The passports-for-bribes scam may look like an embarrassment for Bulgaria, but Prime Minister Boyko Borissov turned it around on Thursday (13 December), saying he had received compliments for the way Bulgarian law enforcement had put an end to the practice.
Bulgarian prosecutors said on 29 October they had broken up a scam run by state officials which had enabled thousands of foreigners to obtain Bulgarian passports in exchange for cash — and with them visa-free travel across the EU.
The scheme allegedly involved employees of the State Agency for Bulgarians Abroad, who are suspected of accepting bribes to issue fake certificates of Bulgarian origin, a document based on which Bulgarian nationality and identity documents can be issued.
Borissov is a black belt in karate and knows how to turn a weakness into a strength.
Speaking to Bulgarian journalists on the first day of an EU summit in Brussels, he said he had received “many compliments” from EU leaders for the way Bulgarian law enforcement had detected the scam, arrested the culprits and put an end to the affair. He stressed that the Bulgarian authorities did that “alone”.
The scam has been a open secret in Bulgaria at least since 2011, and there is little doubt that it has worked thanks to political protection.
According to several sources, the fact that partner services had detected dangerous individuals of non-Bulgarian origin with genuine Bulgarian passports was a game-changer, giving the authorities in Sofia no choice but to act.
But Borissov said he had asked for checks to be made with the partner services “ten years back”, adding that there had been no cases reported.
He also said that on Monday, he had met with the ambassadors of EU member countries and that “brochures were distributed” to explain what the authorities had accomplished.
Borissov said he had discussed these issues with the first vice president of the Commission, Frans Timmermans, earlier the same day. Bulgaria is under Commission scrutiny for deficiencies in its judicial and law-enforcement system, under the so-called Mechanism of Cooperation and Verification (CVM).
Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker recently reiterated his hope that Bulgaria should exit CVM before the end of his term.
The Bulgarian premier said he had informed Timmermans about ongoing work on other important dossiers, such as legislation allowing the confiscation of property and wealth obtained as a result of criminal activity. It emerged recently that many dossiers had to be abandoned, due to the court cases dragging on beyond accepted time limits.
Borissov said a solution would be found via a legislative amendment consisting of one sentence. He added that Timmermans was satisfied with this explanation.
The Bulgarian PM also said he had informed Timmermans about the seizure last week of a trove of weapons near the city of Kazanlak, including 82 Kalashnikov rifles and 37 hand-held ‘Scorpion’ machine guns. It is still unclear what the purpose of the arsenal was. As in the case of the passport scam, the investigation has not produced indictments yet.
The existence of such an arsenal has shocked many Bulgarians. However, Borissov’s narrative was the success of the law-enforcement in uncovering it, as another argument to plead for Bulgaria’s Schengen accession. He added he was tired of repeating that his country qualifies to be part of the EU’s border-free zone.
In the same vein, Borissov said without being asked, at the pre-summit of his centre-right EPP group, “everybody” asked him why his country had not sent a representative to Marrakesh, where the Global migration compact was approved on Monday.
In reply, he made reference to the terrorist attack in Strasbourg on Tuesday night, saying: “When they asked me why I didn’t approve Marrakesh, that’s what I answered.”
??Today EPP heads of state/government & leaders met for the #EPPSummit ahead of #EUCO in #Brussels. One of the discussed topics was #Brexit & the future EU/UK relationship. ?Watch the wrap up video w/ @JJansaSDS, @jyrkikatainen & @PavelBelobradek ?https://t.co/ZXLBKWvdhH
— EPP (@EPP) December 13, 2018
A journalist retorted that the attacker in Strasbourg was not an immigrant, but a third generation Frenchman.
“One day they become the third generation,” Borissov answered curtly.
On the issue of migration, which is once again on the summit agenda, he said:
“We cannot discuss how to take care of refugees when someone comes with a machine gun to a Christmas market. It makes no sense.”
Asked about the risk of hard Brexit, Borissov instructed reporters to check their archives and find what he had said on the issue more than a year ago.
When EURACTIV asked Borissov to comment on Brexit in November 2017, he said he feared that the endgame would be hard Brexit – the UK leaving the bloc without a deal.