The European Parliament debated for nearly two hours yesterday (6 February) the state of democracy in Bulgaria, a country described as the "weak link" in the EU and a threat to European values across the continent.
The debate took place at the initiative of Graham Watson, president of the European Liberal Democrats, who witnessed an assassination attempt on a fellow party leader in Sofia on 19 January.
Ahmed Dogan, head of the ethnic-Turkish Movement of Rights and Freedoms (DPS), was unharmed in the bungled attack which took place as he was giving a speech.
The European People’s Party (EPP), the largest group in the European Parliament, had tried to oppose the debate, but the liberal group won wide support for holding the discussion.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov leads the EPP-affiliated party GERB (Citizens for a European Development of Bulgaria).
All groups agreed that the debate would not be followed by a resolution, citing the Bulgarian elections due in the summer.
Several speakers from the EPP said the debate was unnecessary because the assassination attempt was a domestic affair.
MEP Veronique Mathieu (EPP, France) said Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë was stabbed by an assailant in 2002, but the French authorities didn’t bring the issue to the European Parliament.
Speakers from other political groups, however, felt that the assassination attempt on Dogan were a sign of the deteriorating political climate in Bulgaria.
MEP Rui Tavares (Greens/EFA, Portugal) argued that the problems of Bulgaria were emblematic for the deteriorating state of democracy in Europe. MEP Zita Gurmai (Socialists and Democrats, Hungary), likened Bulgaria to her own country and warned of “contagion” for the rest of the Union.
Watson said that while the incident in itself might not justify the debate, the reaction of the Bulgarian authorities made it imperative.
“It was first announced that the attacker, armed with a gas pistol and two knives, would be charged with attempted murder. A few hours later the interior minister asked the judiciary to press only minor charges. Attempts were made to trivialise the incident,” Watson said.
The leader of the liberal party also said that a charge of hooliganism, as pressed by the authorities, was not sufficient for an attack of this nature, particularly since the prosecutor general has suggested the attacker did not act alone.
“The sad fact is that the key institutions of justice do not command public confidence,” Watson said.
What role for the Commission?
Bulgarian MEPs from the Liberal and Socialist groups requested that the Commission take the lead in the investigation of the assassination attempt. Watson called for the Commission to insist on a full and transparent investigation.
Bulgarian MEP Iliana Iotova (S&D) also urged the Commission to monitor the parliament elections this summer.
“Pressure, chaos, vote-buying by the ruling party – this is the characteristic of the last elections in Bulgaria,” she said.
MEP Andrei Kovachev (EPP, Bulgaria) retorted that the Socialists were unhappy because Borissov had beaten Socialist leader Sergei Stanishev in all seven recent elections.
Speaking on behalf of the Irish EU presidency, Lucinda Creighton, minister of State for European Affairs, said the presidency could not take a view on issues where the Council has neither discussed nor adopted any positions. She referred the issue to the Commission, which follows Bulgaria under the so-called Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) (see background).
Speaking on behalf of the EU executive, Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard said the Commission relied on the Bulgarian authorities to conduct an in-depth investigation of the attack on Dogan and to bring those responsible to justice. She also said the Commission would continue to monitor Bulgaria very closely through the CVM.