In an exclusive interview, MEP Daniel Freund talks about his recent visit to Bulgaria and the frustrations of the country’s caretaker government, which has not received support from the European Commission for its efforts to tackle money laundering.
Daniel Freund is a German politician who has been serving as a Member of the European Parliament since July 2019. He is a member of Alliance 90/The Greens at the national level, and sits with the Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance in the European Parliament.
He spoke to EURACTIV Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.
You visited Bulgaria last week, and last year you were there in the midst of the protests against the government of Boyko Borissov and against the prosecutor general Ivan Geshev…
Indeed, it was pretty much a year ago. This time I travelled with my colleague Sven Giegold. It was important to see a year later what had changed. For Sven, the main reason to go is that Bulgaria has decided to join the euro, so we had meetings with the finance minister, we met the finance intelligence unit, we met with finance journalists, to sort of look, if the country accedes to the euro, that the banking sector is stable, that the anti-money laundering rules are followed.
And what are your impressions in that respect?
It was very interesting, particularly with the finance minister (Assen Vassilev), but it was depressing to hear the state they found when they took office after the Borissov government, for everything that has been going on in terms of fraud with public procurement, the state of corruption in the country.
The caretaker government is trying to do something about it, but what I found shocking is what the finance minister told us: when they took office, they asked for help from the European Commission, from other governments. But those requests, mostly for experts specialised in fighting money laundering, to help them build up the administration and reduce the problems they have with tenders and so on, were not heeded by and large. Only the Netherland responded to the request, not Germany, not the Commission.
It’s quite surprising to see that they are not willing to help the current government with these issues. What the Americans are doing with the help of the Magnitsky Act to freeze assets, to put sanctions against certain oligarchs: no one is putting into question the legitimate base for the American action, but why hasn’t the Commission acted, why haven’t the other European governments acted if everyone was so aware of some of these very corrupt individuals in your country?
Do you have an answer?
I find that extremely disappointing. I don’t know why the Commission isn’t more active. What plays a role is that Borissov was until the end the darling of the EPP [European People’s Party, the largest group in the European Parliament] and they don’t want to do anything about this. But I cannot see how we will function in the EU if the Commission closes its eyes on corruption and money-laundering, leaving to the Americans to do the work we should be doing ourselves.
Von der Leyen is EPP and Borissov is EPP: is there a link there?
Yes, I think so. Angela Merkel is also EPP. Borissov has personally intervened with her for the sale of medical equipment and Manfred Weber was until very recently calling for Borissov to be reelected. The treatment of Borissov has been very different from that of Viktor Orbán, the EPP has never put any pressure on Borissov.
Since your last visit to Bulgaria, you must have found many changes?
Indeed, the new government is trying to change things. One has to say that the political deadlock in the country makes it difficult so far to have a reform agenda going, without a parliamentary majority, many of the changes are difficult or impossible. As the country is heading for a third election this year, one would hope it produces a stable majority.
You said you met the finance minister, did you also meet the economy minister, Kiril Petkov?
No, it was foreseen initially, but he had an urgent meeting and we only met with the finance minister.
I am asking because Kiril Petkov and Assen Vassilev are said to be launching a new political party ahead of the third parliamentary election this year. Have you heard that?
Not from the minister personally, he didn’t mention that, but I am aware of the conversations on the ground. I only met the minister, once, but the first impression was positive. I also understand that the transition from being called upon as a technical expert into an interim government, and then – running yourself in an election – those are different things.
I also understand that the country is largely divided, and the strongest party [Slavi Trifonov’s ‘There is such a people’] is refusing any collaboration with others and has led the country into complete deadlock. I think that in an economically difficult situation, with a pandemic that I think is more threatening in Bulgaria than in any other EU country, given the extremely low vaccination rates, in a situation where Bulgaria hasn’t even submitted its recovery plan for approval, the country is really in need of a stable parliamentary majority.
What kind of follow-up do you envisage after this visit?
In terms of the euro accession, the European Parliament will have to vote eventually whether Bulgaria can join the euro or not. That debate is just starting. The visit allows Sven and myself to ask the questions in the European Parliament, and to make sure that the discussion does not limit itself to issues such as inflation and macro-economic stability.
Was the role of the prosecutor general an issue in your meetings and discussions?
It came up pretty much in every meeting. It is one of the major issues, it was the main reason for the protests last year. I am not aware of any other European country where there has been public demonstrations and outcry over the role of a prosecutor. The problem persists, and I also understand that it cannot be easily solved, even with a new parliamentary majority.
You represent the European Greens, what about the Bulgarian Greens? Do they have a future?
I very much think so. For the first time, there are four MPs in the parliament from the Green party (as part of the group of centre-right Democratic Bulgaria), whom we also met. We very much hope that the share of Green MPs will increase with the next election and that in a future coalition, the Greens will act as the most reasonable and the most reform-oriented voice in Bulgaria.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]