The EU election campaign appeared to take a vicious turn on Wednesday (29 January) as the centre-right European Peoples’ Party (EPP) attacked European Parliament President Martin Schulz over a €60,000 contract awarded to the wife of Sergei Stanishev, the president of the Party of European Socialists (PES).
The Bulgarian news website Bivol reported on 31 October last year that a public relations firm led by Stanishev’s wife, Monika Stanisheva, had won a €60,000 European Parliament tender for a project promoting the European elections in Bulgaria.
Ever since, German MEP Ingeborg Grässle (EPP) has ringed the alarm bell over an "obvious" conflict of interest involving some of the most prominent figures in the European socialist family. The German magazine Der Spiegel referred to the allegations in its 21 December issue.
The Parliament-funded project consists in a website explaining the functioning of the European Parliament to a Bulgarian audience. According to experts, quoted by the Bulgarian press, the website is built on open source software and contains information copy-pasted from the EU institutions own websites.
"European Parliament staff under the direction of Socialist President Martin Schulz handing out a contract worth €60,000 to the wife of the European Socialist Party President - this smacks of political favours," Grässle stated today (29 January) on the EPP group website.
"Is Mr. Schulz using parliament funds to help his political friends?” she questioned.
Grässle, who is also EPP spokeswoman in the European Parliament's Budgetary Control Committee, reminds in her statement that Stanishev would be standing as the Bulgarian Socialist's lead candidate for the European elections.
"The conflict of interest was obvious even before Mr Stanishev announced he would be a candidate at the European elections," Grässle said, adding that Schulz “needs to come clean on this issue” and make public the circumstances and procedures under which this grant was given to the company of Stanishev’s wife.
On Tuesday, Stanisheva, who is a public relations executive and CEO of a public relations firm called “Aktive Group”, announced that she was withdrawing from the project “because of the speculations surrounding it”.
She also announced that she was returning the downpayment of €29,679.93.
In a letter made public on the website of Dnevnik, EurActiv's partner publication in Bulgaria, Stanisheva explains that her firm had won the project following an open tender, which in her words attested the professionalism of her team.
“Over the last months, however, we have witnessed a series of attempts that this project be loaded with malicious and unfounded accusations, that it be used for unscrupulous and speculative political strife. As an agency that built its professional reputation over more than 12 years, it is impossible for us to jeopardize the purpose and objectives of this project. Activities envisaged under this project are designed to build trust, not to provide food for unhealthy political interests,” Stanisheva’s statement reads.
PES leader Stanishev defended his wife, saying she has been dealing with similar projects well before they were married in 2013.
“Do you suggest that she should stop working?” he was quoted as saying in the press.
Marjory Van den Broeke, head of the European Parliament's press unit, told EurActiv that Schultz had nothing to do with the tender procedure. She said that the grant to the Aktive Group was given on the basis of previously determined and objective criteria.
An evaluation panel of representatives of different services and units within the Parliament's communications directorate reportedly assessed and rated the applications for a grant and this particular project came 24th out of a list of 111.
The person responsible for the Aktive Group, which Van den Broeke named as Monika Yosifova, Stanisheva’s former family name, signed the usual declaration that there was no conflict of interest, the Parliament official said.
According to EurActiv sources, Schulz is concentrated on his campaign to succeed to José Manuel Barroso as Commission President and shudders at any piece of news which could upset his plan.
Stanishev is under political pressure at home, where his former political mentor and former President Georgi Parvanov accuses him of mismanaging the socialist party. Parvanov was leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) from 1996 to 2001, when he was elected President and left the reins to Stanishev.
Now Parvanov says his “biggest mistake” was making Stanishev his successor at the BSP. At the European elections, Parvanov will support a separate list led by Ivailo Kalfin, a high-profile MEP who defected from the BSP on 13 January due to major political differences with Stanishev.
The PES will hold a congress in Rome on 1 March. The replacement of Stanishev as PES leader is not on the agenda, EurActiv was told.
Boyko Borissov, the former Prime Minister and leader of EPP-affiliated GERB (Citizens for a European development of Bulgaria), which is according to polls the largest political force in Bulgaria, said that the fact that Stanisheva had returned funds to the European Parliament was “a shame for Bulgaria”.
“Obviously in Bulgaria it is possible that this family [Stanishev’s] takes money from public contracts,” he said, alluding at rumours that public contracts have favoured Staniseva’s firms.
“If this was honest, if this was correct, they would not have returned money, they would have defended themselves”, Borrisov said.
- 1 March: PES to hold congress in Rome