Bulgaria has been longing to join the Eurozone and the Schengen free-travel zone ever since it acceded to the EU 11 years ago. By assuming the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU this month, Sofia was supposed to be edging closer to that goal. But there was an embarrassing backdrop to the visit of EU dignitaries earlier this month that threatened to undermine Bulgaria’s hopes of entering the EU’s inner sanctum.
As the celebrations of the presidency got underway, Bulgaria’s parliament was busy overturning a presidential veto on an anti-corruption bill. Only days later, the spectacle of political infighting got even worse, as the opposition Socialist Party (BSP) took advantage of the ruling party’s weakness to file a no-confidence vote over its failure to tackle corruption.
At a time when Sofia has been trying to trumpet its commitment to reform, these high-profile disputes are a major source of embarrassment for a nation that needs to show more dignity on the European stage.
After all, corruption is Bulgaria’s Achilles heel. Transparency International has rated the country the most corrupt in the EU, ranking 75th among 176 countries. The European Commission has warned Bulgaria that it needs to go further in tackling cronyism, crime, and weak institutions before it can sign up to the Eurozone and Schengen zone. Although parliament’s overturn of the veto marked a step forward, the BSP’s motion to file a no-confidence vote constituted a major setback – all very much at odds with the festivities laid on to celebrate Bulgaria’s presidency. Clearly, if Bulgaria wants to see its two biggest wishes come true, it needs to get more get serious about reforms.
In Sofia earlier this month, visiting EU dignitaries did their best to ignore political infighting over corruption. President of the European Council Donald Tusk spoke favourably of Bulgaria’s ambitions over the six months of its presidency and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker emphasized that Brussels would support Sofia’s drive to join the Schengen and adopt the single currency. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov tried to minimize concerns over corruption and crime, emphasizing that his country met all the economic criteria to join the “waiting room” of the ERM-2 exchange rate mechanism.
Indeed, Bulgaria’s public finances are in good shape: its currency has been pegged to the euro since 1999, its debt-to-GDP ratio is less than half the limit at 29%, and its budget is in surplus by a healthy 1.6%. And though it still ranks as the EU’s poorest country, Bulgaria is the fourth-fastest growing economy in the bloc.
Nonetheless, persistent failure to root out high-level abuse means that all the new shopping malls, business parks and roads are providing even more opportunities for corruption – which has not gone unnoticed by Brussels. In the latest edition of the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism report, in November, the Commission reported that corruption was “the area where least progress had been made in Bulgaria over the 10 years of the CVM” and that “much still needs to be done, and overall progress now needs to be further accelerated urgently”. It’s fair to say Bulgaria’s politicians would do well to attend to these words rather than accept the polite promises of visiting dignitaries.
But Sofia should not be complacent in assuming its right to enter the Eurozone and Schengen “before summer”. The example of neighbouring Romania demonstrates that building an anti-corruption agency alone is not enough when a corrupt political class are able to undermine it.
Early last year, observers applauded when massive street protests in Romania succeeded in pushing the government to withdraw decrees that would have let jailed corrupt politicians off the hook. Since then, however, the people’s fight against high-level graft has started backsliding in the face of the ruling Social Democrats’ (PSD) determination to hack away at basic protections. This weekend, an estimated 50,000 people participated in new demonstrations against a controversial bill that critics say will complicate efforts to prosecute high-level corruption and other crimes – at the expense of centrist President Klaus Iohannis, who was elected on an anti-corruption ticket. The legislation has been widely panned, with the respected National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) saying it would have “a devastating impact on criminal investigations because they eliminate the indispensable legal instruments needed to investigate”.
As part of their assault on the rule of law, in recent months, PSD lawmakers have been making attacks on DNA prosecutors one of their favourite pastimes. The head of the DNA, Laura Codruta Kovesi, has come under particularly heavy fire from politicians who accuse her of carrying out politically motivated prosecutions and of having overly close relations with the intelligence services – not surprising, given the fact that since 2013, the DNA has ruled conviction decisions against 27 high-ranking officials.
Subjects of DNA investigations, too, have done their utmost to hack away at the agency’s credibility. The millionaire businessman Alexander Adamescu is currently hiding in the UK, where he is subject to a European Arrest Warrant under charges of bribery and fraud. He has been employing a strategy of describing the DNA’s case against him as politically motivated, showing how corrupt businessmen and politicians alike operate hand in glove against a common enemy.
Romania’s sudden and dramatic decline should be a cautionary tale for Brussels and Bulgaria alike: when countries have weak institutions in place, progress is not permanent. Similarly, for the duration of presidency, Sofia will be doing its best to put on a good show and prove itself to European leaders that it is ready to embrace Schengen, adopt the Euro and complete its European integration. But Brussels should be more careful about serving up carrots without having the stick handy.