Frans Timmermans and Bulgaria: What EU Values?

Without much competition, Frans Timmermans was selected as the Spitzenkandidat of the Party of European Socialists (PES). His campaign is based on the defense of EU values. In principle, EU values are defined in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union and include democracy, the rule of law, the respect for human rights, etc.

Yet, the fact that Timmermans currently serves the First Vice -President as well as the Commissioner for the Rule of Law and the Charter of Fundamental Rights in the Juncker Commission ultimately raises the question about his achievements in the areas of rule of law and defense of human rights.

Juncker’s Commission (to be understood as President Juncker, Commissioner Timmermans, and Commissioner Jourova who have a say in these matters) has already been criticized for its relaxed and overly diplomatic approach towards the rule of law crises in Poland and Hungary. As a scholar with an interest in the rule of law challenges in Bulgaria, I cannot help but notice Timmermans’ silence on my country either.

If you follow my blog, you probably know that Bulgaria is in a very poor shape – it was downgraded to a semi-consolidated democracy by Freedom House, it is considered the most corrupt EU member by Transparency International, it was ranked 111th in the world based on freedom of speech by Reporters Without Borders, etc. If you did not know the rule of law in Bulgaria is in a deplorable state, consider reading my article for the EU Observer “Is Bulgaria the EU’s next rule of law crisis?”

However, despite red flags by reputable indices as well as numerous letters of complaint, which have been sent to Timmermans from Bulgaria, he never expressed any concern publicly or took any action to prevent the further decay of the rule of law.

In an attempt to shed some light on Timmermans’ disturbing nonchalance, I carried out an opinion poll on Twitter.

Shall we see what the survey found about his silence?

38 Twitter users participated in my opinion poll and 3 users offered personal insights. I offered three “explanations” – EPP pressure, dual standards, or, simply, Timmermans does not care about Bulgaria.  I also offered users the opportunity to choose “Other” and insert their own explanation as a reply under the opinion poll (Figure 1 below).

5% of those who voted believe Timmermans’ silence is the result of pressure by the EPP, 61% think he has endorsed dual standards, 29% are convinced he does not care about Bulgaria, and 5% shared different insights.

Let’s go over each explanation!

opinion poll timmermans

Figure 1: Most Twitter users attribute Timmermans’ silence to dual standards


Explanation 1: EPP pressure

One may suspect that it is difficult to be a Commissioner from PES in a Commission dominated by the European People’s Party (EPP). For ordinary citizens, it surely difficult to imagine all the bargaining that takes place behind the curtain. The EPP have supported Bulgaria’s corrupt regime for a long time. Jean-Claude Juncker, Joseph Daul, Manfred Weber, and Dara Murphy who currently heads the EPP election campaign never missed a chance for unnecessary compliments, which illustrated hypocrisy and complete disregard for the grim Bulgarian reality. To provide a few examples, Juncker has argued that Bulgaria’s “success story can inspire others,” he has also called PM Borissov his “golden boy,” etc. Joseph Daul referred to Borissov as the best chef-d’Etat in Europe when he visited Bulgaria earlier this year.

Yet, only 5% of those who voted believe that Timmermans’ silence could be explained with alleged pressure from the EPP. How could this be? On the one hand, Timmermans is not just a Commissioner for the Rule of Law and Fundamental rights, but the First Vice-President of the Commission. In this role, he surely has leverage on matters, which he truly cares about. On the other hand, sadly, PES has progressively become an extension of the EPP in many ways. On key questions, such as the Selmayr scandal, which erupted in 2018, many PES MEPs were complicit with the EPP. Is Timmermans one of those PES members who collaborate with the EPP? Well, he never protested against EPP’s ridiculous rhetoric on Bulgaria, at least publicly.

To learn more about Bulgaria’s “success,” read my article “Bulgaria’s Autocratic Model.”

Explanation 2: Dual standards

The vast majority of those who voted (61%) believe Timmermans’ lack of concern about Bulgaria exemplifies dual standards. I personally side with this explanation too, particularly because Timmermans is responsible for the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM). Bulgaria was subjected to the CVM because it was admitted to the EU despite the fact that it did not fulfill the accession criteria. Under the CVM, the Commission has an obligation to encourage and verify progress in the areas of the fight against corruption, judicial independence, and combating organized crime. Hence, Timmermans (or the Commission as a whole) cannot use the classic excuse that he was misinformed or did not have the time to identify the threats to the rule of law in Bulgaria.

11 years after entry, Bulgaria still has not achieved any of the benchmarks set for it. In other words, it still has not fulfilled the accession criteria to this day. For Timmermans, this does not seem to be a problem. What is more disturbing is that the reports under the CVM appear sugar-coated. As a scholar who has studied them, I can testify that disturbing information seems to be omitted on purpose to identify minor progress when in reality there has not been any progress.

Beyond the benchmarks in the CVM, democracy, rule of law, and human rights are not just under a threat: they have almost disintegrated. I will just use one graph by Freedom House to showcase what has happened under the Commission’s “watch” (Figure 2). If interested in more illustrations of Bulgaria’s disastrous state, read my article “All You Need to Know About Bulgaria’s Rule of Law in 10 Charts.”

Figure 2: The decline of Bulgaria’s democracy as seen by Freedom House in their 2018 Nations in Transit Report.

Explanation 3: He doesn’t care

When I discuss the troublesome state of the rule of law in Bulgaria with others, they often say: “EU politicians don’t care.” It does not seem surprising that 29% of those who voted believe that Timmermans simply does not care about Bulgaria.

From the perspective of a bystander, Bulgaria is too small and too far away, etc. This is surely part of the story – out of sight, out of mind. International mainstream media traditionally ignore Bulgaria, which means that Timmermans never felt any public pressure to act. Meanwhile, Bulgarian civil society is fragmented and the culture of petitioning is relatively new and unknown, which works in favor of Timmermans’ nonchalance.

Of course, how Timmermans feels about Bulgaria or the size of the country is irrelevant. Timmermans has a mandate to enforce the rule of law and fundamental rights in all Member States, not just the ones he cares about.

Other views

a) The Bulgarian vote

One Twitter user suggested Timmermans was concerned about the Bulgarian votes (Figure 3). Certainly, most EU politicians care about the Bulgarian votes in the European Parliament. In other words, the leaders of PES, the EPP, or ALDE support corrupt and/or flawed national parties as long as the MEPs from these parties vote the way they are told.

For PES, for instance, it was never problematic that their member from Bulgaria (BSP) runs a campaign against the LGBTI community. They turn a blind eye because MEPs from BSP are docile and faithful to the leadership of PES.

The current leader of PES, Sergei Stanishev, is the former leader of BSP. While BSP is supposed to be in opposition, it is known that Stanishev is close to GERB’s Borissov behind the curtain.

Bulgarian votes

Figure 3: Timmermans is concerned about the Bulgarian votes



b) Nobody cares about Bulgaria?

One Twitter asked if anyone cared about Bulgaria (Figure 4). This comment was harsh to read. I believe it is important to highlight that it is more precise to argue that nobody cares about Bulgarian citizens. Why? Because EU politicians do care about the votes from Bulgaria’s MEPs or the Bulgarian vote at the Council. Manfred Weber, for instance, came to Bulgaria several times to ensure that Bulgaria’s ruling party GERB would vote for him at the EPP Congress in Helsinki.

Timmermans does not need to fly to Bulgaria to beg for the vote of the Bulgarian socialists (BSP) because the President of PES is Sergei Stanishev, former leader of BSP, so one can assume the support from the Bulgarian socialists is unequivocal and a given.

who cares

Figure 4: Nobody cares about Bulgaria


The need for better leadership

As far as Bulgaria is concerned, Timmermans is not the right candidate for President of the European Commission. If he turned a blind eye to all troublesome developments during his term as Commissioner for the Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights, how can we expect him to move a finger as President of the Commission?

Many may be tempted to say that this is an individual case while it is not. Timmermans’ silence on Bulgaria only shows his hypocrisy because he does not practice what he preaches. Running a campaign “in defense of EU values” when you have demonstrated dual standards in enforcing EU values in your job as a Commissioner for the Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights is neither promising nor credible. As Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union stipulates, “the Union is founded” on these values and these values are “common to [EU’s] Member States.” Dual standards on Bulgaria today mean dual standards in another Member State tomorrow. This is not what the EU stands for.

Unfortunately, as I have underscored in my article Manfred Weber and Bulgaria: Is There a Dual Standard on the Rule of Law?, the EPP Spitzenkandidat is also disappointing and complicit with autocratic regimes. 

This does not give much hope for the EU. When the EU needs brave leadership the most, the two largest parties in the EU chose to maintain the status quo by endorsing Spitzenkandidaten without character (Figure 5). Lambs do not become lions in real life, after all.


Figure 5: Timmermans is as wishy-washy as Weber



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


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