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Bulgaria joins Europe’s awkward squad



Hristo Ivanov was broadcasting live on Facebook outside a Black Sea villa in July, when three beefy guards pushed him and two other activists into the water. The Bulgarian opposition politician kept on filming when secret service agents threatened to sink the boat that had brought the campaigners to the property known to be used by Ahmet Dogan, one of the country’s leading power brokers. Thousands watched in real time as the police questioned the group headed by Mr Ivanov.

The video, since viewed by more than 1.2m people, sparked weeks of protests across the country against political cronyism. Opponents of Boyko Borisov’s government charge that it is a microcosm of Bulgaria’s problems with corruption and the rule of law, almost 14 years after the country joined the EU.

Mr Borisov’s political difficulties also raise tough questions for Brussels and other EU countries. Critics say they have failed to put sufficient pressure on Sofia to improve governance. Tensions have risen further in recent weeks because Bulgaria has blocked the opening of talks for North Macedonia to join the EU, raising fears it may join Hungary and Poland in their frequent battles with Brussels and fellow member states.

Bulgaria has received billions of euros from the EU since it joined in 2007. Simeon Djankov, a Bulgarian economist and Senior Fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, says the money that has flowed to what is still the EU’s poorest state is part of the problem.

“The EU funds actually increased corruption and state capture,” said Mr Djankov, who served as finance minister during Mr Borisov’s first term, from 2009 to 2013. “In particular, these were used to buy, either directly or through procured projects, much of the media and thus provide a cover for politicians.” 

Opponents of Mr Borisov’s government point to Bulgaria’s problems with corruption and the rule of law, almost 14 years after the country joined the EU © Nikolay Doychinov/AFP via Getty

When Bulgaria joined the EU along with Romania, both countries were subjected to special governance monitoring. Bucharest initially made strong progress on fighting corruption, but in 2018 it drew strong criticism from Brussels for an assault on judicial independence mounted by the country’s then ruling Social Democrats. Bulgaria’s troubles attracted less attention, with some diplomats suggesting that Brussels did not want to criticise both members of the class of 2007 at the same time. 

“Bulgaria and Romania were for many years kind of given a free pass,” said Mr Djankov. He added that because of the 2008 financial crisis and the 2015 migration crisis, there “has never really been time for the EU to truly think about accession”.

A commission spokesperson said that a report last year found that “Bulgaria has made sufficient progress to meet its commitments at accession to the EU”. However, the spokesperson noted, “it made equally clear that there is still unfinished business”. 

But after a change of government in Bucharest in 2019 — and amid growing anxiety about authoritarian drift in central and eastern Europe — the spotlight has shifted to Sofia. In a recent report on the rule of law in Bulgaria, the European Commission raised concerns about non-transparent ownership of the media, pressure on journalists, and new draft legislation on foreign funding of NGOs. In June, the European Court of Justice found a similar law in Hungary to be incompatible with fundamental EU rights.

The commission also reported that “a solid track record of final convictions in high-level corruption cases remains to be established”. It further noted that a “lack of results in the fight against corruption is one of the key aspects raised throughout the summer 2020 protests”.

Bulgaria has consistently been the EU country with the lowest rating in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, and it has plummeted in the media freedom ratings since joining the EU. Four-fifths of citizens see graft as widespread.

Prosecutors in the Spanish region of Catalonia are reportedly investigating a money laundering case with possible ties to Mr Borisov, who served as a bodyguard to former Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov before entering politics. The Bulgarian premier has denied the allegations against him. Recently, photographs surfaced of Mr Borisov’s nightstand, showing a pistol on top and wads of €500 notes totalling an estimated €1m. Mr Borisov admits owning a gun but says the photographs were manipulated.

Meanwhile, Mr Borisov’s government is also coming under pressure because of its recent opposition to North Macedonia starting EU accession talks.

“They thought Mr Borisov would steer this process,” said Vessela Tcherneva, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ office in Bulgaria. “This puts the European project at risk here in an unprecedented way.”

The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission also recently raised the alarm about constitutional changes, backed by Mr Borisov’s Gerb party, which would increase the power of the general prosecutor and shrink that of both the president and the justice minister. Prosecutor-general Ivan Geshev is regarded as a close associate of Mr Borisov. Bulgaria’s president Rumen Radev has clashed with both men.

Mr Djankov said Brussels is realising the danger posed by Bulgarian corruption too late. “Brussels needs to be convinced that unless something is done now, Bulgaria and Borisov will join the ranks of [Poland’s Jaroslaw] Kaczynski and [Hungary’s Viktor] Orban and be a concern,” he said. “This realisation has been overdue for many years.” 

Mr Ivanov of the Black Sea boat escapade told the Financial Times that Mr Borisov has managed to prosper at European level because he has stayed in the conservative mainstream — Gerb belongs to the centre-right grouping in the European Parliament. He does not employ the kind of illiberal rhetoric emanating from Budapest and Warsaw. But now, Mr Ivanov said, Bulgaria is coming to be seen as “part of a larger pattern of corruption and populism which is making its way all too well through the veins of European decision-making”.

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Nato warns China’s military ambitions threaten international order




Nato leaders have warned that China poses “systemic challenges” to the rules-based international order, in a sign of growing western unease over Beijing’s military ambitions.

Members of the transatlantic alliance convening in Brussels on Monday cited activities such as disinformation, Chinese military co-operation with Russia and the rapid expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal as part of the threat, according to a Nato communiqué.

The strength of the statement shows how far relations between the west and Beijing have deteriorated in the 18 months since Nato countries last met. Then they had issued a cautious statement about the “opportunities and challenges” presented by China.

The tougher language at US president Joe Biden’s first Nato summit comes as members of the 72-year-old cold war-era military pact vowed to widen co-operation in new theatres of conflict from cyber space to outer space. The Nato communiqué followed a tougher line from the weekend’s G7 meeting, when the club of rich democracies criticised China over human rights, trade and a lack of transparency over the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

Jens Stoltenberg, Nato secretary-general, insisted Beijing was “not an adversary” but said the alliance needed to “engage with China to defend our security interests”.

“There is a strong convergence of views among allies,” he said, adding that Nato was primarily concerned about Beijing’s activities in the group’s Euro-Atlantic sphere of operation. “China’s growing influence and international policies present challenges to alliance security.”

China’s “stated ambitions and assertive behaviour” posed “systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to alliance security”, said the summit communiqué, approved by the leaders of the 30 Nato member states.

“We call on China to uphold its international commitments and to act responsibly in the international system, including in the space, cyber and maritime domains, in keeping with its role as a major power.”

The communiqué pointed to China’s “coercive policies”, its accumulation of nuclear warheads and sophisticated delivery systems, and its participation in Russian military exercises in Atlantic region waters. Another trend troubling Nato allies is the involvement of Chinese companies in critical infrastructure in Europe, such as ports and via telecommunications company Huawei.

Nato said it would aim for “constructive dialogue” with Beijing “where possible”, including on climate change, in a sign of more nuanced views held by some of the alliance’s members.

The Nato broadside reflects an attempt by the Biden administration to use his first European trip to mobilise allies to push back against China.

Beijing hit back at criticism by the G7 club of rich democracies this weekend, accusing the group of “sinister intentions” and “artificially creating confrontation and friction”.

The Nato leaders also pressed ahead with efforts to modernise a grouping originally set up as bulwark to the Soviet Union. Nato is now pulling back from an era of “expeditionary” international missions, with its forces preparing to leave Afghanistan along with US troops after almost two decades.

The Nato heads of state and government approved a cyber defence strategy and extended existing powers to invoke the alliance’s “Article 5” principle of collective defence, in cases of co-ordinated cyber attacks.

“[This] will upgrade the defence, political and intelligence dimensions of cyber across the alliance,” Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, said before the meeting.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson had also called for more investment in cyber defences in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, when hostile states were accused of carrying out cyber attacks on allies’ health systems.

Nato leaders also pushed through measures to strengthen their collective response to attacks on satellites, and to build capabilities in emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence. Members of the alliance have become increasingly preoccupied with potential military uses of AI and with the growing activities of China and Russia in outer space.

As well as confronting external threats, Nato faces some chronic internal divisions, notably between Turkey and some member states such as France in the eastern Mediterranean.

Additional reporting by Helen Warrell in London

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Biden says he is open to exchange of cybercriminals with Putin




US president Joe Biden said he was open to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s proposal to hand over cybercriminals to the US if Washington did the same for Moscow, just days before the two leaders meet for a summit in Geneva.

Biden and Putin will sit down in Switzerland on Wednesday for their first face-to-face meeting since the former was sworn in as US president. Both leaders said at the weekend that relations between their two countries were at a low point, but Biden’s latest comments suggested there could be room for co-operation.

Speaking at the conclusion of a meeting of G7 leaders in the UK on Sunday, Biden told reporters he was receptive to Putin’s suggestion of reciprocal extradition of cybercriminals responsible for disruptive ransomware attacks.

Earlier on Sunday, Russian state TV aired an interview with Putin in which the Russian president said that Moscow and Washington must “assume equal commitments”.

“Russia will naturally do that but only if the other side — in this case the United States — agrees to the same and will also extradite corresponding criminals to the Russian Federation.”

Asked about Putin’s comments, Biden said: “Yes, I am open to, if there are crimes committed against Russia, that in fact are people committing those crimes are being harboured in the United States, I am committed to holding them accountable.”

“I was told as I was flying here, that [Putin] said that,” Biden added. “I think that is potentially a good sign of progress.”

An increasing number of audacious ransomware attacks has paralysed companies in recent weeks. These have included the disruption of the Colonial Pipeline, which provides petroleum supplies for much of the US east coast, as well as operations at JBS, the Brazilian meat processing company. The White House has said it believes both attacks originated in Russia.

Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, later clarified that Biden had not signed up to a “prisoner swap”.

“What he was saying was that if Vladimir Putin wants to come and say I am prepared to make sure that cyber criminals are held accountable, Joe Biden is perfectly willing to show up and say cyber criminals can be held accountable in America, because they already are. That is what we do,” Sullivan told reporters on Air Force One en route to the Nato summit in Brussels, the second leg of Biden’s first foreign tour as president.

“This is not about exchanges or swaps or anything like that.”

Putin told NBC News in an interview that aired on Friday that relations between the US and Russia were at their “lowest point in recent years”. Biden on Sunday said that he agreed with the characterisation, but also pointed out areas where he believed the two countries could work together.

The White House confirmed on Saturday that Biden would hold a solo press conference following the summit with Putin, rather than share a stage as his predecessor Donald Trump did with the Russian president in Helsinki in 2018.

Joe Biden disembarks from Air Force One in Belgium on Sunday for a Nato summit
Joe Biden disembarks from Air Force One in Belgium on Sunday for a Nato summit © Benoit Doppagne/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

“This is not a contest about who can do better in front of a press conference or try to embarrass each other,” Biden said. “It is about making myself very clear what the conditions are to get a better relationship.”

He added: “Russia has engaged in activities which we believe are contrary to international norms. But they have also bitten off some real problems they are going to have trouble chewing on. For example, the rebuilding of Syria, of Libya.”

“I am hopeful that we can find an accommodation that can save the lives of people in, for example, Libya.”

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Construction sector warns rising costs will eat into EU recovery plan




Construction industry executives across Europe have warned that “dangerous” price rises and shortages of many building materials risk undermining the EU’s flagship €800bn economic stimulus programme.

The EU construction sector generates almost 10 per cent of the bloc’s economic output and vast infrastructure projects make up a sizeable proportion of Brussels’ recovery fund, which will distribute grants and loans to rebuild member states’ economies after the Covid-19 pandemic.

But prices of construction materials from steel and wood to concrete and copper have begun to rise sharply in recent weeks as the economic rebound both in Europe and elsewhere — including the US and China — triggers a building boom.

According to the European Construction Industry Federation (FIEC), bitumen prices have risen 15 per cent in only three months, cement prices were up 10 per cent in a single month and wood prices were up over 20 per cent.

Public infrastructure projects usually impose penalties on builders for delays, while contractors often have to bear the cost of unexpected price increases.

Domenico Campogrande, director-general of FIEC, warned that the price rises and extra delays risked diluting the impact of the EU funds.

“The danger is that we have this big EU recovery plan but if 30 to 40 per cent of these funds are absorbed in extra financial instruments to cover the higher prices, it would be a real nonsense as it won’t go into the real economy,” he said. 

In a recent letter to the European Commission, the FIEC expressed “alarm” at the price rises and shortages of materials, including a more than doubling of the Italian price of steel bars used to make reinforced concrete in four months to March. 

“This phenomenon is jeopardising the construction sector’s contribution to economic recovery and is threatening the potential impact of European recovery programmes,” it said.

In Italy — the biggest beneficiary of the stimulus cash from Brussels — the government is planning to spend more than €100bn of its EU funding on building new infrastructure over the next five years. But the construction sector has warned officials that it will struggle to rise to the challenge without major reforms.

“We are facing shortages of many basic materials for construction and this is very dangerous as Italy is being hit harder than the rest of Europe,” said Flavio Monosilio, research director at ANCE, the association of Italian construction companies. “This crisis is at the heart of the new EU recovery plan.”

Line chart of Price indices rebased in US dollar terms showing Construction materials prices soar

Construction executives blame several factors for the bottlenecks, including the sharp rebound in demand which has outstripped the supply of materials in many countries, as well as pandemic-related disruption to supply chains and continued trade tensions.

Some materials have been hit by additional problems such as a bark beetle infestation that has hit wood production, and delays in the redistribution of unused steel.

Thomas Birtel, chief executive of Austrian construction group Strabag, said price rises had “increased tremendously in the last two weeks” and the company had to “report delays on individual construction sites because the material is simply no longer available”. 

Strabag, which built the Copenhagen Metro in Denmark and the Limerick Tunnel in Ireland, operates its own concrete and asphalt plants, but Birtel said: “Construction is a small-scale business and it is not even possible to control the supply chains for all building materials.”

In Germany, 44 per cent of construction companies surveyed by the Ifo Institute in May reported problems procuring materials on time, up from less than 6 per cent in March.

“We haven’t seen a bottleneck like this since 1991,” said Felix Leiss at Ifo. “This evidently caused construction activity to slow down in April, at least temporarily.”

Production in the German construction industry fell 4.3 per cent in April from the previous month, despite companies in the sector reporting a record order backlog of €62bn in March.

“Many producers are unable to supply the materials before the end of the year and that’s a real problem,” said Stephan Rabe at the German construction industry association. “A lot of money is going into public and private sector construction projects in the US and China and that is sucking up a lot of materials. Wood is being produced in Germany and exported to the US, so it is in short supply here.”

Some German politicians have called on Berlin to seek temporary EU export restrictions on wood and other materials.

As the US government prepares to launch a $1.7tn infrastructure programme and the global economic rebound is expected to gain pace, the pressures are expected to remain high in the coming months.

“It will take time to go back to normal — at least the end of the year,” said Campogrande.

Some countries, such as France and Germany, have responded by easing the rules on some public sector construction contracts, waiving fees for delays and compensating contractors for unforeseen price rises.

Monosilio said Rome was yet to offer any relief to the sector, which has been battered by a decade-long fall in public infrastructure investment, a lack of funding from banks and long delays in project approvals and payments.

Italy’s prime minister Mario Draghi has said the “destiny of the country” depends on the success of a €248bn package of investments and reforms mostly funded by the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Plan. It includes investment in high-speed train lines, renewable energy facilities, smart electricity grids and energy efficient buildings. 

EU states have a poor record in distributing funds; in the six years to 2020, they on average only spent just over half the money they were allocated by Brussels. 

Without reforms to address the Italian construction sector’s problems, Monosilio said similar problems could bedevil the EU’s recovery spending efforts.

“The Draghi government absolutely wants to improve the situation,” he said. “[But] it is a sword of Damocles hanging over the whole European project.”

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