MPs from the Committees on Legal Affairs, Foreign Policy, European Affairs and Control of European Funds and Culture and Media held a remote meeting with EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders. The event was held via videoconferencing, because of the complicated international situation due to COVID-19. During the discussion the measures taken by the institutions in the context of the recommendations and the challenges outlined in the Report of the European Commission on the Rule of Law in Bulgaria for 2020 were presented and discussed.
The Chairman of the Committee on Legal Affairs Anna Aleksandrova presented a plan with proposed measures by the competent institutions from the executive, judiciary and independent bodies under the four pillars of the EC report and in particular — amendments to the justice system, legal framework for fight against corruption, media pluralism and media freedom, as well as other institutional issues related to the principle of interdependence and inter-restriction. According to her, legislative initiatives on amendments to the Judicial System Act are envisaged in order to strengthen the institutional capacity of the Inspectorate to the Supreme Judicial Council, as well as to increase the efficiency of its inspections. Last but not least, legislative initiatives are initiated to improve the quality and speed of judicial procedures and to fully ensure access to justice for Bulgarian citizens, including the exercise of procedural rights in an electronic form. The continuation of the reform of the judicial system is unconditionally related to the introduction of electronic justice, Anna Aleksandrova emphasized and added that the need for legislative changes in procedural laws in this regard is also determined by the fact that the introduction of the unified information system of the courts as well as the functionalities of the integrated e-Justice portal (IEJP) is forthcoming. The President of the Parliamentary Committee on Legal Affairs further pointed out that the integrated e-Justice portal enables participants in judicial proceedings to receive electronic communications, summons and papers, including to be informed of certain procedural actions. Anna Aleksandrova emphasized on the joint efforts together with the National Legal Aid Office to carry out analyses on the possibility of lowering the threshold for access to legal aid, exempting legal aid recipients from court fees and reducing the amount of court fees for opening proceedings.
It is also envisaged the creation of a broad discussion forum between representatives of the Ministry of Justice and the National Council for Anti-Corruption Policies for the elaboration of legislation in the field of lobbying.
With regard to the justice system, the Chairman of the Committee on Legal Affairs confirmed the commitment of the legislative institution to the figure of the Prosecutor General, his accountability and criminal responsibility, in line with the opinion of the Venice Commission and the current constitutional framework. What lies ahead is optimization of the work of the Inspectorate to the Supreme Judicial Council, as well as suspension of public access to the already submitted declarations by magistrates for membership in professional organizations, improvement of access to justice, etc.
The EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders welcomed the efforts on the reforms presented above and confirmed the positive cooperation between the EC and the representatives of the legislative and executive authorities in Bulgaria. In his words, the rule of law cannot be taken for granted and it is a key one for the protection of human and European values. During the conversation, Didier Reynders raised issues related to the position and activities of the Prosecutor General, the ownership and the pluralism in the media, as well as the attacks on representatives of the fourth authority. The EU Justice Commissioner also reported on the work of the Bulgarian side under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism. According to Didier Reynders, it is important to consolidate the activities on the reforming of the judicial system and not to take steps backwards. He also raised the questions about a specific deadline and timetable for implementation and enforcement of the envisaged amendments to the Bulgarian legislation.
The Member of Parliament Krasimir Tsipov replied that a new position of investigative prosecutor will be created to investigate the activities of the Prosecutor General. It is envisaged that this prosecutor will have a 7-year mandate, he will be nominated by not less than six members of the Prosecutorial Chamber of the Supreme Judicial Council and he will be elected by the Plenum of the Supreme Judicial Council by a simple majority. Krasimir Tsipov added that the bill is expected to be adopted by the end of the term of office of the current 44th National Assembly. This also applies to other important legislative initiatives.
The Vice-President of the Committee on Legal Affairs Desislava Atanasova emphasized that the amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code were provoked by the Report of the European Commission on the Rule of Law, by all recommendations and opinions of the Venice Commission, by the cases against Bulgaria in the European Court of Human Rights and last but not least by the expectations of the Bulgarian society for active and efficient judicial reform. She recalled the unfulfilled draft of a new constitution and the convening of a Grand National Assembly and justified the failure of this initiative with the lack of a parliamentary majority of at least 160 votes and the opposition disagreement.
The Chairman of the Committee on European Affairs and Oversight of the European Funds Dragomir Stoynev noted the importance of the Report of the European Commission on the Rule of Law in Bulgaria for 2020 and the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism. According to him, they concern topics that are not news to our country. It is one thing to have a reform plan, it is another one to have the will to do it, which requires the trust of the Bulgarian citizens, he added. Dragomir Stoynev expressed his concern that most of the points in the judicial reform plan will be implemented by the next government, given the approaching end of the mandate of the current one.
Bulgaria needs this pressure and recommendations, as the findings of the Report on the Rule of Law have been repeated for more than a decade through the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, said the Vice-President of the Committee on Legal Affairs Krum Zarkov. He recalled the protests against the government in the summer and in the autumn of this year. According to him, they are entirely civil in their genesis and they are provoked by the lack of fight against high-level corruption and the pending judicial reform. The people in Bulgaria see with their eyes and feel with their backs the shortcomings in the judicial system and the corruption pressure, Krum Zarkov said.
The Vice-President of the Committee on Legal Affairs Christian Mitev noted the role of the Commission for countering corruption and illegal assets forfeiture. He cited the new law that made the Commission for countering corruption and illegal assets forfeiture work and owing to the achieved good results assets worth more than BGN 3 billion have been seized so far.
The Member of Parliament and the member of the Committee on Culture and Media Toma Bikov pointed out the active work of the 44th National Assembly regarding media freedom and clarification of private media ownership. In his words, the register for media owners, established more than a year ago, is already producing positive results. Toma Bikov also noted that changes are under way in the Broadcasting Act, aimed at changes in the financing of public media, but also more pluralism and quality of information at the sea of fake news.
The Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs Plamen Manushev also took part in the remote meeting.