Bulgaria has been rocked by protests against government corruption since August. Daniel Freund, a member of the European Parliament who visited Sofia last week to meet with demonstrators, gives his thoughts. Daniel Freund is a politician from Germany who has been a member of the European Parliament since July of this year. On a national level, he is a member of Alliance 90/The Greens, and in the European Parliament, he is a member of the Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance. At the protests in Sofia on Tuesday, dozens of EU flags were waving (22 September).
Bulgarian protesters expressed their need for Brussels’ assistance and support in the battle against corruption. Since Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, approval of the EU has been unusually high. The unfettered transit of EU cash to Sofia, on the other hand, is contributing to the country’s chronic corruption. The EU bears a portion of the blame for the current situation. Why isn’t Europe intervening in Bulgarian opposition?
Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with many of those directly affected on the ground, including opposition members who are making urgent appeals to Brussels, journalists who were beaten up by security forces during protests, and young people who have returned to Bulgaria after long stays in other European countries and now want to dismantle the country’s encrusted corrupt structures.
The Union will lose its credibility if this does not happen. Otherwise, individuals will become frustrated and turn away as a result of their hope. For the European project, it would be a disaster. It would be a major setback for our European values community. Corruption erodes trust, leading to an increase in frustration.
The Bulgarian government has a lot of people angry. In Bulgaria, corruption is a way of life. It’s sometimes pricey restoration projects, sometimes faulty sidewalk slabs, sometimes a faulty toilet, and sometimes it’s a minister who confesses it’s all about keeping as much money in her own pockets as possible. Almost wherever you look, you’ll find evidence of public funds being misappropriated and contributing to the enrichment of a small elite. The powerful’s arrogance and egoism erode public trust in politics.
The people on the street are irritated by it. It also conveys a fatal message: if you want to succeed, you must participate in this system – or you will be forced to emigrate. Is there anything the European Union can do to assist? Even simple gestures can make a difference. I was surprised to learn that 70 days after the protests began, no European official had yet spoken to the protestors.
The European Commission should have made it clear early on that it takes the protestors’ concerns and demands seriously. Participants in the protests informed me that they felt alone in many interactions. They were relieved to see that a member of the European Parliament had arrived on the scene to speak with them. And they believe that in Bulgaria and the EU, it is the Greens, above all, who are battling corruption with zeal. However, the battle against corruption should not be left solely to the Bulgarian people.
Negotiations on the new EU budget and the Recovery Fund are now taking place in Brussels. The European Parliament has stated unequivocally that money can only be disbursed if it is not used to undermine democracy and the rule of law. We can only distribute funds if we are confident that billions of euros will not end up in the hands of a corrupt elite’s own pockets. However, under the leadership of the German Council Presidency, regulations to this effect are in danger of being blocked by member states. In this situation, Angela Merkel and the CDU/CSU play a disgraceful role.
Their actions are far from the image of democratic defenders that they prefer to project to the public. In Europe, the rule of law is in jeopardy. We shall jeopardize the future of the European Union if we do not move forcefully now. Because citizens will turn away if the Union does not intervene. The situation in Bulgaria is a good example of this.