Bulgaria: One step forward, two steps back
When Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU on 1 January 2007, they still had serious shortcomings in crucial areas, such as the rule of law, fighting corruption and organised crime, and reforming the judiciary.
Regardless, the two countries were let in on the condition they would be subjected to the so-called Co-operation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) - an unprecedented form of monitoring backed by regular European Commission reports on the countries' progress on reform.
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The latest CVM reports, issued on Wednesday (22 January), show they are both still far from the finish line, with the language harsher on Sofia this time around.
While it points out that Romania “has made progress in many areas” and that “track record of the key judicial and integrity institutions has remained positive,” the commission says Bulgaria should “galvanise the forces in favour of reform and provide leadership.”
“Core principles like the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary must be at the heart of a long-term strategy for reform,” it notes, adding that Bulgaria's “overall progress has not yet been sufficient and remains fragile.”
That “fragile” progress includes improvement in the appointment of magistrates and the distribution of their workload.
But, using unusually strong wording for a technocratic institution, the commission goes on to list Bulgaria’s problems.
Those include shady high-level appointments - a clear allusion to Delyan Peevski, a controversial 33-year-old media mogul, whose designation as head of the State Agency for National Security (SANS) triggered widespread protests in the summer of 2013.
“The controversy over SANS' new responsibilities was compounded by the appointment of a new SANS director … Overall, these events have left a difficult legacy in terms of confidence amongst the public and amongst Bulgaria's partners, which the authorities will have to work hard to overcome, needing to show that the new structure is both efficient and accountable,” the report says.
It highlights “political influence on the judicial system” and lack of convictions for organised crime bosses in corruption cases.
The EU document says: “Public confidence is conditioned largely by key moments when decisions or events are of sufficient importance to warrant more general interest. Most such events over the last 18 months … have been the source of concern rather than reassurance.”
Overall, the report is one of the most critical ones on Bulgaria since the monitoring began.
It was called “depressing reading” by the British ambassador to Bulgaria Jonathan Allen.
“A few tiny steps forward; some big steps back,” he tweeted.
The commission underlines the failure of three different governments in the past year and a half (there was no CVM report on Bulgaria last year) to build consensus on how to move forward and bring in change.
This, combined with the general tone of the report, fully seven years after the country became an EU member state - should be an alarm bell for Bulgarian politicians.
It is representative of their lasting failure to effectively reform areas which are key for any well-functioning democracy.
The commission, and the CVM process in particular, has often been criticised for playing an advisory role instead of having real teeth.
A couple of days before the report came out, Bulgaria’s foreign minister, Kristian Vigenin, said the CVM in its current form had exhausted its potential and that Bulgaria is aiming to get rid of it, at the latest by 2018, the year the country is to hold the EU's rotating presidency.
In fact, the mechanism should neither be underestimated (it would be difficult to contest that many reforms undertaken in Bulgaria in recent years, as “fragile” as they have been, have largely happened because of Brussels), nor taken for what it was never designed to be: a panacea for the country's deep-rooted malaise.
The role of any such mechanism is to provide guidelines, incentives.
It is a useful political instrument, but, in the end, change must come from within.
One good sign in this respect is what the CVM describes as “widespread public aspiration for reform” and “voices in favour of [change] in Bulgaria,” which “deserve encouragement” from its leaders.
Political reactions to this year’s CVM do not give much hope, however.
Instead, they demonstrate the political elite's short-sightedness and its reluctance to act with long-term vision and a sense of responsibility.
Various political parties have blamed each other for the EU’s negative comments.
For its part, the government has, as usual, welcomed the commission’s objectivity and said it will draw up an action plan.
But on past form, the plan might well stay on paper, with little action in real terms.
We will see European elections and the appointment of a fresh set of EU commissioners in 2014 before the next edition of the CVM.
The executive’s new political chiefs might see the issues differently, but EU officials more broadly show no sign of discarding the mechanism any time soon.
The opportunity to make Bulgaria less “depressing” in time for the next CVM rests in its leaders’ hands.