EU Commissioner for Justice: Bulgaria Should Step up Reforms, Media Freedom Is Essential for DemocracyBulgaria in EU | May 4, 2021, Tuesday // 16:10| views
Surely the pace of reforms in Bulgaria is not as fast as we would like. This is what the Vice-President of the European Commission and Commissioner for Justice Věra Jourová said in an interview with Mediapool. She stresses that Bulgaria has built all the necessary institutions to fight corruption, but the Bulgarian citizens and the EC are still waiting to see the results.
Ms. Jourová, Bulgaria continues to be the country with the least freedom of the media in the EU and ranks 112th in the ranking of Reporters Without Borders. Does this have anything to do with poverty and corruption?
I saw the Press Freedom Index and took into account its findings on the situation of media freedom in Europe as a whole. We also see in the media pluralism monitoring report that the media across Europe are facing problems. I have said before and will continue to repeat – the media must be able to work freely and independently anywhere in the European Union. This is the core of what we call media freedom. We want to work on this with all EU Member States, including Bulgaria. This is the first time we have done so in the context of the new regular Rule of Law Report. Last year's report already identified some of the problems such as violence against journalists, lack of transparency of ownership or excessive concentration of media ownership. The source of the problems is complex. This is not just about poverty and corruption, but also the deteriorating economic situation of the media, among many other factors. That is why we want to support improving the situation.
What can the Commission do about this?
Let me be clear: democracy cannot function without free and independent media. We will always protect them and step up our actions where we can. In December, for the first time, we presented a comprehensive European approach to the media, recognising their essential role for democracy and the need to make the most of digital transformation in order to prosper in the long term. This approach is based on two pillars– two plans that go hand in hand: the Action Plan for European Democracy and the Media and Audiovisual Action Plan. The latter outlines important actions to increase media freedom, including on the safety of journalists and protection from unlawful pressure on them.
Later this year, the European Commission will present recommendations on the safety of journalists and is working on an initiative to combat the abuse of legal claims against journalists and human rights defenders. This is our roadmap for the recovery and digital transformation of the media sector. It includes financing and investment. We are currently working on our next steps. We are exploring the possibility of a new "Media Freedom Act" to help protect the role of the media as key actors in democratic societies.
Does the European Commission plan to resume its actions under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, which has not yet been terminated?
The Cooperation and Verification Mechanism has played an essential role in helping Bulgaria carry out reforms since its accession to the European Union. Since 2007, Bulgaria has changed, but the EU has also changed. We see that rule of law issues in one Member State are also a problem for the EU as a whole. That is why the Commission has developed a new Rule of Law Mechanism, which is also able to monitor judicial reform and the fight against corruption in all Member States. In 2019, the Commission decided that it was time for Bulgaria to start a transition from the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism to the Common Rule of Law Mechanism applicable to all Member States. This year's report on this new mechanism will again include a special chapter for Bulgaria.
Does anti-corruption reform in the country achieve its goals? In 2017, Bulgaria established its anti-corruption agency with the support of the Commission. But there are no convictions for corruption of high-ranking officials.
In this regard, progress still needs to be made, and we will continue to support Bulgaria on this issue. There are legislative and institutional structures in place, but they need to deliver. This is something that we have clearly paid attention to the Bulgarian authorities.
Has enough time passed to be able to say that Bulgarian judicial reforms are ineffective?
Surely the pace of reforms is not as fast as would be desirable. Bulgarian citizens and the EU can rightly expect more.
Has there been a political will to fight corruption in Bulgaria in the last four years?
The best measure of intent is results. I think this could be a clear message to the new authorities. In my opinion, as a former minister in the Government of the Czech Republic, the reforms should be implemented not because the European Union wants them, but because Bulgarian citizens deserve them.
Bulgaria is currently creating a post of special prosecutor with the power to investigate the Chief Prosecutor. Are you following the process?
Yes, the Commission is following it very closely. This issue is reflected in the conclusions of the 2019 CVM Report and is carried over to the 2020 Rule of Law Report.It was also part of the discussions in the preparation of the 2021 Rule of Law report.
Perhaps the Commission is aware that the Bulgarian authorities did not comply with the expert opinion of the Venice Commission in setting up this post?
Our advice to the Bulgarian authorities remains the same: consult the Venice Commission and follow its opinion. The Venice Commission is independent of the EU and consists of a group of international experts who can really provide in-depth analysis. We understand that the previous government has already requested the opinion of the Venice Commission on the new law and that it is expected in the coming months. Of course, we will monitor this process.
Is judicial reform possible in Bulgaria without reducing the political influence on the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC)?
The pursuit of reforms and ensuring the independence of the judiciary is the way Bulgaria will make progress. The Supreme Judicial Council plays an important role in this regard and should be prepared to do so.I would be cautious about the decision to put everything on hold because of the hypothetical possibility of a constitutional revision that would be necessary to change the composition of the SJC. But while good legislation is important, it is equally important to have some political consensus in order to preserve the independence of the judiciary. I think this requires a broad conversation not only between politicians, but also with civil society and people
Do you share the European Parliament's assessments of Bulgaria made with the resolution of 5 October?
I am well aware of this resolution. As you know, we also have our own assessments, whether in the CVM reports or more generally in the rule of law report. There are quite similar elements between our assessment and the Evaluation of the European Parliament.
Of course, the events and demonstrations of last summer attracted great attention, and this proves once again that the rule of law is not only a national issue, but also a European issue. Dialogue and European cooperation are therefore essential in the area of the rule of law.
Does the EPPO have the capacity to investigate corruption (EU funds abuse) at the highest levels in the Member States? The Bulgarian SJC clearly fails to nominate enough good candidates for European Delegated Prosecutors, since most of them have not been accepted.
I have full confidence in the ability of the EPPO to handle the task. I have held a number of meetings with the Chief European Prosecutor, Ms Kövesi - she is the right person in the right place. As regards the nomination of Bulgarian delegated prosecutors, I can only repeat our calls for Bulgaria to do the right thing and nominate suitable candidates.
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