bne IntelliNews – European Commission denounces Bulgaria on rule of law, Slovenia on media freedom
The European Commission criticized Bulgaria for the lack of progress in judicial reform and expressed concern about the considerable influence and lack of accountability of the chief prosecutor in its rule of law report published on July 20 .
Other EU members from South Eastern Europe have also come under fire over various issues, including media freedom in Slovenia, judicial independence in Croatia and delays in overturning controversial changes to the justice system. In Romania.
Reports on the 27 EU member states came out as the Bulgarian interim government tried to impeach Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev, a highly controversial figure whose controversial appointment and subsequent actions sparked months of mass protests .
Geshev was the only candidate for the post of chief prosecutor in a much criticized process carried out under the former government led by Boyko Borisov’s Gerb party. He was appointed despite high-profile scandals such as the failure to achieve meaningful results in an embezzlement lawsuit at one of Bulgaria’s largest banks, Corpbank, starring an arrest like a action film of a mayor of the district of Sofia raiding the offices of an independent publisher. .
Since his appointment, Geshev’s actions have led to further criticism, most recently that the prosecution has thwarted the interim government’s efforts to investigate numerous cases of alleged corruption under the former Gerb government. This led to an open conflict between state institutions, pitting Geshev against President Roumen Radev and the interim government.
The European Commission report was released days after Acting Justice Minister Yanaki Stoilov said he would propose to the Supreme Judicial Council (CJS) to dismiss Geshev after Interior Minister Boyko Rashkov said that the chief prosecutor had broken the law.
Stoilov said he summarized the violations committed by Geshev. “They relate to the disclosure of pre-trial proceedings using special intelligence tools, the lack of unified criteria for investigating people in high positions in the state and others,” Stoilov said.
This move is unlikely to lead to Geshev’s sacking, as he is said to have a majority of supporters in SJC, who is expected to vote on Stoilov’s request in the coming days.
Bulgaria has been criticized for years for failing to comply with the obligation to amend its legislation to ensure the accountability of the chief prosecutor and allow independent investigations into the chief prosecutor, as well as for the lack of a conviction history for high profile corruption. Borisov’s government tried to solve the problem by introducing an âindependentâ prosecutor to investigate the chief prosecutor and his deputies, but this was declared unconstitutional.
âThe combination of the powers of the Attorney General and his position within the Supreme Judicial Council results in considerable influence within the prosecution, potentially within the Superior Judicial Council (both within the Council of prosecutors and in plenary) and within the judiciary, âthe EC noted in the report.
The report notes that the law had other problems, identified by the Council of Europe, which concern the considerable influence of the Attorney General, which can lead to the control of applications for the special prosecutor and his appointment.
In March 2021, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe urged Bulgaria to reduce the influence of the Prosecutor General within the prosecution, any potential influence within the CSM and within the judiciary, in order to allow the in place of an effective investigative mechanism, including by extending judicial review to any refusal by the prosecution to initiate investigations.
“The lack of judicial review against a prosecutor’s decision not to open an investigation raises concerns,” the report notes.
The EC report criticized the composition of the SJC, which is responsible for appointing the chief prosecutor. âThe practice of voting demonstrates the limited influence in decision-making of peer-elected judges within the SJC and the potential influence of the Attorney General on the SJC. Despite the progress made thanks to previous reforms, the situation of the CJS continues to be a source of concern for the Council of Europe and various stakeholders â, notes the report.
He also criticized Bulgaria for the low number of final convictions for high-level corruption despite the intensification of investigations.
The report also notes that the level of perceived judicial independence in Bulgaria remains low among the general public and average among businesses. Only 31% of the population consider it “fairly or very good”. The perceived level of independence of companies remains average, with 43% judging it to be âfairly or very goodâ.
âThe level of perceived judicial independence has remained consistently low among the general public over the past five years. Among companies, the level of perceived judicial independence was very low until 2019 and since then it has remained average despite slight fluctuations, âthe report said.
Optimism in Romania
There was a more positive report on Romania, of which the European Commission report was largely in favor of the current government led by the National Liberal Party (PNL).
However, he noted that Romania did not reverse the controversial amendments to justice laws passed by the Social Democratic Party (PSD) in 2017-2019 and further highlighted more recent concerns about stability and predictability. of legislation.
In the absence of solid legislative and policy solutions to the decisions of the Constitutional Court, there are increased obstacles and legal insecurity for the fight against corruption in Romania, according to the European Commission rule of law 2021 report on Romania.
The Commission remains convinced that the new ruling coalition will remove obstacles, but noted that âthe amendments to the laws on justice, still in force, have had a serious impact on the independence, quality and efficiency of the justice system. “.
Increased institutional cooperation in the framework of the 2020 elections could mark a change in approach to the integrity of elected officials, the report notes on a positive note.
The Commission report also raised concerns about the stability and predictability of the legislation. Among the main concerns is a decision of the Constitutional Court which apparently calls into question the principle of the rule of law of the EU.
âFollowing the judgment of the Court of Justice of the EU of May 18, 2021 on several aspects of the laws on justice, the Constitutional Court rendered a judgment on June 8, 2021, which raises serious concerns, because it calls into question the principle of the primacy of EU law. “, says the report.
Disappointing for Bucharest, the report did not provide a timeline for the lifting of the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) – a step the Bucharest government is waiting for this year before full membership in Schengen.
Regarding CVM, the EC concluded that “there is progress in all remaining CVM recommendations and many of them are on track to be implemented if progress remains steady”, but avoided mentioning a time horizon for the expected lifting of the mechanism.
The November 2018 EC report concluded that developments had reversed or called into question the irreversibility of progress and added eight recommendations to the 12 drafted in 2017. The Commission’s latest MCV report, adopted in June 2021, assessed progress on the 12 recommendations of January 2017 and the eight additional recommendations of November 2018.
Media freedom deteriorates in Slovenia
In the report on Slovenia, the current holder of the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, the European Commission said the situation of media freedom and pluralism in Slovenia has deteriorated.
âThe independence of the media regulator is guaranteed by law, but challenges remain with regard to resources for its wide range of tasks and its commitment to further strengthen its independence. A review of the laws on media and audiovisual services is still pending, âthe Commission said in the report.
Slovenia has also been criticized for online harassment and threats against journalists. “Concerns have been expressed by national and international actors over the authorities’ refusal to fund the Slovenian News Agency (STA) for 2021,” he said.
The European Commission has also raised concerns over the inability of the Slovenian authorities to timely appoint the European Delegated Prosecutors (EDP), adding that the appointments of prosecutors are unduly delayed.
Presenting the 2021 rule of law report, European Commission Vice-President Vera Jourova and Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders called on the Slovenian authorities to ensure stable funding for the STA, the agency reported.
Reynders also spoke of potential measures following Slovenia’s failure to appoint delegated European prosecutors in the autumn.
The report noted positive developments in the Slovenian justice system, including on issues raised in the 2020 rule of law report. It also assessed that the legal and institutional framework for preventing and combating corruption in the country continues to improve.
Croatia’s judicial independence in decline
Croatia’s perceived level of independence has declined and remains the lowest in the EU, according to the European Commission’s rule of law report released on July 20.
âThe EU Justice Scoreboard 2021 shows a continuing downward trend since 2016. The main reason perceived by the general public for the perceived lack of independence of courts and judges is the perception of interference or pressure from government and politicians, âthe report notes. .
He also expressed concern over the ongoing process of appointing the new Supreme Court president, urging the authorities to cooperate.
“The process of appointing the new president led to an intense exchange between the highest representatives of the state authorities, which included repeated negative statements about the Supreme Court and other judges,” the report said.
Meanwhile, perceptions among experts and business leaders about the level of corruption in the public sector have remained high.
Croatia has also made only limited progress in strengthening the legal framework for the prevention of conflicts of interest since the 2020 rule of law report.