The European Parliament held a debate yesterday on the rule of law and fundamental rights in Bulgaria. The debates coincided with the 89th day of nation-wide anti-government protests in the country, demanding the immediate resignation of PM Boyko Borissov, his government, as well as that of Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev. The largest wave of political protests in the country in the last seven years point to the growing and deep-rooted corruption and a vicious merge of state and oligarch interests at the top of the executive branch and the Prosecutor’s Office.
The two men have said on a number of occasions they will not resign, the former insisting his government has a lot of work to do and it would be ‘irresponsible’ for them to step down. Borissov’s numbers are plummeting according to all polls since the beginning of the protests, however, his strategy has been to double down on his hold on power, including by proposing for the country to embark on an indefinate procedure to adopt a new constitution.
The growing political crisis in Bulgaria attracted attention of international media and produced a number of pieces in leading European and American news outlets, which focus on the decline of rule of law in Bulgaria over the past decade, the growing corruption, EU funds fraud cases, lack of convictions for corruption, media freedom decline, etc. The European Commission and European Parliament withheld from taking a position on the political crisis in Bulgaria for a long time. The growing international media attention on the issues likely contributed to the decision by the European Parliament to finally hold a special session dedicated to Bulgaria, and a resolution, scheduled for vote on October 7.
After the European Commission published its rule of law assessment of Bulgaria and ahead of the debate, the leader of the European People’s Party Manfred Weber tweeted in support of PM Boyko Borissov, acknowledging the protests and the commission’s assessment "showing improvements are needed" but firm on the point that "ordinary March elections will decide."
Good talk with @BoykoBorissov on Bulgaria today. @EU_Commission rule of law assessment was fair, showing improvements are needed. However, government has advanced on many topics helping it towards #Euro #Schengen. Protesters are respected but ordinary March elections will decide.— Manfred Weber (@ManfredWeber) October 5, 2020
Weber spoke during the debates, expressing views along those lines. He also pointed out that no one could claim that there is no press freedom in Bulgaria, offering the view that "PM Borissov encourages young people to express their opinions."
One of the leaders on the non-parliamentary opposition coalition Democratic Bulgaria, Radan Kanev, who is also an MEP from the same party as Borissov’s GERB – the EPP – was not allowed by the party to make his planned statement during the debate. His posted his speech on social media and submitted it in writing to the European Parliament as per the rules.
"The problem is simple but also very serious: the mafia has captures the justice system and the media in a member state. You may or may not support the government of Bulgaria. Sometimes, these are complicated political decisions. If you trust the government, you may help it to overcome its dangerous dependencies – a futile, though noble effort. But to deny the truth is not a choice - inaction also is not – when the rule of law is scorned in a member state. This is not a choice – this is complicity", Raden Kanev wrote.
The unequivocal support by Weber for Borissov and the subsequent decision by the EPP to impede Kanev’s address to the European Parliament was one of the main focuses in Bulgarian non-government-friendly media, observers and pundits.
Save for some very candid statements by right-wing Bulgarian MEPs, the discussions stressed the need for continuing the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, which oversees justice reform in Bulgaria. One of the main talking points of Borissov’s government over the past year has been its success in this respect, which will result in lifting the mechanism. GERB has maintained the mechanism’s end as a done fact but this debate, and the recent rule of law assessment by the European Commission explicitly say otherwise.
"We will continue the mechanism because we see that the Bulgarian people demonstrate significant interest [in it], the do not trust their justice system, they urged us to continue to follow closely what is happening," European Commission Vice President Vêra Jourová.
Last week, when presenting the commission’s Rule of Law Report, Jourová told Euronews that the EU has been "naïve in the past" regarding rule of law violations in member states and also stated "It's quite clear that we have to increase the pressure to show these are the principles of the club."
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