Corruption, unreformed judiciary and shoddy police performance thwart Bulgaria's entry into Schengen
There is a map of Europe on the Wikipedia page of the Schengen Agreement. On this map, some of the countries are highlighted in blue, others are in green. When you look at the legend, you see that the blue marks the current Schengen Area and the green its future members, Bulgaria and Romania.
The two countries' Schengen future seems certain, but what remains unclear is when it will become reality.
Until recently the Bulgarian government was convinced that the country's accession to the Schengen Agreement was just a matter of months. In June 2011, at a conference about Bulgaria's and Romania's Schengen future organised by the Open Society Institute, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, the interior minister, was confident that in September the country would receive an invitation to join Schengen.
But his hopes did not materialise, and he is himself to blame. Over the last two years Bulgaria is reported to be meeting the "technical requirements" for its borders. Those included sweeping reforms that ranged from synchronising legislation to guaranteeing the collection of biometric data at border crossings to refitting the border crossings on the future external border of the Schengen Area.
In early July that optimism was backed by a Deutsche Welle report. The radio station reported that Gunter Kirchbaum, chairman of the European Affairs Committee at the German Bundestag, did not rule out the possibility of Bulgaria becoming a Schengen member in two phases, the first of which provides for the lifting of border control at airports.
But a month later everything looks very different. The illusion that Bulgaria would receive its invitation in September – just in time to bolster the government's shaky public image ahead of the local and presidential elections – is now dead.
Why haven't desire and reality met? It has become clear that fulfilling the technical parameters alone can't sway the balance when the decision to be taken becomes increasingly political.
On the one hand, there are objective factors that can most generally be described as "bad luck." The wave of refugees that have overwhelmed the southern borders of the EU since the Arab Spring have resurrected and heightened the fear of illegal immigrants flooding "Fortress Europe." Denmark, which is far removed from the Schengen Area's problematic southern border, has reintroduced partial border controls. The dual attacks in Norway – or at least the official explanation of the reasons behind them – have made ever more pressing the fear of "incomers" who would overrun Europe, changing it forever.
In this situation, the expansion of the Schengen Agreement to Bulgaria and Romania, countries that have sometimes been referred to as the EU's enfants terribles has become increasingly hypothetical.
Bulgaria's Schengen future, however, is not solely a victim of circumstances. At least half of the responsibility for this state of affairs lies with the government.
The ebullience of optimism expressed by Tsvetanov in June was a textbook example of wishful thinking. The decision of the EU's Council of Interior Ministers that the EU was not committed to a firm date for the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to Schengen was already known by then.
The government also underestimated the fact, evident in Gunter Kirchbaum's statement, that whether Bulgaria would accede to the Schengen Agreement depended chiefly on the results of the EC monitoring report.
That report came out in late July, and was most definitely not a positive one. The EC recognised that Bulgaria was seriously behind in the reform of its judicial system. There is a distinct lack of transparency in the work of magistrates, and in a number of key cases – especially those relating to corruption and organised crime – no sentences have been passed or there have been only acquittals. The judiciary is not initiating proceedings of its own accord for this type of crime, and the prosecutor general is seen as taking no active role.
Also, the Interior Ministry was criticised for mistakes made in the collection of valid evidence that would allow for the conviction of offenders.
Without changes in these areas, Bulgaria's Schengen future is bound to remain uncertain. For how would things central to Schengen – as the pan-European arrest warrant, extradition and collection of evidence – work in a country whose police habitually botch even the most obvious cases?
The only relief that Bulgarian politicians have is that their unhappiness is shared: the EC directed similar criticism at Romania.
ROADBLOCKS TO SCHENGEN
The EC annual monitoring report is full of conclusions about the overall failure of reforms to the judicial system and shortcomings in the work of the Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor's Office. Here is a partial list of these findings, complemented by recent examples that corroborate them.
- FACT: The Supreme Judicial Council elected Vladimira Yaneva, a personal friend of Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov, as chairwoman of the Sofia City Court. The appointment took place despite the fact that her experience as a judge was much less than that of the other applicant. Additionally, it was established that Yaneva was involved in a conflict of interest.
CONCLUSION: Judiciary appointments lack transparency
- FACT: The Supreme Judicial Council appointed former Plovdiv Appellate Prosecutor Andreya Andreev to a commission that will evaluate the judges applying for posts in the projected special court for serious crimes. A disciplinary measure is currently in force against Andreev because of his contacts with Krasimir "Krasyo Cherniya" Georgiev, a businessman accused of arranging to influence appointments to the judiciary.
CONCLUSION: Dubious accountability in the work of the judiciary
- FACT: A journalistic investigation has established that in the first half of 2011 the Interior Ministry received more than 15.5 million leva worth of donations from private companies and individuals. Among the most eager donors were companies owned by Hristo Kovachki. Kovachki was charged with tax fraud and was given a suspended sentence in April 2011. Sizeable donations also came from Yulen AD, the company that holds the concession rights to the ski slope at Bansko resort. The government later admitted that Yulen had been unlawfully using a significant amount of land outside the area it was allowed under the concession. Instead of imposing sanctions, the government instituted a procedure to amend the concession legislation, in effect legalising Yulen's violation.
CONCLUSION (brought up during the presentation of the EC report by Mark Gray, an EC spokesman): The Bulgarian Interior Ministry has been receiving unlawful donations from individuals
- FACT: Lyubomir Stoykov, one of the people accused of misappropriation of funds under the EU SAPARD programme, was acquitted in 2010. A co-defendant, Mario Nikolov, was given a 12-year prison sentence. However, this sentence hasn't been carried out because of appeals that have been dragged out by spurious arguments and procedural failures. Some witnesses, for example, did not show up in court because their subpoenas arrived too late.
CONCLUSION: Poor results in the fight against corruption
This periodical has been selected to be supported in a media pluralism promotion contest, funded by the Open Society Institute – Sofia. The content of publications in it is responsibility of the authors and in no circumstances should be regarded as an official position of the Open Society Institute – Sofia.