A new report commissioned by the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament shows that much more ambition is required in the fight against corruption within Bulgaria and at EU level. The report, which comes shortly after Bulgaria takes on the presidency of the EU, looks at the strong ties between the Bulgarian government, oligarchs, banks and media companies and outlines the weaknesses and dangers of Bulgaria’s new anti-corruption law.
Bulgaria is the worst-performing country in the European Union in the fight against corruption, according to the ranking of Transparency International, and ranked 109 globally in the World Press Freedom Ranking from Reporters without Borders.
The full report can be accessed on the Greens/EFA website: http://extranet.greens-efa-service.eu/public/media/file/1/5452
Sven Giegold, who was rapporteur for the European Parliament’s report on transparency, accountability and integrity in the EU institutions, comments:
“The Bulgarian government must listen to the protests of its citizens who are resisting corruption. Despite some progress, corruption remains a major concern in Bulgaria and needs to be tackled urgently. The recently adopted Anti-Corruption law has been steeped in controversy and we are concerned it could be used to silence critics of the Bulgarian government.
The European Commission needs to be much more ambitious in the fight against corruption in Member States and should come forward with fresh legislative proposals. The new European Public Prosecutor has the potential to be a strong instrument in the fight against corruption and the mismanagement of cross-border EU funds. The EPPO needs to be ready to go as soon as possible and we expect to see it make Bulgaria a top priority.”
SUMMARY of key points in the report “The messy fight against corruption in Bulgaria and the need for ambition in the EU institutions”
A new report commissioned by the Greens/EFA Group in the European Parliament has found that much more ambition is required in the fight against corruption both within Bulgaria but also at EU level.
As Bulgaria takes on the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, there is a key opportunity upcoming in the first half of 2018. After at least a decade in which the European Commission has been monitoring Bulgaria’s progress in the fight against corruption and organised crime, it is now Bulgaria’s chance to push the EU to increase its ambition in tackling corruption within the EU institutions themselves, an issue that has been drastically neglected to date.
Bulgaria ranks as the worst-performing country in the European Union in the fight against corruption according to the Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, despite having been placed under the special Mechanism for Cooperation and Verification (CVM) by the European Commission since 2007. Out of all EU Member States, Bulgaria also wins the dubious title of having the lowest ranking when it comes to media freedom as well as having the highest levels of distrust in the perceived independence of the judiciary. The recently adopted Anti-Corruption Law is steeped in controversy and critics fear it may be instrumentalised to silence critics, as outlined in the report.
While the European Union has spurred legislation that is relevant for the fight against corruption, it remains sectoral in nature and there is no comprehensive anti-corruption directive or regulation under discussion to date. The European Commission has recently even stepped back from monitoring corruption efforts in the Member States, preferring instead to shelve the second edition of what was supposed to be a yearly anti-corruption report. Most importantly, although the EU has been instrumental in pushing Bulgaria to adopt more ambitious reforms, it has not matched this ambition internally.
While the continued pressure from the European Commission has finally led Bulgaria to adopt a specific anti-corruption law, the results are far from satisfying:
The weak protection that existed for whistleblowers reporting specifically on conflicts of interests cases has been reversed with the new anti-corruption law, as the Parliament clearly stated that whistleblowers should be held legally responsible for their reporting on corruption.
The law fails to introduce coherent provisions to prevent corruption by increasing the integrity and transparency of the public sector. Rather, it focuses on the confiscation of assets and property, also for crimes completely unrelated to corruption, which raises fears that the seizure of assets might be used to silence criticism of the government.
The newly established Anti-Corruption Commission will be given the power to use secret surveillance and to target “corruptive behaviour”, which is not defined in the legislation, but it will not be given the authority to oversee potential conflicts of interest in the civil service.
The close ties between the government, oligarchs, banks and the media raise questions about journalistic integrity and media pluralism, with Bulgaria ranked 109th out of all countries when it comes to press freedom. This situation is further complicated by the fact that media outlets falling below journalistic ethics standards are actually also recipients of EU funds.
The Bulgarian President decided to veto the Anti Corruption Law in early 2018 due to its deficiencies and potential to be abused for political reasons, but the veto was overcome by a vote in the Parliament on the 12th January, meaning that the law should soon enter into force.
RECOMMENTATIONS directed at EU level
The EU has in principle signed up to different anti-corruption initiatives but it is not applying them properly in practice, at least not within the EU institutions themselves. Although the EU has been instrumental in pushing Bulgaria to adopt more ambitious reforms, it also needs to step up its efforts internally in order to be able to lead by example.
The European Commission should take more ambitious action to fight against corruption at Member State level, for example by adopting an Anti-Corruption Directive or Regulation.
At the very least, the Commission should finally publish its second Anti-Corruption Report instead of backing away from monitoring the performance of the EU Member States in this area.
Of course, the Commission would be much more credible in demanding anti-corruption measures at the national level if it were to properly apply these measures to the EU institutions themselves. The EU should therefore join the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) and finally start to undertake periodic self-assessments under the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC).
RECOMMENDATIONS directed at Bulgaria
As a core tool in the area of prevention, the government should put in place risk-based measures to address corruption in high risk sectors within the public administration as recommended also in the 2017 CVM reports. Ministries and local authorities should be obliged to conduct regular risk self-assessments using tools developed by the Anti-Corruption Commission;
Both the Anti-Corruption legislation and its implementation should focus on the subject of corruption as it is understood under the international standards and under the established monitoring mechanisms such as GRECO and CVM, rather than shifting to fighting organized crime and confiscation, which is a separate area;
The core definitions in the area of corruption should be clarified in order not to mix “corruption”, “conflict of interests” and “confiscation”;
The institutional framework should be designed to work effectively against corruption avoiding both overlapping functions and gaps and there should be a clear distinction between preventive and repressive measures with public bodies exercising specific functions in each of those spheres;
Administrative reform including issues such as openness, accountability and integrity should be considered as part of the prevention of corruption in public administration and should not be separated from the main anti-corruption efforts.
The new anti-corruption commission should be empowered to act comprehensively in all the areas of the corruption prevention. It should work in coordination with the bodies in the judiciary, which is not the case now, and with the Ministries and regional/ local authorities.
The Public Prosecutor’s office should be transparent its progress in high-level corruption cases as suggested by the 2017 CVM reports. It should also ensure accountability regarding its integrity and its capacity to properly investigate high-level corruption;
Conflict of interests declarations of civil servants should be checked by independent bodies. Consistent and unified practices in this area should be provided and it should be responsibility of the Anti-Corruption Commission to develop these.
The government should respect media freedom in view of the crucial role of media as a public watchdog. The power of the State should be directed at the real suspects rather than used to attack critical opinions and freedom of expression. Efforts should be made to prevent the concentration of media ownership;
Whistleblowers should be guaranteed better protection against prosecution for reporting corruption and other wrongdoing. This important recommendation, made a long time ago within the frame of GRECO monitoring, was not just left unaddressed, but in the 2017 anti-corruption law the provision prohibiting such a prosecution was intentionally rejected by the parliament with the clearly stated aim of ensuring that whistleblowers can still be faced with subsequent legal actions. The lack of adequate protection puts Bulgaria below the international standards established by legal instruments such as the UNCAC.