, especially the lack of a framework in place to hold the Supreme Judicial Council and the Prosecutor General accountable and the failure to comply with over 45 European Court of Human Rights judgments by carrying out effective investigations.

MEPs said they are also further concerned about a series of developments, including:

–          The announced constitutional reform, which should be preceded by proper consultations and be in line with international standards;

–          potential changes in electoral legislation, close to the next parliamentary election;

–          the hasty adoption of legislation by the governing majority;

–          investigations into high-level corruption not yielding tangible results and “corruption, inefficiency, and a lack of accountability”;

–          the serious deterioration of media freedom and working conditions for journalists in Bulgaria over the past decade;

–          allegations against the Bulgarian police regarding the use of force against women and children and journalists during demonstrations, and;

–          the state of fundamental rights in Bulgaria, e.g. as regards hate speech, gender and sexual discrimination, and the rights of Romani people and asylum seekers.

The resolution is set to be voted on by the full house on 8 October.

Protests in Bulgaria erupted on 9 July, with demonstrators calling for  Borissov and Geshev to resign, based on allegations of corruption and state capture. Citizens took to the streets following two incidents that have added to the public’s growing frustration over systemic political corruption.

This week’s parliamentary debate and resolution mark a sharp increase in pressure the assembly is making on Bulgaria. It comes after members of parliament’s Democracy, Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights Monitoring Group (DRFMG) recently met to discuss the situation in Bulgaria. They heard from a range of actors and the focus was on democracy, rule of law and fundamental rights, especially media freedom, independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers.

Bulgaria’s President Rumen Radev has condemned the clashes and accused the government of “directing” and triggering the violence on 2 September. He described Borissov’s government as “marred by corruption and violence”.

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