Lawyer: Bulgaria wrongly portrayed as EU’s bogeyman

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Bulgaria is doing at least as well as Romania in the field of justice and home affairs, but is portrayed in a negative light to discourage further EU enlargement, Andreas Geiger, a partner in Brussels law firm Alber & Geiger, told EURACTIV in an interview.

Alber & Geiger is lobbying for the Bulgarian government following an EU decision to stop fund payments to Bulgaria after the July publication of a highly critical progress report on the country. 

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

Can you describe your background and your lobbying project with Bulgaria? 

Among our partners are former advocate general of the European Court of Justice Professor Alber, former European Parliament President Lord Plumb, who is now a member of the British House of Lords, and Professor Rolf Waegenbauer, a former head of the European Commission legal service. 

We cover all the European institutions. We are not a public relations agency doing campaigning for our clients, but a law firm, and our focus is on helping our clients in the legislative and political process within the European institutions, to solve their conflicts on a serious and well-founded basis. 

This is one of the reasons the Bulgarian government hired us, since some negative conclusions from the latest progress reports from 23 July stem from major misunderstandings between the Bulgarian government and the European institutions, especially the Commission and the anti-fraud office, OLAF. 

You say ‘major misunderstandings’. Who is to blame for such lack of communication? Has the Commission been unfair to Bulgaria? 

We work as a transmission belt. We are helping the Bulgarian Government to understand what the Commission expects from Bulgaria step by step, and we also explain to the Commission what exactly can be done and in what timeframe. 

The administrative setup is very different in East European countries and in Bulgaria compared to older member states, but there is a will from the Bulgarian government to change its administrative setup, its administrative procedures, according to European standards. And it takes time. 

But quite frankly, if Germany changed its setup in just one year, I don’t think anything productive would come out of that. So I think there is a problem of time here. 

You have recently been in touch with the Bulgarian government to work on this commitment. Correct? 

That’s correct, yes. 

But the Commission has much more experience of Bulgaria. Why do you think you will have a better understanding than the EU experts? 

We know the European institutions well, their way of thinking, their expectations. And I believe we have come to understand how the Bulgarian administration thinks and used to act in the past. And I think there was a lack of correspondence between those who were in charge from the relevant ministries in the past in Sofia. Everyone would agree on that. Most of the personnel have been replaced with new staff. 

There has been a lack of communication between the Bulgarian administration and the European Commission. If you look at this correspondence, you see that in some cases, one did not understand the other. Many of the problems which finally culminated are due to just that, because the Commission thought that officials in Bulgaria did not want to do what we expected them to do, and the Bulgarians thought the European Commission was treating them unfairly. 

Some Bulgarian MEPs from the Socialist party, which is central to the ruling coalition, said that there was also a political aspect. They blamed the centre-right opposition for deliberately trying to sell a negative image of the country, especially to the EU institutions. Do you subscribe to such an analysis? 

According to our experience, the Commission is a very professional body. The Commission acts neutral. Of course, you have people from different political backgrounds in the Commission. Usually these people can separate these backgrounds from their administrative activities. However if you compare the situation in Bulgaria and Romania, you have identical situations and very different evaluations by the European Commission, which we frankly do not understand. 

Maybe Romania communicates better? 

I don’t know. In April this year, we had the Romanian minister of justice resigning following accusations of corruption in his cabinet. In May this year, we had the minister of the interior in Bulgaria resigning over allegations of corruption in his cabinet. So we have identical situations. 

But in the EU report about Romania, it was said that the resignation of the Romania minister was proof that the anti-corruption mechanisms in Romania were starting to work and this is a positive sign. With regard to the resignation of the Bulgarian minister, it was said that this was a clear sign that there is corruption up to the higher level in Bulgaria, and that this was a negative sign. 

Then again, isn’t this a problem of political sympathies in the sense that Romania has a conservative government? 

I have too little information about this. I just have my own experience and othat f our senior partners with the European Commission and with OLAF during the last decade. We did not realise at any point that the Commission would act politically-driven. 

But you just said Bulgaria was more or less at the same level as Romania as far as compliance with the EU acquis in justice and home affairs is concerned? 

At least, at the very least, at the same level. 

You mean that Bulgaria ranks higher? 

If you have a look at the overall general impression, also reflected in statistics, over the last five years, you will only find a very high criticism regarding Romania and corruption in Romania. Now people are claiming that this has changed over the last five years, and has turned around 180 degrees, which brings Bulgaria in a worse situation that Romania. 

Quite frankly, I would not subscribe to this. My own impression from the region is that Bulgaria is doing a very good job and is at least at the same level as Romania. We cannot really see from where this very negative assessment of Bulgaria derives from. 

Commissioner Guenther Verheugen, the previous enlargement commissioner, recently visited Bulgaria and was very generous in complimenting Bulgaria’s progress. He is from the German Social Democrats, so again there is a suspicion that the Commission is more politicised than you would admit. 

OK, I would agree, that at Commissioner level you can have such statements, but at working level, up to director-general, I don’t think the Commission would work in a political direction. 

What is your advice for the Bulgarians? And to whom do you address this advice? Do you have access to the prime minster? 

Our contract is with the ministry of the interior, but we are working with all relevant cabinet members, this includes Prime Minister Mr. Sergey Stanishev, Vice Prime Minister Ms. Meglena Plugchieva, this includes Minister for European Affairs Ms. Gergana Grancharova. 

Our focus is on corruption allegations and improvement of the administrative setup. Steps have been made in the right direction, but you need more time and we believe that if you look at the latest activities of the prosecutor’s office, the legal proceedings against the person formerly responsible for EU-funded road management, you see they are really being active. 

If you compare Bulgaria’s situation one year after accession to the 2004 enlargement round with Poland, the Czech Republic, the Baltic states, if you look at the numbers, you will see that Bulgaria is not worse off that those countries at the same time after their accession. However, the criticism is much harsher. Probably also because this is intended to be a statement towards further enlargement. If you look at the financial situation of the EU, there is some reluctance to have potential new accession countries, like Croatia, like Macedonia, joining the EU. 

You mean the Union needs a bogeyman and Bulgaria became that bogeyman? 

Exactly. The only question one could raise is: why only Bulgaria and not Romania and Bulgaria? The different evaluation of a comparable situation in Romania is not really clear to us, it is not justified by the numbers and suggests indeed that the EU needed a bogeyman, and that’s unfair to Bulgaria. 

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