Why Do EU Politicians Avoid Discussing Bulgaria’s Rampant Corruption and Lack of Rule of Law? Dissecting the Silence!

As a scholar with a research interest in the rule of law and as a Bulgarian citizen, I have been asking this question for a long time. For the sake of giving credit where credit is due, it is worth mentioning that the European Greens tried to raise concern about Bulgaria’s rampant corruption at the start of Bulgaria’s Presidency of the Council of the EU in January 2018 by publishing a critical report and by directly confronting Bulgaria’s Prime Minister on the matter at the European Parliament. However, they have progressively quieted down.

To be fair, the Greens are not in a position to do much either. Yet, what about the EPP, the Progressives or ALDE which is known for its motto “Values First”? These are the three largest groups at the European Parliament and all of them have members from Bulgaria.

At the end of August 2018, I carried out an improvised Twitter survey to see if my followers shared my worries (Figure 1). 36 people voted and 2 users who missed the deadline to cast their vote sent me separate comments, as we will see below.

So let’s see what the survey found?

twitter survey

Figure 1: Most Twitter users who voted attribute the silence to the fact that Bulgaria’s government is endorsed by the EPP; Few people have the illusion that EU politicians do not know what is happening

 

 

Explanation 1: EPP-led Government

39% of those who participated in my survey attributed silence to the fact that Bulgaria has an EPP-led government.

Many analysts who follow the rule of law crises in Poland and Hungary concur that a key reason why EU institutions concentrated on Poland and avoided recognizing the disrespect of EU values in Hungary was the EPP. Notably, Hungary’s government is endorsed by the EPP while the Polish government is endorsed by the ACRE Group at the European Parliament.

Bulgaria’s ruling party GERB is also a member of the EPP. Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Borissov currently serves his third term. It does not seem coincidental that Bulgaria went on a downward spiral during this period.

If you follow my blog, you probably know that Freedom House no longer considers Bulgaria a full democracy and Transparency International ranked the country as the most corrupt EU member. Bulgaria is the fastest shrinking nation in the world. The economy is in a disastrous shape: Bulgaria has the lowest GDP per capita in the EU and FDI has declined dramatically since 2007. You can read more about the catastrophic situation in my article ‘All You Need to Know About Bulgaria’s Rule of Law in 10 Charts.

Similarly to the case of Hungary, the EPP rolls its eyes. During the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU (Jan-June 2018), one had the impression that EPP politicians denied reality – Bulgaria was called a ‘success story’, a ‘model for others to follow,’ etc. The President of the European Parliament Tajani even tweeted that he counted on Borissov to be a key player in reforming Europe (Figure 2). You can read my commentary ‘The Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU: The Emperor Has No Clothes’ here.

Considering what he achieved in Bulgaria, Europe should better fasten its seat belts!

tajani

Figure 2: Is there a difference between being diplomatic and denying reality?

 

Explanation 2: Dual Standards

36% of those who participated in the survey said the silence was due to dual standards.

A year ago I actually wrote an article about EU’s dual standards on human rights, which you can read here: ‘The Rise of Modern European Dictatorships and EU’s Dual Standards on Human Rights.’

Of course it is worth recognizing that this category shades into the previous one. We may have dual standards because Bulgaria’s government is endorsed by the EPP. Or maybe, even worse, EU institutions in principle apply dual standards.

Whatever the case, enforcing dual standards in the area of rule of law jeopardizes the very existence of the EU as Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union clearly states that equality before the law is a key value of the EU.

Here one needs to mention the silence by ALDE and the Progressives, too! If EU institutions, which are currently dominated by the EPP, apply dual standards, why don’t these groups step in?

Sadly, this issue is related to behind-the-curtain dealings in Bulgaria and abroad. DPS, which are members of ALDE, are a tacit partner of Borisov in Bulgaria. The leader of PES Stanishev is from Bulgaria: while his Bulgarian party BSP is in opposition to Borissov, Stanishev has distanced himself from the confrontation for reasons ‘unknown.’ On an EU level, the Progressives and the EPP back each other on a number of issues.

Explanation 3: Corruption on an EU Level

22% of those who voted attributed the silence to corruption on an EU level.

Brussels, as we know, is not immune to corruption scandals. Usually, of course, they are covered up. In 2012, an EU Commissioner was fired because of a lobbying scandal. The 2018 saw the infamous #SelmayrGate. The EU Ombudsman established the European Commission ‘stretched or possibly even overstretched the limits of the law’ to appoint a candidate as Secretary General almost in twilight.

In light of this record, one may ask what the price of silence is? I am not fond of discussing rumors, but this is an ongoing narrative in Bulgaria at the moment.

Explanation 4: EU Politicians are Misinformed

Only 3% of those who voted felt that EU politicians just do not know what is happening in Bulgaria.

On the one hand, that is rather comforting. Citizens are not naive: they know how political animals operate. But what if EU politicians are truly misinformed and that is part of the problem, too?

How often do you read stories from Bulgaria in international news? Very rarely. There is a stigma about Bulgaria: it is too small and too far away, so readers are not interested. This is a narrative that many international journalists and editors promote.

Clearly, if an issue is not reported, EU politicians have no motivation to take action. As we all know, they have a better chance of waking up when they read something in the news.

To make matters worse, Bulgaria is subjected to the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism as it did not fulfill the accession criteria when it joined the EU. The exercise is run by the European Commission: it publishes regular reports on Bulgaria’s progress in key areas such as the fight against corruption and judicial reform. However, if you follow Bulgarian political life, you may be startled that key information seems to be missing from the Commission’s reports. In turn, MEPs read these reports and get the wrong impression.

Who has an interest in this? My preliminary guess is the EPP.

Other Views: Stability, Lack of Interest, etc.

As mentioned above, some Twitter users who missed the deadline to vote tweeted their opinions to me. One user who shared they were ‘brutally honest’ told me EU politicians simply ‘could not care less.’ (Figure 3) Another user argued in favor of stability: the EU had too many problems like Brexit and Poland, so they did not want a new ‘hornet nest.’ (Figure 4)

Both comments are similar in spirit and reflect the sad reality that Bulgaria is just too small. Yet, this returns me to the argument above. If we admit dual standards in the EU, there is no point in having the EU to begin with, at least in its current form.

In addition, by putting the problem in the drawer, one does not make it disappear. One only exacerbates it and it can backfire spectacularly.

Conclusion

Twitter surveys are by no means perfect. If you have carried one, you would know you are only allowed to propose four answers and they have to be of a certain length. In addition, one does not have much control of one’s sample.

However, as a dedicated Twitter user since 2015, I know my audience: predominantly highly engaged members of the global civil society and scholars.

38 of them took a stand in this survey. That is a good start towards shining more light on Bulgaria’s pressing issues.

 

 

 

brutally honest

Figure 3: Bulgaria’s problems are not of interest

 

 

 

so many big dossiers

Figure 4: Bulgaria is not a priority and stability is important

 

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If you want to learn more about Bulgaria’s deplorable rule of law, consider reading:

 

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I am also campaigning for an application against corrupt Bulgarian officials under the US Magnitsky Act, which sanctions corrupt foreign officials implicated in human rights abuses. You can learn more and/or support the cause here: https://www.change.org/p/civil-society-justice-for-tzvetan-vassilev-stop-the-violent-abuse-of-human-rights-in-bulgaria-now