Sunday

17th Feb 2019

Opinion

Is Bulgaria the EU's next rule of law crisis?

  • Bulgarian leader Boyko Borissov (r) with Jean-Claude Juncker during Bulgaria's 2018 EU presidency (Photo: eu2018bg/Flickr)

All seems quiet on the eastern front of the EU, in Bulgaria.

The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has said that Bulgaria is a "success story," which can inspire others.

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  • Police shut down anti-corruption protest in Sofia in 2016 (Photo: George Chelebiev)

He has also generously offered his support for Bulgaria's membership in the Schengen Area and the eurozone.

The leaders of the centre-right EPP party in the European Parliament have joined the cheering chorus.

On a visit to Bulgaria during the Bulgarian presidency of the Council of the EU earlier this year, the EPP party head, Joseph Daul, called Bulgaria's prime minister Boyko Borissov "the best chef d'etat in Europe".

While inspecting Bulgaria's border with Turkey in August, EPP political group leader Manfred Weber also said Bulgaria fulfilled the criteria for Schengen membership "better" than some other EU members.

How blue is the sky?

As a scholar, however, I have trouble reconciling the optimistic political rhetoric with raw data.

When Juncker referred to Bulgaria's "success" he was particularly impressed with its low unemployment rate and economic growth. But should we be impressed, too?

The main reason for the low unemployment rate is mass emigration. Statistics show there are more Bulgarians working abroad than in Bulgaria: to be exact, 2.5m work abroad, while 2.2m work at home.

Bulgarians leave their country because it has little to offer them.

Bulgaria has the lowest GDP per capita in the EU.

Foreign investment has been steadily declining since 2007, which appears paradoxical because this is the year in which Bulgaria joined the EU.

Economic growth, which can largely be attributed to EU funds, is not remarkable if one considers inflation.

Moreover, Bulgaria has a long history of smoothing data, so a canny observer should not take official statistics at face value.

Bulgarians have the lowest median earnings in the EU, too - so low that labour unions have estimated that even if both partners in a family work and receive the median salary, they will struggle to satisfy the basic needs of a four-member family.

A staggering 22 percent of Bulgarians live below the poverty line.

Corruption

Behind this failing economy, one sees the ghost of corruption and the lack of rule of law.

According to Transparency International, a leading European NGO, Bulgaria is the most corrupt EU member state.

In 2018, the US NGO Freedom House downgraded Bulgaria to a semi-consolidated democracy along with Hungary.

Under the nose of EU institutions, Bulgaria's democracy was transformed into an autocracy in which public resources and institutions are used to serve the private interests of those in power.

Critics are abused daily and businesses which refuse to succumb to corruption are threatened by the tax authorities.

Those who speak up are prosecuted on fake grounds and usually based on uncorroborated witness statements.

Bulgaria's prosecutor's office, which has not been reformed since communist times, is used as a hammer against inconvenient opponents.

It has an entirely vertical structure where all decisions depend on one person - the general prosecutor. Whoever controls him, controls the entire justice system.

Judges who refuse to collaborate to please the prosecutor's office are abused or prosecuted, too.

There is nobody to report the abuse in an objective light either. Bulgaria is 111th based on press freedom in the world according to the authoritative index by French NGO Reporters Without Borders.

Many journalists have been prosecuted in order to silence them.

Social media like Facebook are censored. Critics have their accounts blocked and content discrediting the government mysteriously disappears.

When cloudless skies thunder, stand fast

Sadly, none of this is addressed in the reports under the EU's Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) to which Bulgaria is subjected.

In July this year, I wrote an article about the disheartening speech which the president of Bulgaria's supreme court, the highest-ranking judge in the country, gave in May 2018.

He complained that he and his family were being harassed because he refused to comply with political orders.

He lamented that there was no separation of powers.

It seems that the article was noted by an Austrian journalist who confronted EU justice commissioner Vera Jourova on the matter at a press conference.

Surprisingly for me, she said this was "a new thing" for her. This could have been convincing had the judge not been subjected to abuse since 2014.

It is strange that the EU commission has failed to take note of such irregularities for four years despite its CVM.

Is rain to come?

What the commission and the EPP may not realise is that ordinary citizens do not read the CVM reports.

Many of them have given up following Bulgarian media too. They look around and they see cloudy skies, not blue.

You have not seen mass protests at home so far because of people's fear - fear that they will be arrested, fear that para-police gangs will harass their families, or that they will simply lose their jobs.

This is not the EU which Bulgarians aspired to be part of. After Poland and Hungary, Bulgaria seems like Europe's next rule of law crisis.

Radosveta Vassileva teaches law at UCL university in the UK

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