Bulgaria’s EU justice monitoring report goes unnoticed

Otgoing Justice Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva, outgoing Deputy PM for European Affairs Meglena Kuneva and outgoing Interior Minister Rumiana Bachvarova. [Dnevnik, EURACTIV's partner in Bulgaria]

The European Commission’s monitoring report on Bulgaria’s progress in improving its law-enforcement system went largely unnoticed, as its publication yesterday (25 January) coincided with the appointment of a caretaker government in Sofia, pending snap parliamentary elections on 26 March.

The European Commission on Wednesday published its reports on Bulgaria and Romania, under the so-called Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) set up as a condition of the countries’ EU accession ten years ago, on 1 January 2007.

“The 2017 reports look back at ten years of the CVM and conclude that overall the CVM has enabled substantial progress, albeit not at the speed and to the extent that was originally expected,” the Commission diplomatically said in a press release.

When Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU, the countries were not completely ready for accession.

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The CVM was set up as means to overcome deficiencies in the areas of judicial reform and the fight against corruption, and in the case of Bulgaria in the fight against organised crime. The initial idea was that these deficiencies could be overcome in a couple of years. However, ten years later, the CVM monitoring is still ongoing, and will remain in place during Bulgaria’s Presidency of the Council of the EU, in the first half of 2018.

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Romania’s justice minister claimed yesterday (12 January) that Bucharest had filled the requirements for the European Commission to lift its monitoring over the country’s judicial system this year. But Brussels has refuted the suggestion. EURACTIV Romania reports.

A total of seven years of CVM monitoring coincided with the term of Boyko Borissov as prime minister of two governments. A former bodyguard, he founded the centre-right party GERB (an affiliate of the EPP) in December 2006, just before Bulgaria’s EU accession. He served as PM from July 2009 to February 2013, when he resigned following the eruption of nationwide protests over high electricity costs.

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Following national elections, Borissov returned to power in November 2014. In November 2016 he resigned again, after Socialist-backed candidate Rumen Radev, a newcomer to politics, won the run-off presidential election.

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Commentators have called the Borissov years “lost time” for reform. The former prime minister prioritised the construction of highways and sport facilities, but largely neglected the need to improve the judicial system. Bulgaria has the EU’s lowest corporate tax rate of 10%, but investors often flee the country because of corruption and the uncertain judicial environment.

The CVM report received little media attention when it was published yesterday; Bulgaria’s top story was the appointment of the caretaker government, led by Ornyan Gerdzhikov, a professor of law. Outgoing ministers also focused on the report’s positive assessments, glossing over its critical messages.

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The Commission has stressed despite progress in the implementation of the judicial reform strategy, the  implementation of the national anti-corruption strategy still remains at an early stage.

“More generally, over the past ten years, overall progress has not been as fast as hoped for and a number of significant challenges remain to be addressed. The new government will need to drive reform forward to secure irreversible results,” the executive said.

The report identifies 17 key recommendations to attain the CVM objectives, but gives no timeline, as the speed of the process depends on how quickly Bulgaria can implement the recommendations in an irreversible way.

Although CVM doesn’t normally monitor the media environment, this time the report said that the weak independence of the media and the ineffective enforcement of journalistic standards have had a negative influence on public debate on reforms.

Dnevnik, EURACTIV’s partner in Bulgaria, quoted ministers in the outgoing government, who said the report was objective and balanced, as it took note of their achievements and shortcomings. Justice Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva admitted that the most critical parts of the report concerned the fight against high-level corruption, as well as the transparency and accountability of decision-making in the prosecution and in the High Judicial Council.

Zaharieva further said she had set up a working group for adopting by 15 March a roadmap for implementing the Commission’s 17 recommendations. This however would be the task of the caretaker government. Maria Pavlova, an investigator from the National Investigation office, has been appointed caretaker justice minister.

A survey has shown that 72% of the Bulgarians approve the EU monitoring to continue in the next years, with only 12% who consider it should be lifted.

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Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU on 1 January 2007. On 1 January 2017, no celebrations were held marking their tenth accession anniversary, confirming that EU enlargement is no longer fashionable.

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