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21st May 2022

MEPs visit Bulgaria to probe corruption first-hand

  • Czech conservative MEP (EPP) Tomáš Zdechovský led the delegation to Bulgaria (Photo: Dandieczech)
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A delegation from the European Parliament's Budget Committee visited the Bulgarian capital Sofia this week to inspect corruption and misuse of public and EU funds.

"Bulgaria is at a crossroads," Czech conservative MEP (EPP) Tomáš Zdechovský said on Wednesday (13 April). "It will either follow the path of corruption or choose the path of a developed country in the EU."

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Only days previously, the European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen had signed off on ​​€6.3bn in EU grants under the bloc's pandemic recovery programme.

But Germany-based organisation Transparency International lists Bulgaria as the most corrupt EU country.

A point which came up during the Budget Committee's last visit in September, when MEPs expressed concern over the lack of corruption cases launched by Ivan Geshev, the country's powerful general prosecutor.

"There are not enough investigations or prosecutions of alleged fraud," Zdechovský, who led the delegation, said ahead of the press conference. Dutch MEP (Renew) Sophie in't Veld also said, "there is a lot of animosity between the general prosecutor's office and parts of the government."

Since the committee's last visit, a new government has been formed, headed by Kiril Petkov, who has tried to remove Geshev but has so far failed.

According to in 't Veld, the fight against corruption is "basically the sole political agenda" of this new government but indicated that the battle to restore the rule of law in the country is only just beginning.

In March, police forces organised by the interior ministry arrested former Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borissov over much-publicised allegations of corruption and the alleged extortion of a casino boss nicknamed Vasil "The Skull" Bozhkov.

But Geshev's office quickly released him without charge.

An example of unaddressed corruption raised during the MEPs' press conference was the misuse of EU funds allocated to the country's government to upgrade tourist guest houses, which ended up lining the pockets of Bulgarian officials.

According to in 't Veld, Bulgarian taxpayers have already paid back €24m, but the corrupt individuals who stole the money have yet to be prosecuted.

Also according to in 't Veld "a list of individuals" responsible were discussed with Geshev's office, but he was "quite dismissive of that," she told reporters.

"The step which has to be taken now is to get the money back. But it is not up to the European Parliament," she said. "This has to be settled here in Bulgaria."

In a sign that prime minister Kiril is looking for EU help in the fight, he — together with EU chief prosecutor Laura Kövesi who heads the European Public Prosecutor's Office (EPPO)— hosted a press conference on 16 March.

In it, they pledged to work together on probing 120 cases of malpractice that allegedly took place under former prime minister Borissov's mandate.

"They have sent us record numbers of reports about potential criminal activity," Kövesi said. "Now is the time for the relevant Bulgarian national authorities to team up with us."

EU raises alarm on Bulgaria corruption

Seven years after joining the EU, Bulgaria has done little to curb corruption and organised crime in a threat to its sovereignty and to European unity.

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The latest European Commission health report puts the pair of south-eastern EU accession states last in terms of the overall lifespan of their citizens. Romanians and Bulgarian now die even younger than before.

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The new draft European Parliament report is an update to the 2018 report which triggered the Article 7 procedure against Hungary, a sanctions probe aiming to rein in member states that break EU rules and values.

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