Corruption puts the future of the European Union at risk

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

MEP Daniel Freund in Sofia, among protesters, on 22 September 2020. The banner reads "Corruption kills". [Daniel Freund Twitter account]

Protests against government corruption have been rocking Bulgaria since August. MEP Daniel Freund, who was in Sofia last week to meet with protesters, shares his impressions.

Daniel Freund is a German politician who has been serving as a member of the European Parliament since July 2019. He is a member of Alliance 90/The Greens at the national level and sits with the Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance in the European Parliament.

Dozens of EU flags were waving at the protests in Sofia last Tuesday (22 September). The Bulgarian protesters were expressing their hopes for help and support from Brussels in the fight against corruption. Approval of the EU has been particularly high since Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007.

However, the uncontrolled transfer of EU funds to Sofia is contributing to the rampant corruption in the country. The EU carries a shared responsibility for the status quo.

Opposition in Bulgaria: Why does Europe not act?

Last week I was able to talk to many of those affected on the ground: opposition members who are making urgent appeals to Brussels; journalists who were beaten up by security forces at the protests; and young people who came back to Bulgaria after long stays in other European countries and now want to break up the encrusted corrupt structures in their home country.

Their unanimous opinion is that the European Union must act, it must take decisive action against corruption and the dismantling of the rule of law.

Otherwise, the Union will lose its trust. Otherwise, hope will turn into frustration and people will turn away. It would be a catastrophe for the European project. It would be a heavy blow for our European community of values.

Corruption destroys trust – frustration increases

The frustration with the Bulgarian government is deep. Corruption is part of everyday life in Bulgaria. Sometimes it’s overpriced renovation projects, sometimes broken sidewalk slabs, sometimes a toilet that doesn’t work, sometimes it’s a minister who admits that it’s all about keeping as much money as possible in her own pockets.

Almost everywhere you learn that public money is being plundered and that it contributes to the enrichment of a small elite. The arrogance and egoism of the powerful destroys trust in politics. It annoys the people on the street. And it sends a fatal signal: if you want to be successful, you have to participate in this system – or you will emigrate.

What can the European Union do to help?

Even small gestures can help. I was shocked to discover that 70 days after the protests began, no European politician had yet talked to the people on the ground.

The European Commission should have signalled early on that it takes the concerns and demands of the protests seriously. In many conversations, participants in the protests told me that they felt left alone.

They were happy that a member of the European Parliament was now on the ground speaking to them. And their perception is that in Bulgaria and in the EU, it is above all the Greens who are passionately fighting against corruption.

However, we should not leave the fight against corruption to the Bulgarian people alone. In Brussels, negotiations are currently underway on the future EU budget and the Recovery Fund.

The European Parliament has made it very clear here that we can only disburse money if it is not misused for the dismantling of democracy and the rule of law. We can only distribute money if we are sure that billions of euros will not end up in the private pockets of a corrupt elite.

But laws to this effect are in danger of being blocked by the member states – under the leadership of the German Council Presidency. Angela Merkel and the CDU/CSU play an inglorious role in this context. Their deeds are far removed from the image of the defenders of democracy that they like to present to the public.

The rule of law in Europe is in crisis. If we do not act decisively now, we will put the future of the entire European Union at risk. Because if the Union does not act, the citizens will turn away. The crisis in Bulgaria illustrates that very clearly.

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