A conference in Sofia debated the European Commission’s proposal for an EU-wide rule of law mechanism on Friday (6 March) and one European lawmaker said there is already a clear majority in the European Parliament to set up a new control mechanism for the rule of law.
The conference in the Bulgarian capital was attended by MEPs, lawyers, NGOs and diplomats but ignored by the country’s authorities.
The conference titled “The EC’s intentions for a common judicial mechanism and the crisis of rule of law in Eastern Europe” was organised by MEP Radan Kanev (EPP). Kanev comes from a small centre-right force, Democratic Bulgaria, critical of the GERB party of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, also EPP-affiliated.
Bulgarian Justice Minister Daniel Kirilov and Attorney General Ivan Geshev were invited but did not attend. The minister justified his absence with parliamentary scrutiny, while the prosecutor general did not give any explanation.
The idea of an annual rule of law peer review in all EU member states is making its way and the Commission is expected to table a proposal in autumn.
In his welcoming speech, Kanev stressed that increased political interference in the judicial system, restriction of freedom of expression and an institutional umbrella on corruption are ubiquitous and have no political colour. Kanev, who is in self-isolation after a visit to northern Italy, addressed the conference via a video link.
The problems range from institutional irresponsibility of the prosecutor’s office, such as the Bulgarian case, to the absolute subordination of state prosecution by the executive in Poland, explained Kanev.
In Bulgaria, one of the main issues of the judiciary system is the lack of democratic oversight on the chief prosecutor.
EPP MEP Roberta Metsola (Malta), member of LIBE committee, who also spoke remotely, stressed that a clear majority in the European Parliament to set up a new control mechanism for the rule of law already exists.
“We’re not going to pursue a particular country, but we want to change the whole system,” she said. “That is why we need an independent judiciary, free media and free speech.”
Piotr Kaczynski, Senior Fellow, Centre for International Affairs (CSM), Warsaw, stressed that if Poland applied to enter the EU now, it would not be accepted because of the government’s actions against the independence of the judiciary.
“In Poland, you will be told that the EU is an economic union, a cash cow. This perspective is very wrong. It is clear that in such a situation it is a matter of time for politicians to misuse these views of citizens. This already happens in Poland”, he said.
A race to the bottom?
Kaczynski also warned that a common mechanism on the rule of law could be misused by the Polish government to justify its actions on the basis of the bad record in some Western EU members, leading to a race to the bottom. He argued that of all existing forms of EU pressure, the PiS government only respected the European Court of Justice decisions.
Romania MEP Ramona Strugariu (RE), also on the LIBE committee, recommended that Bulgaria’s public prosecutor Ivan Geshev should focus on corruption affairs such as the so-called “Apartmentgate” affair to show that he intends to fight against corruption in the circles of those in power.
The “Apartmentgate scandal rocked Borissov’s GERB party in early 2019, but he still won the European elections despite the scandals.
Professor of Public Law Atanas Slavov analysed the role of the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), introduced only for Bulgaria and Romania, to possibly learn some lessons for the future EU-wide mechanism.
Slavov was very critical of the way CVM has worked in recent years, saying the Commission had become “partner in crime” with the Bulgarian government in covering up corruption.
According to Eric Maurice, head of the Brussels office of the Robert Schuman Foundation, in the future rule of law mechanism, there should be uniform criteria, common goals and standard reporting for all member states.
The strategy foresees the publication of an annual report on the rule of law, prepared by the Commission, integrating experience and information from different institutions.
Maurice recalled that the proposal for the EU’s 2021-2027 budget includes respect for the rule of law as a new conditionality to access the funds. In case of violations, there would be a possibility for investigation, he stressed.