The European Parliament is holding confirmation hearings for the new EU commissioners this week, and by far the most dramatic one yet has been that of Bulgaria’s nominee Rumiana Jeleva, who is being accused of having ties to the Russian mafia. Yesterday’s chaotic hearing reflected the EU’s continuing problem of how to deal with Bulgaria’s corruption, which is so widespread in their political class one isn’t sure who to believe in the dispute over Jeleva’s past.
Accusations were flying back and forth in the hearing yesterday, with Jeleva being called a liar by a rival Bulgarian MEP and Jeleva in turn demanding that an MEP come to Bulgaria to see for himself that she has no ties to the mob. Then each opposing side began furiously handing out paperwork to prove their case, a violation of parliamentary rules. When authorities tried to confiscate the hand-outs, MEPs refused to hand them back. Soon there were calls for the whole hearing to break because of the discord. In the end, the panel could not confirm her and had to put off the confirmation until 24 January.
Jeleva was nominated to the commission by the new populist government in Bulgaria, where she has been serving as foreign minister since July. Newly reappointed Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso has given her the international development portfolio, which controls EU international aid and humanitarian rescue missions. The whole new commission as a group must be approved by the parliament, which is the reason for the hearings this week.
But even before Jeleva’s hearing there had been accusation in the German press that her husband has connections to the Russian mafia. But since such allegations are difficult to prove concretely it appears her opponents have gone with a different tact to force Bulgaria to withdraw her nomination – focusing on a potential inaccuracy in her resume. The controversy centres on Jeleva's role in a Bulgarian company called Global Consult. Jeleva has declared that her involvement in that company ended in 2007 when she became a Bulgarian MEP. However Bulgarian liberal MEP Antonyia Parvanova says she actually owned the firm until April 2009. The distinction is important because in Bulgaria it is illegal to serve as an MEP and own a company at the same time. The parliament has requested that Barroso conduct a rapid investigation into the matter.
It appears to me quite likely that the parliament will force Jeleva to withdraw. Clearly the parliament would like to flex its muscle now that it has new powers granted to it by the European commission. And it wouldn’t be unprecedented for them to force a resignation by threatening to veto the whole commission because of one nominee. They did it in 2004 during the confirmation of the first Barroso commission, forcing the withdrawal of an Italian nominee who opposed gay marriage and called homosexuality “a sin”.
The conflict reflects the fundamental problem the EU is continuing to have handling the high levels of corruption in Bulgarian government. While the parliament certainly doesn’t want to confirm someone with corruption ties, it’s also possible that Jeleva’s opponents are the corrupt ones, trying to sink a legitimate modernising reformer. Bulgaria’s new prime minister Boyko Borisov has strongly defended Jeleva, saying that she has fallen victim to a plot, concocted by the opposition Socialist and NDSV parties. It certainly wouldn’t be surprising behaviour for Bulgaria’s Socialist party, which is largely made up of former Communists.
In reality, it may be hard to find a Bulgarian politician who is completely free of the taint of corruption, since it is so widespread in the political system there. Given that reality, this confirmation difficulty may leave many in the parliament once again asking the question – should Bulgaria and Romania have been admitted into the union in 2007? It is a question many are still asking, and conflicts like this contribute to a continued reticence toward further EU expansion.