Brace for a landmark debate – not only for Bulgaria, but for the EU

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

A man waves an EU flag during an anti-government protest in front of the Council of Ministers in Sofia, Bulgaria, 14 July 2020. [Vassil Donev/EPA/EFE]

On Monday (5 October), the European Parliament will discuss in plenary the Rule of Law in Bulgaria and on Thursday will adopt a resolution. It may look like an event of importance mostly for the Bulgarians, but in fact, it has a lot of incidence on the EU, writes Radan Kanev.

Radan Kanev is an MEP from the Democratic Bulgaria coalition (EPP).  

The debate will take place – and this is no coincidence – in parallel with the discussions on “Establishing an EU Mechanism for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights ” and on the “Conditionality of the Rule of Law” in the context of the negotiations on the multiannual financial framework.

Ahead of these, two questions arise:

What made the common Rule of Law Mechanism and the conditionality clause possible in the first place?

Will these mechanisms, once adopted, be effective, or will they follow the rather pitiful fate of the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) for Bulgaria and Romania?

The Rule of Law mechanism and conditionality clause became possible mainly by two, closely related, reasons – the establishment of semi-authoritarian governments in many countries of the former “Eastern bloc”, and the rising sensitivity of European taxpayers, and especially those in the Northwest of the continent, vis-à-vis political corruption and ineffective public spending.

The post-communist countries never really abandoned the legacy of over-centralization of budgets, political corruption and ruling party-political dependencies in the judiciary and media.

Lately, this model, not without the help of lavish EU funding, degenerated in concentration and abuse of political power in governments, media, judiciary and business, unacceptable and unknown by EU standards, dangerously undermining the principles of Western constitutional democracy.

What is in common among the political models in Hungary, Poland, more recently Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, and before that Romania and Slovakia?

What they have in common is corruption, over-concentration of power, the disintegration of constitutional mechanisms for checks and balances, the politicization of a Soviet-style administration, the aggressive division of society and the denigration of the opposition as “enemy of the people”, again under the totalitarian model. In short, the common denominator is the abuse of power.

What can appear as a difference is the ideology.

The regime in Warsaw is “national-conservative” and affiliated to ECR; Orban’s Fidesz is a member of the EPP, along with the far more moderate Bulgarian GERB; the deeply corrupt and now out of power governments in Slovakia and Romania were “socialist”, whereas the kleptocrat Czech ruling coalition is denominated as “liberals”.

All these governments provoke a combination of public outrage in their own countries and nervous reaction of the media and public opinion in Western Europe, especially among the “frugal” societies in the Northwest, already oversensitive after the sovereign debt crisis, less than ten years ago.

In these circumstances, the debates in the EP, regarding the Rule of Law and conditionality clause, lack damatism – there is an outstanding majority in the House, supporting a strong Rule of Law mechanism and a conditionality clause.

However, the recent “German compromise” in the Council is “softening” the conditionality clause, making it hardly effective. The negotiations between Parliament and Council – as usually – will give the answer to the key question of effectiveness.

But how hard and consistent will be the Parliament in the negotiations? This depends mainly on EPP, bearing in mind that at least two EPP governments (in Hungary and Bulgaria) are vocal opponents of an effective conditionality clause, while the main delegation within EPP Group is CDU/CSU, the party of Germany’s Angela Merkel, the author of the disputed compromise.

Paradoxically, the answer might be provided during the debate on Rule of Law in Bulgaria. If the EPP Group vocally and unanimously supports the Bulgarian government and the Bulgarian General Prosecutor, it will give a strong signal that unprincipled compromises are becoming the norm.

On the contrary – if public opinion forces the EPP to adopt a position in which the “northern” voices of fiscal responsibility and “frugality” prevail, this will give a major boost in the more general negotiations on Rule of Law Mechanism and the conditionality clause.

Thus the debate on Bulgaria will be a kind of “litmus test” for the biggest European political force, always considered as the bulwark of rule of law and fiscal responsibility.

The debate will show whether the big and sometimes inert political body of the EPP is ready to evolve at the pace of the European public opinion, hence safeguarding and enhancing its leadership position in the EU institutions.

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