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Bulgaria is trying to impress the Juncker Commission with a fake justice reform

Juncker and Borissov [Council newsroom]

By Krassen Nikolov

Bulgarian Justice Minister Danail Kirilov announced that he would resign if the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) was not lifted by the end of Juncker Commission’s mandate. The bet is risky, given the minister’s modest proposals for the much-needed judicial reform. The European Commission and the Council of Europe have insisted for years on structural reform in the Bulgarian Prosecution.

International partners insist that there should be a special mechanism for investigating the Chief Prosecutor in case he or she is suspected of a crime. Currently the Chief Prosecutor is the only untouchable figure in the Bulgarian state apparatus. The European Commission for Democracy through Law (the Venice Commission) calls the unlimited power of the Chief Prosecutor a reminiscence of the Soviet totalitarianism times.

Instead of reform, Bulgaria offers to the Commission a new procedure – the Chief Prosecutor to be investigated by his/her subordinate prosecutors from the Specialised Prosecution for Organised Crime and High-level Corruption. But the Chief Prosecutor’s power remains unaffected. He/she will be able at any time to get information about the investigation against him/her. And if such investigation is started the Prosecutor General would be able to close it. The Chief Prosecutor also has enormous influence in the Supreme Judicial Council, which is has the power to initiate disciplinary proceeding against magistrates and punish them. The career development of magistrates is also controlled by the Supreme Judicial Council.

The same investigative procedure is proposed for the presidents of the two Supreme Courts too. But that is not a game changer at all. And now the two supreme judges can be freely investigated by the prosecution, over which they have no power.

The only innovation in Kirilov’s proposals is his idea the minister should be able to start a procedure of impeachment of the Chief Prosecutor and the presidents of the two supreme courts. But that was not what the European Commission wanted.

On Tuesday, ten influential Bulgarian non-governmental organizations, including the Bulgarian Judges Association, criticized the minister’s proposals. In their view, the ideas are aiming entirely at the presidents of the two supreme courts, but not at the Chief Prosecutor.

“This exposes the Presidents of the Supreme Courts to external influence and pressure from the Minister of Justice. There is a risk of intimidating the court,” the non-governmental organizations declaration says.

When imitating judicial reform the Bulgarian authorities have only foreign policy aims. Sofia hopes to impress the Commission. But that seems unlikely. Fake judicial reform does not change anything in the judiciary and does not fulfill the recommendations of the European Commission. However, the minister’s proposals are a chance for the Commission to come out of an awkward political situation.

Still, Bulgaria continues to make changes, even though they are fake. This is a demonstration that the Juncker Commission reports are not completely ignored.

With such tricks, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov shows that he has learned a lot from his colleagues in Hungary, Poland and Romania. Borissov hopes that the CVM will be lifted, but as a result of political steer and a determination to conduct real judicial reforms, but with behind-the-scenes arrangements in the negotiations for the next European Commission formation. If the tricks turn to be effective, Borissov will win. If they do not, he does not lose anything.

In the last two years, Borissov’s political focus has begun to move towards the accession of Bulgaria into the Schengen Area and in ERM II, the Eurozone waiting room. He is aware that the CVM is worn-up, and its influence on society is more and more limited. Bulgaria works mainly against the imposition of a new, stricter monitoring and sanctions such as cancelling the EU funds if the rule of law is not respected.

Vĕra Jourová, the EU Commissioner for justice, has twice stated that the Juncker Commission would not lift the monitoring under the CVM. The Bulgarian authorities say that Jourová’s statement is her personal opinion and does not matter much. Borissov’s attacked Jourová back. He said that her conclusions were a part of the pre-election campaign, as the EU Commissioner was part of the ALDE group and he was from the EPP. Jourová rejects the accusations.

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