A warning from Bulgaria: Corruption channels are ‘eagerly awaiting’ big EU money

Screenshot from the online conference organised by MEP Radan Kanev.

Experts and opposition-minded politicians warned during an online conference on Monday (January 15th) of a “huge” risk of corruption in connection with the generous funds the European Commission has proposed to mobilise in response to the coronavirus crisis.

The conference, organised by EURACTIV Bulgaria and MEP Radan Kanev (EPP, Democratic Bulgaria) with EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton, discussed the €750 billion stimulus proposed by Ursula von der Leyen on 27 May. Of this amount, Bulgaria expects to receive about €13 billion to modernise and strengthen its economy.

Breton was the keynote speaker at the conference, although the topic of corruption was addressed in its second part, conducted in Bulgarian language without his participation. The conference was entitled “Life after the pandemic. A return to a normal or new beginning? ”

Breton spoke in detail about the European Commission’s response to the crisis, from attempts to provide protective masks to the macroeconomy and the fight against fake news on Internet platforms such as Facebook or Twitter.

The French Commissioner emphasised that the crisis had strengthened the position of those who wanted “more Europe”, while well-known populists in various European countries had been forced to remain silent.

He was also adamant that Europe had coped better with the crisis than the United States, where he said there had been “chaos”.

>> See the whole conference here.

Breton, whose huge portfolio includes the digital economy, showed good knowledge of Bulgaria. In response to a question by Bulgarian Digital Champion Gergana Passy, he recalled that under the Warsaw Pact, Bulgaria was already a force in computer technology. Indeed, Bulgaria produced the first personal computers in the former Soviet block, under the brand ‘Pravetz’.

Economist Kiril Petkov of the Harvard Program at Sofia University argued that inefficient spending of trillions of euros will only financially burden every European in the future. This risk is even greater, according to Petkov, if these funds are in the form of grants, distributed by European and national bureaucrats.

The risk of this money going in the wrong direction, and especially the risk of corruption, he said, is “huge”, as is in his words the potentially detrimental impact on the entire economic system.

“You will stop thinking about innovation, you will stop thinking about competitiveness, you will only think about who has the right connections, because this will be the easiest money that can be taken,” Petkov said.

Julian Popov, a former environment and water minister and Climate Foundation fellow, said the word “absorption” of funds in the Bulgarian language should be banned. According to him, the effect of “absorption” of European funds is a contraction, while the effect of investing funds is their expansion.

“From €10 billion absorbed, we get a product for €3 billion. Out of €10 billion invested, we get a product for €30 billion,” said Popov, who pleaded for investments in the Bulgarian energy industry according to the British model, in which the closure of coal-fired power plants did not lead to an increase in consumer bills.

‘The negative aspects of normalcy’

According to Radan Kanev, Bulgaria has had “well-maintained corruption channels” since the time of late communism, and the “new beginning” could be a “restart of the mafia at a higher level.”

“When significant funds enter our economy, especially through state power, they find their way very quickly, very easily, and a large part of these funds return to the ranks of political power, in the form of illegitimate funding of politicians and political parties. This is a vicious circle in which these funds, again in an illegitimate way, are poured into media channels, and in an openly criminal way are used for buying elections,” Kanev said.

The MEP emphasized the need to control the way European funds would be spent, and he was adamant that the existing national mechanisms were ineffective and that the institution of a European Public Prosecutor was not a sufficient solution.

“The big question which has no answer at this stage is how to exercise such control so that the money is really invested appropriately and transparently, without flowing into the criminal machine,” Kanev said.

The political force Kanev represents is critical of the government of Boyko Borissov (GERB, EPP) and of the lack of reform in the judiciary system. Kanev has also criticised the way Bulgaria’s new prosecutor general was elected – without any alternative candidate.

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