Commission warns Bulgaria over judicial independence

Bulgarian PM Borissov will discuss the issue in Brussels on Thursday (4 December). [Dnevnik]

The European Commission on Wednesday (31 October) threatened to publish an extraordinary monitoring report on Bulgaria's ailing judicial system, hours after lawmakers in Sofia appointed a controversial figure to the country’s Constitutional Court despite EU warnings.

Bulgarian lawmakers elected two new members to the Constitutional Court without any parliamentary debate, ignoring previous warnings from the European Commission. 

The appointments came with a feeling that behind-the-scene arrangements had been struck between the ruling party and opposition forces, reports Dnevnik, EURACTIV's partner publication in Bulgaria.

On Tuesday, Commission spokesperson Olivier Bailly had expressed the EU executive’s concerns over the candidacy of Veneta Markovska whose name is associated to murky real estate deals in Sofia and the Black Sea coast. Markovska, deputy chair of the Supreme Administrative Court, has denied the accusations.

The other new judge is Anastas Anastasov, a member of the National Assembly.

Despite these suspicions, Markovska secured her nomination with 127 votes out of a total 240. These included 21 votes from the Movement of Rights and Freedoms, an opposition party largely representing the Turkish minority.

Without giving names, Bailly said the Commission had “serious allegations in trading of influence and corruption” against one of the candidates.

He said the EU executive had stated many times that judges on the Constitutional Court must satisfy the highest standards of professionalism and integrity.

“The Commission called upon the competent Bulgarian institutions, and in particular the Parliament, to assume its responsibility and to carry out thorough checks of allegations of corruption trade of influence and conflict of interest. Today the Commission takes note that the Bulgarian Parliament did not carry out checks, despite [the] Commission’s signals expressed over the past few days,” Bailly said.

Reputation of Bulgarian institutions at stake

Using language rarely used with respect to a member country, Bailly said: “The Commission is therefore concerned that the reputation of the Constitutional Court and other key Bulgarian institutions is at stake.”

Bailly added that the Commission could look into the matter closely through the cooperation and verification mechanism (see background), an oversight provision of Bulgaria's 2007 entry into the EU.

“I should also note that there’s always an option for the Commission to present an additional CVM report in addition to the one that is currently foreseen for the end of 2013, if the situation requires it,” he said.

The spokesman said the Commission had decided in July that the next monitoring report would be published by the end of 2013.

“What the Commission wants to make clear to the Bulgarian authorities is that there is always a possibility for us to come up with a revised report before this deadline, should the situation in Bulgaria require a new evaluation by the Commission,” he said.

Asked if an extraordinary report might appear before the end of the year, he said it was too early to say.

Commission seen rectifying past mistake

Bulgaria will hold elections next summer and ?Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s ruling centre-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) was hoping that Brussels would not interfere with the electoral debate.

But what many observers also noticed is that since the July decision, the government made no effort to improve the country’s performance under the EU monitoring mechanism.

A Commission source told EURACTIV that the EU executive had now “put the pressure again” on Sofia, rectifying its mistake from the summer.

When Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU on 1 January 2007, shortcomings remained regarding judicial reform and the fight against corruption. In the case of Bulgaria, problems also remained regarding the fight against organised crime.

A cooperation and verification mechanism (CVM) was set up to assist both countries with judiciary matters after their EU accession. Moreover, the European Commission retained the right to use special safeguards.

These allow the EU to refuse to recognise court decisions or even freeze payments of EU funds.

However, starting 1 January 2010 Brussels no longer had the power to trigger the clause.

The last reports on Romania and Bulgaria, published on 18 July, were largely seen as disastrous for the two countries.

  • 9 Dec. 2012: Romania holds Parliamentary elections
  • July 2013: Bulgaria holds Parliamentary elections

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