EU Requires of Bulgaria 'Track Record' in Judicial Reform, Fighting Corruption
The European Commission has published the report prepared for Bulgaria under the so-called Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), which measures progress in reforming the judiciary, fighting corruption and cracking down on organized crime.
It says Bulgaria has not met any of the six benchmarks monitored in the report, but differentiates between those where substantial progress has been made and those where much more has to be done.
Below is a summary of the main findings. The key recommendations can be found here.
On the first benchmark,
"independence and accountability of the judiciary",
the Commission takes into account the reforms Bulgaria made to its Supreme Judicial Council (VSS), in line with previous CVM reports. They have "led to greater transparency in decision-making," but tensions among VSS members "remain a concern".
While "substantial progress" is noted, Bulgaria "still needs to show a track record in terms of implementation of the latest constitutional changes."
As regards "key legislation affecting the judicial system and judicial procedures",
the second benchmark, improvements in civil procedures and changes to the Judicial Systems Act are cited as "a significant further step in the reform of the Bulgarian judiciary."
There are, however, "less marked developments" when it comes to criminal procedures which "present serious problems for the effective prosecution of complex cases."
Despite the fact some issues have been addressed through legislative action, "the formalism of criminal procedures remains a challenge for the Bulgarian legal system." The legal framework for investigation and prosecution of corruption and organized crime also needs to be addressed, according to the report.
On "continued reform of the judiciary",
major improvements in training of magistrates, the random allocation of court cases, e-justice, and the analysis of workload of judicial bodies and individual magistrates have been taken into account, but "important challenges still remain to be addressed."
Restructuring of courts and prosecutors' offices has been singled out as a challenge. There is a "workload imbalance for the larger courts in the country, with a negative impact on the overall performance of the Bulgarian judiciary."
Reform of the prosecuting authority seems slow to take off, the Commission finds. The Bulgarian Prosecutor's Office "plays a central role not only in criminal procedures but also in monitoring the administration more generally" whilst being part of the judiciary and independent of the executive.
"This lack of distinction between its functions and the executive tends to exacerbate suspicions of undue influence and criticisms of a lack of overall accountability of the prosecution," the latter being under attack from critics due to the lack of convincing track record of convictions in cases concerning high-level corruption or serious organized crime.
On high-level corruption,
Benchmark No 4, the Commission says Bulgaria "has a very limited track record of concrete cases leading to final convictions in court regarding high-level corruption, the clearest way to show that the fight against corruption is a genuine priority" and still ranks among EU member states with the highest perceived level of corruption. (The conclusion matches findings in Transparency International's latest Corruption Perceptions Index).
Progress here "has been limited, with major challenges still outstanding in regard to the institutional and legal framework as well as the establishment of a track record."
"Candidates for explanation" to lack of progress include "outdated provisions in the criminal code, lack of capacity within the key institutions, disorganised or fragmented structures, and cumbersome procedures, issues which all take time, commitment and determination to address."
Efforts in the early years after accession did not bring about enough changes in the fight against corruption, according to the commission.
The report makes a mention of the latest failure of Parliament to pass an anti-corruption bill, "illustrating a general lack of political consensus behind the efforts."
In terms of overall institutional set-up to fight corruption, it is described as "fragmented and largely ineffective".
Regarding organized crime,
the Commission notes "substantial progress" and "an evolution" in Bulgarian authorities, but Bulgaria has yet to "show the capacity of its law enforcement authorities to efficiently fight organised crime and develop a track record".
The report reads that there is a "more fragmented pattern of organized crime" at the moment and the problem is "more comparable to the situation in some other Member States."
As a step toward progress, the decisions to set up a specialized court and prosecutor's office for organized crime and an independent Asset Forfeiture Commission have been assessed positively.
But "political decisions to reorganise the key investigatory authorities dealing with organised crime have interrupted progress and had a detrimental impact on results," a process now reversed through expanding the mandate of the anti-organized crime directorate GDBOP to corruption, cybercrime and smuggling.
The Commission recalls that the benchmark (designed specifically for Bulgaria) was "motivated in part by the prevalence in post-transition Bulgaria of large and powerful organised crime groups, connected to significant levels of violence."
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