Surely the Bulgarian government is pleased to see how quietly the specificity of Bulgarian membership in the European Union is beginning to blur. Attached to Bulgaria’s and Romania’s accession to the EU in 2007, the Union introduced a Cooperation and Verification Mechanism which was to remind the two countries that they had to adhere to the rule of law and fight against corruption.
Today, eleven years later, questions surrounding the rule of law in the EU now affects not only Bulgaria and Romania, but at least half a dozen other countries; and this “safety in numbers” mentality might be of some relief for those lagging behind in the rule of law.
More importantly, the rule of law is becoming one of the main problems facing the European Union today. Joerg Haider’s Austria, the conditional adoption of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, the subsequent problems in France with the influx of Roma populations from Bulgaria and Romania, the arrival of Viktor Orbán in Hungary in 2010, the victory of the Law and Justice Party in Poland in 2015 and the murders of journalists in Malta and Slovakia show that other EU members are not immune to authoritarian aspirations.
The problem is also compounded by the multi-layer structure of European integration. Haider’s democratic election in 1999 forced European politicians to take steps against Austria although European legislation did not, of course, provide for sanctions in such cases.
The decision to boycott the Austrian government while Haider was part of it was just as political as the decision to accept Bulgaria and Romania, despite the structural shortcomings in their judicial systems as well as their superficial fights against corruption and, in the Bulgarian case, organized crime. The Mechanism for Cooperation and Verification is the long shadow of what, it turns out, was a premature decision.
Unlike the Balkan mistakes regarding the rule of law, the deleterious processes affecting Hungary and Poland have radically different origins.
After recapturing power in 2010, Victor Orbán received broad public support to implement significant reforms aimed at regaining a sense of statehood and rule of law. An experienced politician, like Orbán, felt that the guarantee of political longevity was not in the search for compromise, as the liberals claimed, but in eliminating divisions of power and decentralization. With an overwhelming majority in parliament, Orbán began his crusade against the liberal elites in Europe.
In 2015, Poland joined the illiberal campaign, where after eight years of Donald Tusk’s liberal Civil Platform government, many in the Polish society were disappointed with the widespread cynicism as well as what was perceived as “blind pilgrimages” to Berlin. At the same time and similar to Orbán’s rhetoric, Jaroslav Kaczyński and his “Law and Justice” party (PiS) introduced patriotic overtones in the context of the migration crisis affecting Europe and created a sense of strong statehood which gave pride to a vocal minority in the society. Nevertheless, Hungarian analyst Edit Zgut argues that despite the many similarities in political processes between Poland and Hungary, the situation in Poland is not as bad as it is in Hungary. This is due to active civil society and the inability to subordinate all the major media outlets.
To understand how harmful and misleading superficial comparisons of the political processes in Central Europe with Bulgaria can be, we need to focus to their geneses and real motivation.
In Poland, PiS’s rise to power in 2015 was a two-step process. First in May of that year, presidential elections were held, where the then President Bronislaw Komorowski lost to PiS’s younger candidate, Andrzej Duda. The strong American-styled campaign for Duda coupled with the the suicidal absence of strategy of Komorowski’s headquarters prompted the outcome. When Duda entered the presidency, Civic Platform understood that the chances of a good result in the October parliamentary elections were minimal.
Aware of the rising opposition, the Civil Platform decided to change the Constitutional Court Act so that it could appoint more judges to the Constitutional Court, which they hoped could block the future legislative acts of PiS. Despite Duda’s call for the law not to be manipulated, the parliament still moved forward with the changes. However, Duda did not use his power to veto, which not only left Civil Platform compromised but also created a dangerous precedent that PiS would later use to dismantle most of the constitutional bodies.
After PiS came to power in October 2015, it not only continued down the road launched by the Civil Platform but expanded it to take direct control over all possible institutions. There were new laws aimed at removing people in the state administration that were confirmed by the previous government, a complete takeover of the public media, and similar other attempts against large private media; all very much in line with Orbán’s tactics in Hungary.
A reform of the judicial system has also been carried out, allowing the Minister of Justice to dismiss the heads of the courts while at the same time the same Minister was awarded the functions of Chief Prosecutor. Today dangerously, the conflict over the new Supreme Court law is being narrowed down to the introduction of a lower retirement age so that PiS can get rid of a significant number of the judges they deem as inconvenient; again, this is another method applied first by Orbán in Hungary.
The European context
These major structural changes in Poland and Hungary have to be placed in a European context. Both Orbán and Kaczyński see the EU as a German project that aims to accomplish a modern subordination of Europe. With the prospect of Brexit, Warsaw fears that its position in Europe will diminish, and weaker countries will lose any chance of opposing German domination. In this sense, the internal capture of the state in Poland and Hungary has a European expression – Kaczyński and Orbán promote the narrative that all this is part of an invisible war between the European liberal elites and the patriotic conservatives who oppose modern German colonialism.
In the Bulgarian case, the capture of the state is a fact that is tolerated by Brussels. The Bulgarian lack of rule of law did not grow from an opposition to the European Union but from opportunism. The steering of seemingly autonomous companies, the centralization of public administration and the complete control over the judiciary are the needed tools for the unrestrained appropriation of EU funds.
However, the redistribution of EU funds by the political elites is possible only if the funds are flowing from Brussels. Therefore, Bulgarian politicians prefer to behave like EU governors in a colony than to promote any vision for the prosperity of their voters.
In the case of Bulgaria, the rule of law is the stock in trade for the EU’s stability on its South-eastern border. What Brussels refuses to see is that this policy undermines the idea of a united Europe and creates an exception, which can become a norm for political adventurists across the EU.
Spasimir Domaradzki is a professor of Political Science and International Relations at Lazarski University in Warsaw, Poland.