For more than 100 days, protestors have taken to the streets of Sofia in Bulgaria.
When I had the chance to join the demonstrations in late September this year, I was surprised. Among the Bulgarian flags and posters demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, dozens of EU flags were being waved. The Bulgarian protestors were expressing their hopes for help and support from the European Union in the fight against corruption. Approval of the EU has been particularly high since Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007. But: the uncontrolled transfer of EU funds to Sofia is contributing to rampant corruption in the country. The EU carries a shared responsibility for the status quo.
Opposition in Bulgaria: Why does Europe not act?
In September, I had the opportunity to talk to many of those affected on the ground, including opposition members who are making urgent appeals to Brussels; journalists who were being beaten up by security forces at the protests; and young people who had come back to Bulgaria after long stays in other European countries, now wanting break up the encrusted corrupt structures in their home country.
Their unanimous opinion: the European Union must take decisive action against corruption and the dismantling of the rule of law. Otherwise, the EU will lose its integrity. Otherwise, hope will turn into frustration and people will turn away. It would be a catastrophe for the European project. It would be a heavy blow for our European community of values.
Corruption destroys trust and frustration increases
The frustration with the Bulgarian Government is deep. Corruption is part of everyday life in Bulgaria. Sometimes it's overpriced renovation projects, sometimes broken sidewalk slabs, sometimes it's a minister who admits that it's all about stuffing as much money as possible in their own pockets.
Almost everywhere you have to learn that public money is being plundered and kept by a small elite. The arrogance and egoism of the powerful destroys trust in politics. It annoys the people on the streets. And it sends a fatal signal: If you want to be successful, you have to participate in this system – or emigrate.
What can the European Union do to help?
Even small gestures can help. I was shocked to discover that 70 days after the protests began, no European politician had yet talked to the people on the ground. The European Commission should have signalled early on that it takes the concerns and demands of the protests seriously. In many conversations, participants in the protests told me that they felt abandoned. They were happy that a Green member of the European Parliament was now on the ground. And: they perceive that in Bulgaria and in the EU it is above all the Greens who are passionately fighting against corruption. Greens are perceived as pioneers for clean politics – free from corruption.
We cannot not leave the fight against corruption to the Bulgarian people alone. In Brussels, negotiations are still underway on the future EU budget and the Corona Fund. The European Parliament has made it very clear here that we can only disburse money if it is not misused for the dismantling of the rule of law. We can only distribute money if we are sure that billions of euros will not end up in the private pockets of a corrupt elite.
The rule of law in Europe is in crisis. If we do not act decisively now, we will put the future of the entire European Union at risk. Because if the EU does not act – then citizens will turn away. The crisis in Bulgaria illustrates that very clearly.
Daniel Freund is a Green Member of the European Parliament.