Yesterday, we liveblogged the European Commission’s “Debate on the Future of Europe” event in Sofia, Bulgaria. It was a townhall-style debate with EU Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding, and it was originally supposed to focus on issues such as the economic crisis and, more generally, the future of Europe. However, Bulgaria has seen weeks of anti-graft street protests, and every second question from the audience was about corruption.
Angry citizens lined up to ask what Reding, the EU Commissioner for Justice, was doing to hold the Bulgarian authorities to account. One woman complained that:
The Bulgarian judiciary is strongly corrupt and dependent on the oligarchs, working only in the interests of the big fish… The media is owned by the richest people in Bulgaria, who manipulate the government. Never will the Bulgarian people hear the truth from the media.
This sense of frustration is shared by many in Bulgaria. Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer 2013, publish earlier this month, found that fully 87% of Bulgarians believe their judiciary is corrupt or extremely corrupt.
Whilst Vice-President Reding admitted that her sympathy lies “with the Bulgarian citizens who are protesting on the streets against corruption”, she also made it clear that the Commission’s powers are strictly limited when it comes to allegations of corruption in member states:
I’ll tell you something straight from the beginning: the European Commission… does not have the power to ask a national minister to give his resignation. That is up to you [and] I wish you well in building up a government which you can trust.
But should the EU have more powers in this area? Earlier this year, we interviewed Manfred Weber, a German MEP with the centre-right Centre-Right in the European Parliament. Responding to a question from one of our readers, he told us he was in favour of giving the European Commission more powers to tackle corruption in member states.
Last week, Reding presented draft proposals for a European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO). This would (if approved by both the European Parliament and EU governments) have the power to investigate and prosecute cases of fraud involving the EU budget. For example, if corruption was involved in projects relying on EU structural funds within a member state, then the EPPO would have a mandate to bring about a prosecution. However, not all member states will take part (the UK, for example, has already opted-out) and cases of fraud or corruption that don’t involve EU money will remain a national competence.
Bulgaria, along with Romania, has the lowest distribution of GDP per head in the European Union, along with the highest percentage of its population considered at risk of poverty or social exclusion. In an earlier debate, we looked at temporary restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian workers in some EU member states, which are due to expire in 2014 and have proved to be a deeply controversial issue.
The infographic below sets out some facts and figures for the debate: