The European Parliament’s justice committee on Thursday adopted a resolution on Bulgaria’s rule-of-law failings that made the rare step of directly challenging Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, his ruling GERB party and abuses of EU funds.
At home, Borissov is at the center of a spiralling rule-of-law crisis, in which opposition politicians and protesters accuse him of allowing an oligarchic mafia to exert influence through key institutions such as the judiciary, media and security services.
On the European stage, he is normally regarded as untouchable, however, because he is a key ally of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and German Chancellor Angela Merkel from the center-right European People’s Party.
The tone of Thursday’s resolution represents a significant change from the way EU institutions normally approach Borissov in that it made specific and critical references to both the prime minister and his party. Thirty-five MEPs from the Civil Liberties and Justice Committee (LIBE) voted in favour of the text on Bulgaria that singled out Borissov’s GERB party over “concerns that tax-payers money is used for the enrichment of circles associated with the ruling party.”
In a sign of the divisive nature of any action against Borissov, 30 committee members voted against. One abstained.
All MEPs will vote on the text at a plenary session next week in Brussels, where the broad EPP support for Borissov is likely to come into play. Several EPP officials complained on Thursday that the resolution was rushed and risked undermining the credibility of the Parliament. One of them called the report “socialist propaganda.”
The plenary vote will also put the liberal ALDE group in a bind as two of the central figures in Bulgaria’s corruption crisis, identified by the protesters as the epitomes of the oligarchy, hail from ALDE.
Thursday’s move from the justice committee comes in stark contrast to a far less damning assessment from the European Commission on Wednesday. The Commission report failed to take into account recent revelations about state capture and about the abuse of EU funds. Indeed, Borissov himself praised the Commission report as “exceptionally objective” and vowed that Bulgarians would take the remaining steps identified to become “star pupils.”
The justice committee’s resolution identified a “significant deterioration of respect for the principles of rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights” as well as a “continuous lack of high-level corruption investigations yielding tangible results” and “the serious deterioration of media freedom.”
The committee’s resolution is not binding but is intended to be the beginning of a political process that exerts pressure on the EU for broader action on Sofia and on the abuse of EU funds more widely. The justice committee sought to use Bulgaria’s rule of law failings to push the EU to step up its efforts to “ensure stricter control on the way Union funds are spent” via a system currently under negotiation that is supposed to link rule of law to the bloc’s budget.
“Mapping corruption shows clearly that member states with structural deficiencies on rule of law are those most prone to resort to corrupt practices when managing EU budget and funds,” Juan Fernando López Aguilar, the LIBE committee chairman, wrote in a statement after the vote on Bulgaria. “That has to come to an end.”