Over the last five years, the European Commission has had to address several cases of breaching the rule of law, as well as rampant corruption and racist and discriminatory acts. In addition, there were cases in which Member States broke away from EU policy concerning defence, energy and foreign relations, vis-à-vis Russia.

Bulgaria is a country struggling with high rates of corruption. There were serious attempts to attack the rule of law while racist elements participate in the government. Also, Bulgaria’s privileged relationship with Moscow did not pass unnoticed.

European Interest caught up with Hristo Ivanov, a Bulgarian politician and lawyer who is the founder of the political party “Movement Yes, Bulgaria”. We asked him about the most crucial problems facing Bulgaria today.

Ivanov has many years’ experience in legal and judicial matters. He served as Minister of Justice and Vice Prime Minister of Bulgaria between August and December 2014. As justice minister, he initiated disciplinary procedures against magistrates for misconduct.

Ivanov and his party are fervent supporters of the European Integration process and propose the joining of Bulgaria to the banking union and to the Schengen zone.

European Interest: Bulgaria is considered one of the most corrupt EU member states. Do you think this is a problem related only to the ruling party GERB or is the Bulgarian political elite addicted to corruption? 

Hristo Ivanov: Bulgaria is a text-book example of what is termed “captured state”: longstanding penetration and subversion of government by organised corruption networks enabled by paralysed regulators, unfree media, broken justice and poisoned democratic process. This situation has deep roots in history and in geopolitics as well as in the institutional fabric of the Bulgarian state. GERB, as a political organisation and as a practice of governance, is not a primary cause but rather an emanation of this model and its fullest explication to date. This model can outlive GERB, but today, any effort to start dismantling the model has to start by curtailing the grip GERB has on power and its practices in exercising it.

In a letter to the President of the EPP, Joseph Daul, on March 2019 you expressed your concern for the growing populism, nationalism and Euroscepticism, condemning GERB’s alliance with parties whose leaders are known for their racist comments. Do you expect the EPP will clarify its position vis-à-vis the far-right in this parliament, both in Bulgaria and elsewhere?

European political families inevitably need to stop turning a blind eye to what some of their members are doing back home just because they furnish votes in Brussels and are conveniently ready to engage in all kind of back-room deals. EPP and GERB are one example: you cannot defend Europe with a partner that increasingly suffocates all elements of democracy and rule of law at home. The readiness of EPP politicians, such as Junker, to cooperate with GERB on the gradual decommissioning of the European Cooperation and Verification Mechanism for monitoring Bulgarian justice, notwithstanding the utter lack of results and even the worsening of the situation, has been a reason for erosion of the Euro-optimism of many Bulgarians. Another example is the European Liberals who keep missing to note the extremely problematic role in systemic Bulgarian corruption of key figures in its otherwise esteemed member, the Bulgarian Movement for Rights and Freedoms.

European political families inevitably need to stop turning a blind eye to what some of their members are doing back home just because they furnish votes in Brussels and are conveniently ready to engage in all kind of back-room deals

In March 2019 the Bulgarian prime minister reassured Nato’s Secretary General that his government is not Russia’s Trojan Horse. Are you convinced? Would you say that Russia’s influence in Bulgarian politics and economy is significant?

Mr. Borisov can be very good at giving blanket assurances. But his actions speak otherwise. Bulgaria has inherited many factors that make it open to Kremlin influence. In the 10 years Borisov has been at the helm of Bulgaria, he largely preserved that status quo.

Climate change denial is a rising trend in the far-right, from Germany and Finland to Bulgaria, as the case of the Pirin National Park suggests. What is the position of your party on this issue?

Together with our coalition partners the Bulgarian Green Movement we have been defending the Bulgarian natural resources, such as the Pirin National Park, the preservation of the Black Sea beaches etc. For us green policies are the other name for modernisation and investment in sustainable quality of life.

Perhaps our most important priority for us is the establishment of effective remedies against abuse of rule of law and practices that weaken democracy in the member states

The “Yes Bulgaria!” list managed to elect an MEP, joining the EPP. What are your political priorities for this coming period? Is joining the Eurozone on the agenda? 

Perhaps our most important priority for us is the establishment of effective remedies against abuse of rule of law and practices that weaken democracy in the member states. From our national experience we know how important it is to have effective albeit subsidiary EU level guarantees for all the key elements of a functioning liberal democracy. Besides the area of justice, these should include the freedom of the media as it has been another area of systemic problems.

Bulgaria joining the banking union is certainly our priority and depends on domestic reforms, including the reform of the judiciary. Same goes for our joining of Schengen, etc.

“Yes Bulgaria!” supports EU integration but a number of governments are shifting towards a more sovereigntist direction. Do you think the current balance of power is favourable to your integration perspective?

The results of the EU elections show there is enough support for the integrationist vision. The question now is whether there be adequate vision and leadership on the political scene going forward. The horse trading around the nominations for the top EU post does not seem to be particularly promising. The EU remains the best option for the majority of its citizens. Populists thrive on lack of adequate leadership.