Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

Hristo Ivanov: The Cooperation and Verification Mechanism Must Be Upgraded!

Adelina Marini, March 3, 2017

Some will say "Finally!", others - "They are late", and yet third ones will watch in disbelief, but ten years after its accession to the European Union Bulgaria finally has its first party, whose main task is fighting corruption. The party was founded at the beginning of the year, it is named "Da, Bulgaria" ("Yes, Bulgaria") and has the ambition to draw solid boundaries of corrupt behaviour, especially high-level corruption. The establishment of the party happened shortly before the publication of the regular report of the European Commission under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), under which Bulgaria and Romania slipped into the EU unprepared, as they had not completed the reforms to create an independent judiciary, which would ensure long-term and irreversible fight against corruption and in the case of Bulgaria organised crime as well. 

For those 10 years Bulgaria and Romania have drifted away from each other significantly. While findings about Bulgaria have hardly changed at all, and reports constantly mark the emergence of more and more problems in various areas, in Romania a culture of intolerance to corruption emerged, due to the successful development, despite political resistance, of independent institutions which tirelessly prosecute corruption in the high-levels of power. Therefore, the moment the political class decided to take a step back, hundreds of thousands of Romanians took to the streets of Bucharest in protest. Meanwhile on the other side of the Danube Bulgarians watched with envy, while their politicians are preparing for the next snap elections in a row in which the words "reform" and "corruption" are not on the agenda of the current political players.

"Da, Bulgaria" is somewhat a party of the protest, similar to Romania. Many people, who enrolled for participation in the young formation, were among the most popular and active participants in the massive and prolonged protests in 2013, which were provoked by the attempt of the government in power at the time to appoint as head of one of the most powerful institutions in the country - State Agency for National Security (DANS) - an extremely controversial figure, considered deeply connected with political corruption and legalised organised crime. Besides, Delyan Peevski at the time was the indirect owner of a powerful media empire, which dealt with alternative facts long before Donald Trump showed up. 

DaBG emerges in a time of mass distrust by Bulgarian citizens towards political elites because of repeated lies and unfulfilled promises, making the task of the new party very difficult. I spoke with the leader of the formation in Vienna, where he met with Bulgarians hungry for a new hope of having someone to vote for, and even verify whether it makes sense to return to the homeland, which in recent decades has suffered a significant brain drain. Hristo Ivanov is a former justice minister, famous for being the first one to resign because of disagreement with the political line and mostly because of the refusal of the government to carry out the promised judicial reform. In Vienna, he was in the company of one of the most prominent activists in the 2013 protests, Georgi Iliev, and the first Bulgarian tennis star Manuela Maleeva, who devoted her career outside tennis to a foundation for helping children with orthopaedic problems and to politics.

After meeting Bulgarians in Vienna Hristo Ivanov spared 30 minutes for euinside, during which he tried to explain how he intends to fight corruption, what he expects in terms of assistance from the EU, and also what sort of EU he imagines. He has some very strong messages for the European political elite. From my conversation with him I get the impression that he is a realist. DaBG has no intention of making a moral revolution, he said in response to my question of how will they deal with a problem that many say is even rooted in the mentality. He relies on his party entering parliament, where it can exercise constant and high pressure on the Prosecutor's Office and the Interior Ministry to deal with specific issues related to corruption.

Intolerance in society towards corruption will appear only after it is evident that the reaction of the public has any meaning for someone. "When people have been expressing their intolerance for years, when for years they have shown frustration and dissatisfaction, they are scandalised, and this remains a shot into empty space because none of the political class, none of the institutions ever react, it limits terribly the ability of people to invest emotion in being scandalised". Hristo Ivanov believes it is possible for Bulgaria to catch up with the level of Romania in 4-5 years.

The CVM will not only not be removed, but should be upgraded and deepened!

Hristo Ivanov believes that in their current form Cooperation and Verification Mechanism reports have lost their meaning. "Without a political partner in Sofia who can actually partner the EC, and not play a game of lies with it, behaving like a bad student lying to the teacher, these reports could not continue to have effect." He expects the Commission to seriously and publicly announce its future intentions through a conversation. "The closing of this debate between Juncker and his boy Borissov, between the EPP and PES, this matter can not be closed there. We, as a society, must participate in a renegotiation of how Bulgaria within the EU can receive support and impetus for reforms".

Former justice minister does not believe the words of the head of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker (Luxembourg, EPP) that the CVM will be cancelled by the end of his term (2019). According to him, Juncker's words were misinterpreted, and ultimately it's not what he would say, but what member states will. He urged to put an end to the expectations that the mechanism will be abolished. A big drawback of the mechanism as it stands is that the missions are only four times a year, last for a week, and cover too wide a range of issues. Furthermore, the reports are the subject of political negotiations and lobbying.

According to him, the CVM should start doing much more detailed reporting as was drafted by European experts on the work of the prosecution. Moreover, he insists on a closer link between these reports and the European semester, because the semester can bring sanctions for non-compliance with the recommendations which has, however, never happened so far. Currently one of four country-specific recommendations to Bulgaria on the semester is targeted precisely at the judiciary and the fight against corruption. There is a very wide range of issues that require more specialised and much more detailed inspection, said Hristo Ivanov. He also proposes a widening of the range of the CVM to include other topics, which is also hinted at in this year's report itself. Among these topics could be the work of the Interior Ministry. "This is a topic, which hitherto the CVM has treated for years only very superficially. Without this issue, a much more serious attention to it, a much more serious analysis, much more serious recommendations, we will remain stuck. The same applies to our security agencies."

It is time for European political parties to assume their responsibility

The former justice minister sharply criticised European political families and German political endowments for the support they offer to their failed partners in Bulgaria. He believes they need to make a much more sober analysis of their interaction with their partners in Sofia. "How much longer will there be no political price to pay for the fact that the main partner of ALDE and the corresponding endowment in Germany is DPS (Movement for Rights and Freedoms) and this being recognised as a mainstream liberal, imagine, political formation? The same also applies for GERB by the way. The same is true in some senses of BSP. This omnivorousness of European political parties and foundations, which are willing to turn a blind eye to the fact that their partners in Sofia are suspected and stained by corruption concerns and political inaction regarding corruption must be stopped if we we want to have an honest dialogue with the European political families".

At this stage, DaBG is in no hurry to be associated with any European political family as the number one priority at the moment is building a name and trust among Bulgarian citizens. From my interview with him I am left with the impression that he relies more on Bulgaria's internal forces to tackle corruption, rather than outside help.

For a strong and comprehensive European Prosecutor's Office

The issue of the creation of an European Public Prosecutor's Office (EPPO) seems to be very close to heart for Hristo Ivanov. He spoke in detail about it during his meeting with Bulgarians in Vienna as well, and his answers to questions by euinside also show that he takes it to heart, the more so as at the time he was a minister he was involved in the negotiations on its creation. This is one of the most difficult legislative dossiers at present in the EU. Negotiations on it have been going on for four years, and just when it seemed that agreement was reached, Sweden and The Netherlands withdrew from participation, while Poland and Hungary also expressed reservations. It was decided to move towards an enhanced cooperation procedure, which allows a certain number of member states (not less than 9) to continue alone. This will slow down the creation of this body, whose task is to fight the abuse of EU funds and cross-border VAT fraud.

During the negotiations on the new body some member states, led by Italy, insisted on a strong supranational institution which covers even the fight against organised crime. Bulgaria, too, demanded this at the time of Hristo Ivanov. In fact, Bulgaria has always supported a strong European Prosecutor's Office. Ivanov agrees that the move towards enhanced cooperation procedure will trim the wings of the prosecution. According to him, however, integration in this area is inevitable.

"I expect, including after the completion of certain domestic political democratic cycles in France and Germany, that the European political elite will look a little more seriously on the need to build solid institutions for its security, law enforcement, and intelligence services. It is inevitable, so in some sense I look at things that are currently happening more as an inbetween time, rather than something that is a clear indication of where things are going. We really are entering a new stage of development of these institutions, of the EU, of the entire European model as such. And this stage, will take time before it is formed, before its main story lines surface, it will take a long time. A new era is beginning and this never takes just a month or two". He did sharply criticise the lack of specific priorities for the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council, which begins next year. As a number one priority he marked namely the creation of a European prosecutor's office. Bulgaria must unconditionally participate in the enhanced cooperation procedure, and not only to participate, but also to do everything necessary to convince countries like Germany and The Netherlands that common security issues cannot be solved without such a tool. As a second priority, he pointed to a more proactive position on what the new migration policy should look like. The third priority, which he said Bulgaria must have during the presidency, is the exchange of information between intelligence agencies and security institutions. Cyber security is a huge challenge and should be placed as such. 

A great problem currently is that only five member states trust each other enough to exchange intelligence information. "We boast, beat our chests, that we have access to these systems [for information sharing], but there is no real intelligence information related to security shared there", he said and added: "That is, it is a problem of trust, because trust between the parties has one criterion and there is just one way to measure it and it is the sharing of intelligence information. If some countries are members of a club and do not share intelligence, they do not trust each other".

The history, stupid!

The biggest problem the EU has at the moment is the lack of leaders with vision in both the EU institutions and at national level. Most leaders have a more "economic" political thinking and a little "historicality" of consciousness. "It will take years to reload a generation of leaders with, I would say, a little clearer historicality of mind, because we are now with a generation of leaders who have much more economic political thinking, much less historicality of consciousness, including historic responsibility. Awareness of history, awareness that not everything is as was written on Clinton's wall, not everything is economics. So, the history, stupid!", were his words. 

You can see the entire interview [in Bulgarian language] with the leader of DaBG Hristo Ivanov in the attached video. 

* Some quotes from Hristo Ivanov are edited for clarity and brevity

Translated by Stanimir Stoev