The European Commission has published its third annual Rule of Law Report. The document covers all EU member states, including Bulgaria. The report covers four main pillars - national justice systems, the anti-corruption framework, pluralism and media freedom, and other institutional issues related to the principle of interdependence and checks and balances.
Regarding the conclusions in the section on Bulgaria:
The Commission appreciates the political will of the government to address the key issues identified in the first two Rule of Law reports and to implement the country's international commitments. The report explicitly underlines that the reforms in the Bulgarian Recovery and resilience plan – including the strengthening of the accountability and responsibility of the Prosecutor General and the introduction of a judicial review of the Prosecutor's refusal to initiate criminal proceedings – are aimed at addressing long-standing concerns identified in previous editions of the Rule of Law Report and under the Cooperation and Evaluation Mechanism.
The European Commission tells us that the unaccountability of the Prosecutor General is a cause for concern. The report states that the lack of ability to effectively investigate the chief prosecutor is a long-term problem. This is a problem that has been identified not only by the European Commission, but also by the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe. The powers of the Prosecutor General and his position in the Supreme Judicial Council strengthen his influence in both institutions.
The structure and work of the Supreme Judicial Council are also a cause for concern. The report highlights the continuing harmful practice of seconding prosecutors and judges for long periods of time rather than organising competitions for regular appointments.
The European Commission continues to expect results from the fight against high-level corruption and efforts to overcome political influence over the media. The Commission underlines that there are still not enough final convictions for high-level corruption.
At the same time, the Commission acknowledges the government's willingness to put in place an effective accountability mechanism for the Prosecutor General and his deputies. The Government's commitment to cooperate with the Council of Europe and the Venice Commission before submitting the relevant legislative amendments to the National Assembly is also welcomed. In addition, the report notes the Government's commitment to introduce a review of all refusals by prosecutors to initiate pre-trial proceedings.
The decision of the National Assembly to abolish the specialised courts and prosecution offices is also noted. According to the Commission, the envisaged reappointment procedure provides sufficient guarantees to protect the independence of the judiciary.
On the subject of anti-corruption, the report takes into account the planned reform of Bulgaria’s anti-corruption agency, KPKONPI, including its division into two commissions, as well as the measures proposed by the government to fight corruption at all levels in the public administration and the judiciary. It is reported that in March 2022, the EU will adopt a new anti-corruption strategy. Bulgaria has ended the regime of granting Bulgarian citizenship in return for investment, for which it has been repeatedly criticised in the past.
Regarding media freedom, the EC finds that the professional environment for journalists has slightly improved over the past year, with media representatives able to express themselves more freely than before. However, the issue of transparency of media ownership remains a serious concern.
On a positive note, the legislative process has improved with the adoption of the requirement that all bills be submitted to the National Assembly with arguments and a preliminary impact assessment.
According to the Bulgarian prime minister, the Report shows the European Commission's positive assessment of the work done by the Cabinet the last seven months, but also the fact that there is still a lot of work to be done and strong will and efforts are needed to continue the fight against corruption.
"For too many years the people of Bulgaria have had to watch corruption stifle the country's economic development. Every day we experience first-hand how corruption threatens lives with poorly built infrastructure and neglected safety checks; when corruption takes over state institutions, they serve individuals, not society; corruption undermines democracy and the right of people to determine their own destiny," the Prime Minister said.