What Should We Ask from Viviane Reding?
Adelina Marini, July 22, 2013
On Monday and Tuesday, in Bulgaria arrives a key figure from the European Commission - Vice President Viviane Reding who is responsible for the fundamental rights, justice and citizenship. The visit is a unique opportunity to raise vital for Bulgaria and the EU issues, but it also hides a serious risk stemming from unpreparedness for her visit and mission. Bulgaria is another stop in her tour of the EU member states aiming to collect the opinions of citizens and national politicians about the future reforms of the Union, which is facing some severe challenges and is practically at crossroads. The scale of the debates is very broad - from ordinary legislative initiatives, through possible treaty changes, specific reforms. In other words, Ms Reding is coming in Bulgaria to collect the Christmas letters of Bulgarian citizens about what Union do they want to live in. The collection is going on under the auspices of the European Year of Citizens and with a view toward the European elections next year.
From this perspective, the European Commission Vice President's visit provides a unique chance because we will finally be able to tell [each other] how exactly do we imagine the EU in the future, as well as to check whether these demands of ours have anything in common with the currently discussed reforms in the EU - the banking union, followed possibly by a political union, deepening of integration with how much and how. All this in the context of the problems we have been facing 23 years after we chose the path. But her visit also hides some bad sides. Ms Reding will come at a time when society in Bulgaria seems more divided than ever. On the one side are the tens of thousands of protesters who have been fighting for the past 40 days for the final and irreversible division of the state from oligarchy, for a tearing apart from the totalitarian past and for reforms that would finally bring Bulgaria out of the image of the poorest and most corrupt EU member state, governed by the mafia.
On the other side of the barricade is the status quo, which with methods from before the fall of the Berlin wall is trying not to calm the protests or to respond to their demands, but to crush them. For now only psychologically. The methods are so ugly and repulsive that one finds it hard even to believe that they are possible to be applied so soon after the "civilisational choice" the country made 23 years ago. Ms Reding has already unequivocally shown that the European Commission sides with the protesters. In an interview [in Bulgarian] with the 24 Hours daily, she pointed out that the developments in Bulgaria show pretty clearly what the situation in the country is and precisely what changes does it need. The Luxembourg EU commissioner recalled that the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism still is an actual instrument to realise the necessary reforms in the judiciary, although the 6 years of its functioning have only managed to "draw a clear picture and show the need of a change in the country".
Yes, Ms Reding does recognise that the key in the Mechanism is in the word "cooperation". "The Mechanism assigns a specific role to the European Commission in the support and monitoring of Bulgaria's progress in the reform of the judiciary and the fight against corruption and organised crime. This was one of the conditions for the accession of your country in the EU and the mechanism will stay until the goals set in 2006 are fulfilled". Undoubtedly this is so, but let us turn our attention to the word "verification" which assigns to the Commission the role to verify that Bulgaria's progress is a fact.
Therefore, it is extremely important what will be the message the Bulgarian citizens will convey to Ms Reding. Protesters are already deeming what tactics to undertake to express, on the one hand, their gratitude for her sympathies, but also to focus her attention on the huge problems they are encountering. There is a great danger, however, the meeting with her to mutate into a small talk during which only complaints, murmuring and finger pointing to be heard. It is not ruled out the meeting to turn into a fiasco similarly to that last year with another key commissioner - Neelie Kroes - when a lot of anecdotes were born, but the essence was left for another time.
The meeting would be successful if Commissioner Reding is offered specific ideas. A fundamental demand should be not only the Mechanism to continue, but to be enhanced and be made more efficient, oriented to the future when it is possible other countries, too, to demonstrate flaws in their transition toward democracy and in their adoption of the European values. This could be implemented by expanding its scope to include many other problematic areas which by the time of its creation were either not visible or not seen as problematic. As this website wrote a number of times, such a problem is media environment. It should be underscored that this Mechanism is practically guinea pig both for the EU and the countries that are under its effect. It is no accident that precisely because of this Mechanism, the Commission changed the criteria for evaluation of Croatia's progress toward EU accession, which since recently is the 28th member. Bulgaria and Romania are also the reason why the negotiations with Montenegro started from the most difficult chapters - 23 and 24 - which are precisely in the scope of the Mechanism.
It is important, too, to emphasise that it was a huge mistake Bulgaria to pass only with an oral report while for Romania not only that there was an extraordinary report, but it was also unprecedented both in tone and message. Although in her interview with the 24 Hours daily Reding says that "with or without a report, the Commission is following closely the development in your country", nonetheless, she should be unequivocally asked whether this, indeed, was the right decision given the situation in Bulgaria and even if she continues not to acknowledge that this was a mistake, she should be asked whether the Commission will learn the lessons and whether they will be reflected accordingly in the next report, expected to be published in the end of the year.
Her visit is a very convenient moment to raise the issue about the demand of four EU member states - Denmark, Germany, The Netherlands and Finland. In a letter that for now is not getting (at least not publicly) strong enough attention, the four countries demand a political monitoring to be introduced on countries with problems with the rule of law. Something preceding and softer than the political troika euinside demanded in the beginning of the year, again on the occasion of Bulgaria's failure to stay on the path of the democratically evolving and reforming countries. This is one of the demands for which it should be checked whether they require treaty changes or something sufficiently efficient could be created only through secondary legislation. To avoid the model applied when resolving the eurozone debt crisis - small feeling steps - the better option would be to think about the introduction of a very serious political mechanism through treaty changes that will either way be made at some point in the future. It is also good to understand what is the Commission's position on that issue, especially against the backdrop of the experience with Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania.
Another very important question for Ms Reding, which is outside her competences but is entirely linked to Europe's future, is the common energy policy, of the lack of which Bulgaria is a victim. It should be very clearly articulated in Sofia that the 100% energy dependence of Bulgaria on a country like Russia is a problem for free trade, as well as for the normal functioning of politics in our country. This issue at the moment is made crystal clear around the non-transparent intentions and actions of the government in terms of the South Stream project and the second nuclear power plant Belene. If the EU really had a single energy policy, therefore a common interest, then this would have made a difference for small countries like Bulgaria which would not have been forced to negotiate individually conditions they have no tools to influence on. It is also important to know whether the EU will undertake something more than agreeing with the lack of specific agreement regulating the relations with Russia and sending only dry appeals for respect of human rights which have no impact at all on the ruling elite in the Kremlin.
A very important question for Ms Reding is also does she believe that it is imperative in view of the developments in Hungary and Bulgaria (and probably elsewhere, but not that visibly) to specify to the smallest details the European values. This website has already proposed the creation (specifically in Bulgaria) of a moral constitution, but it is important to know what kind of European support ( in fully real dimensions) could be received for such a project. It is true that resigning, for instance, is an entirely domestic issue, but when Ms Reding herself admits in her interview for 24 Hours that some situations have an impact on the Union as a whole, it would be nice to say clearly and firmly how far could the Commission and the EU for that matter go in their efforts to prevent a young democracy from slipping down to old, harmful and lowering the EU principles practises.
In the context of the upcoming next year European elections, when a majority of analysts expect a lot of populist and sincerely xenophobic parties to increase their presence in the European Parliament and therefore their voice to be heard even louder at European level, it is crucial to see whether the Commission and the EU as member countries and citizens will find a common European consensus about what is admissible and what not in the European politics and freedom of speech. In Bulgaria currently, the government and the parliament hang entirely on the support of a nationalistic, xenophobic and generally an anarchistic (in its behaviour) political formation, whose leader crosses over not only legal, but also purely moral barriers. This is exactly why it is important what message and specific actions could the Commission undertake to mitigate the effect of the strengthening of these destructive for the developed democratic societies voices.
Last but not least, a very clear Bulgarian support should be stated for the banking union which will help the banking sector in our country to fall under common European supervision and resolution measures which will have a huge impact on the mafiatising of the sector at home, as there are symptoms of political favouritism for certain banks without clear arguments why a bank is preferred over another and why the entire budgetary resource of the state is invested in that bank. For now, the establishment of the banking union is again in that phase of caution and small steps for fears of excessive centralisation of power in Brussels. We, as an instable politically and weak economically member state, strongly dependent on Russian political and economic influences, should insist on a more centralised approach instead of supporting the continued interfighting between various national interests.
Any whimpering about EU funds, about the bad politicians, allowing to enter into political debates for or against the left, the right, the centre, about who is to blame and for what not, will be counterproductive. The experience with Neelie Kroes, indeed, is very useful and bitter. Then, practically the main participants in the destruction of the media environment were opposed to a group of not organised, often inexperienced independent journalists, bloggers and non-governmental organisations. Some of them complained with the lack of funding, others complained with the advance of digital technologies, but the general impression from the meeting was of a complete grotesque.
If that happened with the meeting with Ms Reding, this will be another missed opportunity the Bulgarian voice to be heard. Bulgaria is not among the most active member states at Council level, nor does it make impression in the European Parliament with few exceptions, not all of whom positive, which is why hardly many governments or citizens are dying to understand at any price what is the Bulgarians' opinion about major European, but also human issues. Similar discussions are a rare opportunity to present the Bulgarian experience from the common European existence which was made possible thanks to the fall of the Berlin wall, which, however, bears both the positives from the "liberation", but also the negatives from the heritage.
Europe's slogan "united in diversity" is not an accident, but it does not suggest that we, the Europeans, know each other well. We all have our own mentality evolutions which predetermine our actions or inactions. The clearer we are in our demands and expectations, the more certain it is that they will be taken into account. Especially now, for Bulgaria this is very important because it is evident that we have to again make our civilisational choice. This time, however, once and for all.
And the protesters, who will not be able to take part in the civil dialogue with the vice president, they could very well take advantage of her indirect support by welcoming Ms Reding in front of the Presidency for her meeting with President Plevneliev with slogans asking her and the president the above questions. Ms Reding will also meet the key deputy prime minister and minister of the key for the Mechanism justice.