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‘All countries have some corruption, but #Bulgaria has become a mafia state’ Yoncheva MEP

EU Reporter Correspondent

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Bulgarian Prime Minister, Boyko Borissov

EU Reporter spoke to Elena Yoncheva MEP about the continuing protests taking place in Bulgaria. Yoncheva says that while in every country there is mafia and some corruption, over the last ten years, Bulgaria has become a mafia state. 

Successive scandals and an obvious deterioration of the rule of law have failed to move European leaders into open condemnation of developments in Bulgaria. Yoncheva’s views - shared by protestors - appears to contradict the findings of the European Commission in its ‘Cooperation and Verification Mechanism’ (CVM) report of 2019 . In the report, the Commission considered that Bulgaria had met benchmarks related to the fight against organized crime, ‘reflecting the positive developments in the institutional environment and track record over the years’ and that ‘developments since November 2018 have not raised new relevant issues’. 

When Bulgaria and Romania joined the European Union in 2007, it was recognized that there were shortcomings in the areas of judicial reform, the fight against corruption, and in the case of Bulgaria, in particular, a failure to effectively fight organized crime. The Commission's most recent evaluation of the situation found that there has been sufficient progress to meet Bulgaria’s commitments made at the time of its accession to the EU. 

However, Yoncheva paints a different picture.  She says that with every year the country is becoming poorer. Foreign direct investment has collapsed, as the country is seen to have a weak judicial system that won’t protect investors. Powerful oligarchs seem to have a hold on most of the economy. Education and health systems are also in decline, with people feeling a general drop in their standard of living. 

Yoncheva says that people have become progressively more disgusted. This is reflected in over a month's demonstrations against the government. The tipping point was early July, when Bulgarians finally took to the streets when the Chief Prosecutor, Ivan Geshev, ordered armed security officers to raid the offices of Bulgaria’s President and detained the anti-corruption secretary and security adviser for questioning. The President Rumen Radev has called for the resignation of the entire government, including Prime Minister Boyko Borissov. 

The protests were also provoked by former justice minister Hristo Ivanov, of the ‘Yes, Bulgaria!’ party filming his arrival on the beach outside the residence of former politician Dogan on the Black Sea coast. People were incensed that the public beach had become the private reserve of Dogan who enjoys the protection of state security officers. It was also found that a leading oligarch Peevski - who owns a large number of media outlets - has had to give up state protection officers, following the public outrage. The episode resulted in the resignation of the top general for state security. Ivanov has claimed in an interview with Politico that: “Borissov is king by day, Peevski is king by night.”

According to Transparency International's 'Corruption Perceptions Index', which scores and ranks countries on how the country's public sector is perceived by experts and business executives, Bulgaria has the lowest score in the EU, below Romania and Hungary. 

Transparency International 'Corruption Perceptions Index'

When I asked Yoncheva if the protests had received broad support among Bulgarians she said that those demonstrating had come from all sides: left, right and center. She said that according to polls, more than 70% of Bulgarians support the demonstrations, but that many people were still afraid to demonstrate, or were worried that they could lose their job. She said that she was confident that the government would have to resign; even if it doesn’t happen immediately, she forecasts that it will happen in September or October. 

Yoncheva does not underestimate the challenges that lie ahead, while she says that the government must resign, the process of reform will be difficult. She says that Bulgaria will have to start rebuilding its democracy. Borissov has been in power since 2009 and the previous socialist-led government also had corruption problems. Yoncheva says the support of the European Parliament and the European Commission will be important in this process. At this moment, there is no sign that  Boyko Borissov and his Chief Prosecutor are willing to give up power.

Borissov’s party GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria) is part of the European People’s Party (EPP), the group appear unwilling to question the probity of the current administration. In 2006, a US diplomatic telegram revealed by Wikileaks claimed that Borissov "is involved in serious criminal activities and maintains close ties with Lukoil and the Russian embassy". His close links to Lukoil have raised concerns about possible links to properties in Barcelona. Spanish authorities are thought to be investigating these accusations. 

Yoncheva points out that the leader of the European People’s Party group in the European Parliament, Manfred Weber MEP went as far as to congratulated Borissov on this fight against corruption, she said that this was considered a cynical joke in Bulgaria. Weber’s statement, issued on 10 July, reads:

"The EPP Group fully supports the Bulgarian government of Boyko Borrisov and its [...] fight against corruption and the progress that is being made to join the Eurozone.

[...]

"Any political actions that would undermine the independence of the judiciary and obstruct the fight against corruption, would endanger the success of Bulgaria in Europe and undo the concrete progress and support for Bulgaria we have seen in recent years," said Manfred Weber, chairman of the EPP Group. 

The fact that European Funds are further entrenching the government's powers of patronage mean that Bulgarians have become skeptical about the European Union, once seen as a bridge to a better and brighter future.  Yoncheva says that the European Union and the European Commission should do much more.

She has also been the target of Borissov. In April 2019, before European Parliamentary elections, Borissov appeared to be taking action on the misuse of European funds.  It seems that the objective of the investigation was an attempt to damage the prospects of Yoncheva. In a recording, thought by some to have been recorded and circulated by people acting on behalf of Vasil ‘The Skull’ Bozhkov (described by the US State Department as "the most infamous gangster in Bulgaria" in a leaked cable published by Wikileaks) a voice that sounds like Borissov says that even though it may damage some of his allies he “will burn everything to burn Elena Yoncheva from here”. There appears to be some interest in investigating the recording, by Bulgarian authorities, but only as an illegal wiretap - rather than for the contents of the recording.

We asked the European Commission spokesperson service about the latest developments and if they were still satisfied that Bulgaria was respecting the commitments to put in place procedures concerning the accountability of the Chief Prosecutor, given recent events. The Commission replied that their stance remained that progress had been made by Bulgaria and that this would be sufficient to meet the commitments made at the time of Bulgaria's accession to the European Union. They added that the new rule of law mechanism will give the commission the means to pursue work with Bulgaria on any further necessary reforms.

 

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EU criticizes UK's unilateral breach of Northern Ireland Protocol

EU Reporter Correspondent

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Following the UK government's statement today (3 March), that they intend to unilaterally extend the grace period for certain provisions agreed in December with the UK, European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič (pictured) has expressed the EU's strong concerns over the UK's action, as this amounts to a violation of the relevant substantive provisions of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland and the good faith obligation under the Withdrawal Agreement.

This is the second time that the UK government is set to breach international law.In its statement the Commission states that the UK's action constitutes a clear departure from the constructive approach that has prevailed up until now, thereby undermining both the work of the Joint Committee and the mutual trust necessary for solution-oriented co-operation.

The UK did not inform the EU co-chair of the Joint Committee. The statement says that the matter was one that should have been addressed under the structures provided by the Withdrawal Agreement. Vice President Šefčovič has reiterated that the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland is the only way to protect the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement in all its dimensions and to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

The EU has been flexible in trying to find practical workable solutions, based on the Protocol, to minimize disruption caused by Brexit and to help facilitate the everyday life of communities in Northern Ireland. The Joint Committee formally endorsed these solutions on 17 December 2020 in order to help businesses adapt to the new reality.

The vice president has also recalled that at the last EU-UK Joint Committee on 24 February, the UK reiterated its commitment to the proper implementation of the Protocol, as well as the implementation without delay of all decisions taken in the Joint Committee in December 2020.

He also recalled that the mutually agreed joint engagement with Northern Irish business groups and other stakeholders was meant to jointly look into solutions. In a phone call, Šefčovič informed David Frost that the European Commission will respond to these developments in accordance with the legal means established by the Withdrawal Agreement and the Trade and Co-operation Agreement.

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Hungary's Fidesz party leaves largest EU parliamentary group

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Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party said today (3 March) it was leaving the largest centre-right political group in the European Parliament after the faction moved towards suspending it in a tug-of-war over Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s democratic record, write Marton Dunai and Gabriela Baczynska.

Fidesz’s departure from the European People’s Party (EPP) group is likely to reduce Orban’s influence in Brussels following a long conflict over his perceived backsliding on the rule of law and human rights.

“I hereby inform you that Fidesz MEPs resign their membership in the EPP Group,” Orban wrote in a letter to the faction’s head, Manfred Weber, which was published on Twitter by Katalin Novak, a Fidesz deputy chairwoman.

The EU has lambasted Orban for putting courts, media, academics and non-governmental organisations under tighter government control. Orban, who faces a national election next year, denies the criticism and has refused to change tack.

“I welcome the long overdue departure of Fidesz and Viktor Orban from mainstream European politics,” said Dacian Ciolos, head of a liberal group in the European Parliament. “There is no space for the toxic populism of Fidesz in mainstream European politics.”

Earlier on Wednesday, the EPP group voted overwhelmingly to allow for suspension and to make ejection of member parties easier. A separate motion to freeze out Fidesz was expected soon.

Calling the changes “a hostile move against Fidesz”, Orban reacted before the EPP faction denied its 12 Fidesz members the right to speak on behalf of the group or represent it in other work of the chamber.

In his letter, Orban wrote that limiting the ability of Fidesz members of the European Parliament to carry out their duties “deprives Hungarian voters of their democratic rights”.

The conservative EPP faction includes German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU, Poland’s opposition Civic Platform, Belgian Christian democrats, France’s Les Republicains and others.

Without the 12 Fidesz members, it will have 175 EU lawmakers and remain the largest in the 705-strong chamber.

Fidesz has been suspended from the EPP pan-European party since 2019, though its EU lawmakers have so far remained in the conservative faction in the European Parliament.

Forcing a university founded by liberal billionaire George Soros to leave Hungary and Budapest’s opposition to strict conditions on receiving EU funds were “fundamental” problems, Weber said.

Mujtaba Rahman of the Eurasia Group think tank said the development was “a big strategic loss for Orban in Europe, who will now lose both the influence and protection that the EPP afforded him”.

“His departure from the EPP will lead to him adopting more extreme positions towards Brussels and escalating tensions between the two,” he said.

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EU auditors probe the protection of air passenger rights during COVID-19 crisis

EU Reporter Correspondent

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The European Court of Auditors (ECA) has launched an audit to assess whether the European Commission has been safeguarding effectively the rights of citizens who travelled by plane or booked flights during the coronavirus crisis. The auditors will examine whether the current rules on air passenger rights are fit for purpose and resilient enough to deal with such a crisis. They will check whether the Commission monitored that air passengers’ rights were respected during the pandemic and took action accordingly. In addition, they will assess whether member states took passenger rights into account when granting emergency state aid to the travel and transport industry.

“In times of COVID-19, the EU and member states have had to strike a balance between preserving air passenger rights and supporting the ailing airlines,” said Annemie Turtelboom, the ECA member leading the audit. “Our audit will check that the rights of millions of air travellers in the EU were not collateral damage in the fight to save struggling airlines.”

The COVID-19 outbreak and health measures taken in response have brought about major travel disruption: airlines cancelled around 70 % of all flights and new bookings plummeted. People no longer could or wished to travel, also because of the frequently uncoordinated emergency measures by different countries, such as flight bans, last-minute border closures or quarantine requirements.

EU Member States introduced further emergency measures to keep their struggling transport industry afloat, including airlines, for example by granting them unprecedented amounts of state aid. Some estimates show that throughout the crisis, until December 2020, airlines – including non-EU ones – had obtained or were obtaining up to €37.5 billion in state aid. In addition, twelve member states notified the Commission of state aid measures to prop up their tour operators and travel agencies to the tune of some €2.6bn.

Member states also allowed airlines more flexibility in refunding passengers whose flights were cancelled. The Commission issued guidelines and recommendations, including the fact that offering vouchers does not affect the passengers’ entitlement to a cash refund. However, the passengers whose flights had been cancelled were often pressured by airlines to accept vouchers instead of receiving a cash refund. In other cases, airlines did not refund passengers on time or not at all.

The EU auditors’ report is expected before the summer holiday with the aim of supporting air passengers in times of crisis and launching a general attempt to restore trust in aviation. In the context of this audit, the auditors are also checking whether the recommendations they made in their 2018 report on passenger rights have been put into practice.

Background information

Protecting passenger rights is an EU policy with direct impact on citizens and thus highly visible across member states. It is also a policy which the Commission considers to be one of its great successes in empowering consumers, as their rights are guaranteed. The EU aims to provide all air transport users with the same level of protection. The Air Passenger Rights regulation gives air travellers the right to cash refunds, to re-routing and on-the-ground support such as free meals and accommodation if their flights are cancelled or significantly delayed, or if they are denied boarding. Similar protection exists via a European Directive for people who book package deals (e.g. a flight plus hotel).

For more detail, see the audit preview 'Air passenger rights during the COVID-19 crisis', available in English here. Audit previews are based on preparatory work before the start of an audit, and should not be regarded as audit observations, conclusions or recommendations. The ECA recently published two reviews of the EU’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, one on health and the other on economic aspects. Its work programme for 2021 announced that one in four of its new audits this year will be related to COVID-19 and the recovery package.

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