Manfred Weber and Bulgaria: Is There a Dual Standard on the Rule of Law?

Manfred Weber is a changed man. In May 2018, he warned that people should not “point fingers” at Orban who was not a “bad European.” After months of turning his eyes away from the Hungarian rule of law crisis, on the day of the vote on the activation of Article 7(1) of the Treaty on the European Union against Hungary (12 September 2018), he did a 180 degree turn. ‘Today I will vote in favour of triggering . I have always been in favour of building bridges and I want to continue to do so but yesterday I didn’t see any readiness from the Hungarian PM to make a move towards his EU partners and address our concerns. #Hungary,” he posted on Twitter. Four days later, Financial Times reported he was already concerned not only about Hungary, but also about Poland, Romania, and possibly other countries.

If you follow my blog, however, you probably know that Bulgaria’s democracy and rule of law are in a critical condition (if you do not, consider reading, for instance,  All You Need to Know About Bulgaria’s Rule of Law in 10 Charts). So, while I appreciate the evolution of Weber’s views, I am troubled that he did not mention Bulgaria as a country he is worried about. Manfred Weber is running for President of the European Commission, so his opinion, fickle as it may be, can have huge consequences for the rule of law debate, which will surely continue to haunt EU institutions.

Is there something I am missing from the big picture? I carried out a Twitter survey to find out how Weber’s awkward silence on Bulgaria could be explained.

Shall we see what the survey found?

34 Twitter users participated in my opinion poll and 6 users offered personal insights. I offered three “explanations” – dual standards, stability in the East, and the Bulgarian vote on the future EU Commission. I also offered users the opportunity to choose “Other” and insert their own explanation as a reply under the opinion poll (Figure 1 below).

41% of those who voted believe Weber’s behavior towards Bulgaria illustrates dual standards, 26% are convinced he is concerned about stability in the EU, 24% think he is just practical and wants the Bulgarian support for his “presidential” campaign, 9% of the participants have different ideas.

Clearly, if you do the math, 9% of 34 participants means that 3 participants had different explanations on Weber’s silence. Yet, I received 6 comments. For the sake of precision, I assume that a) either some comments come from users who did not vote b) or some comments come from users who voted for one of the first three options but felt they needed to elaborate.

Obviously, the explanations I offered shade into one another and are related. I just wanted to identify what users felt was the dominant reason that could potentially explain Weber’s peculiar behavior towards Bulgaria.

Should we go over each explanation?

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Figure 1: Most Twitter users who voted attribute Weber’s silence to dual standards

 

Explanation 1: Dual Standards

As seen from Figure 1, 41% of the participants believe Weber’s behavior is an example of dual standards. This is not surprising considering EPP’s schizophrenia regarding Poland and Hungary. Even though the two countries face similar challenges, the Commission launched proceedings under Article 7(1) TEU against Poland in December 2017, but remained silent on Hungary. When the Hungarian “question” eventually reached the European Parliament, EPP members were hesitant about their vote until the very end. As I mentioned above, Weber himself seems to have changed his mind several hours before the vote.

In that light, it may be helpful to underscore that the MEPs from Bulgaria’s ruling party GERB offered their unconditional support for Orban on 12 September 2018. Five of them voted against the activation of the measure and one of them abstained. Why? They are afraid that Bulgaria might be next, so they want to build bridges with potential allies like Orban.

If interested in the dual standards explanation, consider reading my article “The Rise of Modern European Dictatorships and EU’s Dual Standards on Human Rights.”

Explanation 2: Stability in the East

26% of those who voted explain Weber’s behavior with his concern for stability. Does the EU want more trouble in addition to Brexit, Poland, and Hungary?

Indeed, this is a recurring theme in the narrative of some commentators. Bulgaria implements the same policies as Poland and Hungary, but it does not engage in anti-Brussels rhetoric, so this is the preferred behavioral model. This explanation seems to be embraced by a Twitter user who emphasized that unlike other EU states, not only Bulgaria has not expressed anti-migrant views, but also it is really far away for Brussels to be concerned (See Figure 2).

It is good to be reminded that prominent EPP leaders have commended Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Borissov for his success: Juncker has referred to him as his “golden boy,” Daul has called him “the best chef d’Etat in Europe,” Dara Murphy was recently impressed by how Borissov “delivered for his people,” etc. If interested in what Borissov’s party GERB has “delivered” for Bulgaria, consider reading my article for the EU Observer: “Is Bulgaria EU’s next rule of law crisis?”

Ultimately, the price of this stability is rather high: rampant corruption and human rights abuses. This certainly undermines the very existence of the EU. Needless to say, by hiding a problem in the drawer, you do not solve it, but rather make it worse. In other words, stability may turn to a headache and, subsequently, to a nightmare very quickly.

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Figure 2: Bulgaria is far away and does not ‘misbehave’ on migrant issues

 

Explanation 3: Realpolitik/The Bulgarian Vote

24% of those who voted attributed Weber’s behavior to his realpolitik. Like all politicians, Weber needs to be pragmatic. He is motivated to become the President of the next Commission, so he needs to build bridges. Two Twitter users who voted were particularly adamant to emphasize this point. Weber needs to be elected at any price, so he is “willing to eat chalk” (See Figure 3) and he needs “useful idiots” (See Figure 4).

Meanwhile, this love costs a lot to the EU. Bulgarians are treated as second-class citizens and deprived of fundamental rights, the government receives EU funds, which go to private pockets instead of adding value to the economy, etc. You can learn a lot about the misuse of EU funds in Bulgaria from this investigative report by the Bulgarian partner of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.

 

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Figure 3: Weber is pragmatic

 

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Figure 4: Elections, elections!

 

Other Explanations

a) The Bulgaria-Turkish Border:

One user suggested that not only semi-dictatorships could be stable, but Bulgaria bordered with Turkey, which was important for Europe (Figure 5).

Indeed, this seems to be a crucial argument, which is exploited in the West. After Weber inspected the Bulgaria-Turkish border in August 2018, he concluded that Bulgaria fulfilled the Schengen criteria ‘better’ than other EU members. He also tweeted about how impressed he was with the protection of the Bulgaria-Turkish border (Figures 6.1 and 6.2).

Yet, anyone who has seen the documentary The Border might find such claims unsubstantiated. If you watch the movie, you will see that sections of the fence are missing. The journalist even caught on camera how people crossed the border illegally and alleged there are trafficking channels protected by local authorities (Figures 7.1 and 7.2). Other investigative journalists calculated how much EU money was deviated when building the Turkey-Bulgaria fence.

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Figure 6.1: Impressive borders

 

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Figure 6.2: Impressive borders

 

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Figure 7.1: This is how sections of the Bulgaria-Turkey border look like according to the documentary The Border

 

 

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Figure 7.2: The director of the documentary The Border caught people crossing the border illegally with ladders on camera. The documentary was filmed in 2017.

 

 

b) Lack of Information + A Multitude of Factors

One user suggested that Weber simply does not have access to adequate information. If that is the case, this is truly unfortunate. It is also hard to believe considering the resources he has access to. At the same time, it is worth considering that Bulgaria is 111th in the world based on press freedom according to Reporters Without Borders, so information which goes out of the country is controlled by the government. International mainstream media consider Bulgaria to be too small and rarely cover it. In this way, it is easier for EU politicians like Weber to pretend that nothing is wrong in the very East of the EU.

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Figure 8: He is not informed

 

Finally, another user suggested that the answer to my query was rather complex. On the one hand, Weber was pragmatic. On the other hand, the expectations of Bulgaria have always been lower. The latter statement is somewhat true even though that is not admissible under the Treaties. Having said that, how much deviation is allowed and why is Bulgaria not ushered in the right direction?

Sadly, so far Weber has given unequivocal support for Bulgaria’s membership to Schengen. Even though the Schengen membership could be used as leverage, this seems unlikely if Weber is elected as President of the Commission.

response 3

Figure 9: The answer is complex

 

 

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