When Boyko Borisov rubs shoulders — or at least bumps elbows — with fellow EU leaders at a summit in Brussels on Thursday, his will be one of the most familiar faces in the room.
A veteran of EU summits since 2009, the burly Bulgarian premier will sit down alongside fellow leaders including Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, and French President Emmanuel Macron to discuss a topic that has bitterly divided the bloc — and even raised questions about its viability.
The majority of EU member states want to introduce new rules allowing the bloc to curb flows of funds to states that violate its main rule of law principles. But Hungary and Poland oppose the legislation and are vetoing €1.8tn of money desperately needed for Europe’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Borisov has not joined that blockade. But Bulgaria, which has faced claims of government corruption, is one of a growing group of EU countries that embody problems the mooted rules were meant to address. In some, such as Poland, governance concerns centre on alleged breaches of EU standards in areas such as judicial independence. In others, such as Malta since the 2017 murder of the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, they concern questions of corruption and official accountability.
Hungary is at the vanguard of a clutch of EU countries that have gone out of their way to laud ideas that many in Brussels believe to be illiberal. In Poland, President Andrzej Duda has also warned this year that “LGBT ideology” is more “destructive to man” than Soviet communism.
All this is a direct challenge to the values and legal principles the EU claims to stand for, which have become a central tool of its foreign policy and soft power. The result is that the EU is increasingly open to charges of hypocrisy, which both damages its moral legitimacy and could sow doubt for businesses about whether they can trust EU legal systems.
“We tried to appease the autocrats and it’s not working,” says Katalin Cseh, a Hungarian centrist MEP. “A government can be destroying the EU from the inside and still getting billions to enrich their own circles. If we do not do something now, it will threaten the stability of the union.”
Illiberal regimes are hardly a novelty in postwar Europe. From the former dictatorships in the east and south to the government of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who was convicted of tax fraud in 2013, the rest of the world has often looked at Europe’s claims about its values more sceptically than the region does itself.
But the current breakdown of EU norms has exposed a powerlessness on the part of the EU institutions, as they seek to project, enforce and embody its founding values. It is occupying energy and attention at a time when the EU is also involved in last-minute negotiations with the UK over a Brexit deal. And it jars awkwardly with US president-elect Joe Biden’s push for the world’s democracies to unite to counter rising authoritarianism.
The problem is worsened because mainstream EU-wide parties, including Ms Merkel’s European People’s party (EPP), Mr Macron’s Renew Europe and the Social Democrat grouping that includes Spain’s prime minister Pedro Sánchez, encompass controversial political parties or leaders — giving them added heft at the negotiating table and in the European parliament. The EPP has suspended but not expelled Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party, even as the latter threatens to scupper the entire EU budget package.
“It has been a political choice not to halt what has been happening in Hungary and Poland,” says Rosa Balfour, director of the Carnegie Europe think-tank. “It’s hugely damaging — it’s not just about democracy, it’s about the functioning of the EU.”
European officials say they are making best efforts with the tools they have, such as bringing court cases against countries at the European Court of Justice — but some concede the threat to the EU’s integrity is serious.
“We are at quite a moment in the European project in terms of challenges to its founding principles,” says one official. “What we are seeing in some member states is a severe backtracking on some of the fundamentals of what we stand for.”
Even if the proposed EU law governing payments is introduced, diplomats and officials play down the idea that it will transform the picture. While supporters brandish it as a way of empowering Brussels to drag illiberal governments back into the democratic fold, in reality it is a narrow mechanism that aims to prevent the misuse of EU funding.
The EU official characterises it as an important but modest “first step” towards forcing member states to finally engage more with the severity of the bloc’s rule of law problem.
Joining the club
Since its foundation the EU has believed it represents something far more than an economic community. Democracy, rule of law and fundamental rights are, in the words of European Commission vice-president Vera Jourova, the union’s bedrock. “This is largely what makes the EU unique,” she said in a speech in November.
It was this vision that drove the apparently relentless expansion of the EU and the spread of its ideology after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In the “jumbo enlargement” of 2004, 10 mainly former Communist bloc countries joined.
While the bar to admission to the EU was and remains high, the checks on behaviour once a country is in the club are limited. In particular, so-called Article 7 disciplinary procedures have proved inadequate to the task.
These allowed the commission, European parliament or member states to take action against countries under threat of punishments such as the suspension of EU voting rights. The commission triggered the process against Poland in 2017, while the parliament launched it against Hungary the following year.
Article 7 might be an effective panic button in the case of a clear-cut military coup, but it has proved of little use in navigating the grey zone of “illiberal democracy” created by Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, or in countries like Poland and Bulgaria, where those in power have sought to tighten control over the judiciary.
The requirement for unanimity means any two countries can stop action against each other — as Hungary and Poland have pledged to do, effectively stalling the processes targeting them. Officials speculate the proceedings against them may eventually get ditched, though proponents insist they exert important pressure — and point out that if the government changes in either country the procedure could yet have teeth.
The commission, which is now led by Ursula von der Leyen, has reverted to a strategy of bringing cases to the ECJ — an approach that officials stress has yielded wins.
But by the time judgments are handed down, the damage is often done. In October, the ECJ ruled against a 2017 Hungarian law that in effect forced the Central European University, founded by the billionaire backer of liberal causes George Soros, to shut down in Budapest. The victory came too late for the institution, which had already relocated to Vienna.
In Poland, too, the impact has been limited. The commission’s decision to take Warsaw to the ECJ over its Supreme Court reforms resulted in the reversal of a purge of the court in 2018. But, overall, they have not been enough to prevent the ruling Law and Justice party from pushing through radical changes giving politicians sweeping powers over the judiciary. Critics say these critically undermine judicial independence. However, Polish officials say they are needed to overhaul an inefficient system, and that the proposed rule-of-law mechanism would be open to arbitrary politically motivated use.
Budapest has refused to implement a decision that found that its requirements for non-governmental organisations to declare foreign funding above a certain threshold was contrary to the free flow of money and ideas. It has instead doubled down and made complying with the rule a requirement to access Erasmus funds — an EU programme to support education and training — in Hungary.
Hungarian justice minister Judit Varga said in an October interview that Hungary was complying with the judgment in the CEU case. Regarding the NGO funding law, Ms Varga said the government was “trying to find ways to comply” with the judgment.
Concerns in Sofia
Bulgaria’s recent history embodies the dangers of inaction when it comes to the union’s founding principles. Concerns about its governance flared dramatically this summer when photos of a sleeping Mr Borisov with a pistol on his nightstand were published in local media.
A second photograph showed two gold bars and wads of €500 notes believed to total €1m. Mr Borisov said the first photo was genuine but the others were manipulated. Nevertheless, the imagery has stuck in the public imagination.
Bulgaria and its neighbour Romania have both faced strict rule of law monitoring since joining the bloc almost 14 years ago. It was created especially for them, after European capitals worried they were not ready for full membership.
Crises elsewhere diverted the EU’s focus away from Bulgaria and its unresolved rule of law problems. Many observers say EU cohesion funds contributed to enriching a group of politically well-connected Bulgarian businessmen. The government in Sofia maintains that it has the trust of Brussels and has overseen a period of stability and infrastructural development.
“Countering corruption is one of the priorities of the cabinet,” says a spokesperson for the Bulgarian government. “Our anti-corruption laws are based on the best legislative practices around the EU.”
Mr Borisov has largely avoided trouble with either Brussels or fellow EU member states. Unlike Warsaw and Budapest, he did not antagonise other EU leaders and has not indulged in ideological debates about migration and identity politics, even as he pandered to socially conservative forces at home.
But rolling protests erupted in Bulgaria this summer after the chief prosecutor, a Borisov ally, raided the offices of two staff members of Rumen Radev, the president, who has clashed with the premier.
Unmoved by the demonstrations, Mr Borisov’s Gerb party has supported controversial amendments that would increase the power of the general prosecutor and shrink that of both the president and the justice minister.
Nelly Kutzkova, a former chair of the Bulgarian Judges Union, describes a culture of intimidation and pressure on judges who issue verdicts unpopular with political power brokers. “The most influential people in Gerb are not familiar with basic principles of rule of law,” she says.
Liberties under threat
The dangers posed by over-mighty national governments are by no means confined to a few countries in the east, according to Philippe Lamberts, co-president of the European parliament’s Greens grouping. Terror attacks, the political crisis over migration and now the pandemic have all given leaders extra pretexts to rein in civil liberties, he says.
He points in particular to France, where a security law approved by its lower house of parliament last month would make it a crime to publish the face of a police officer or gendarme with the aim of causing them “physical or psychological harm”. The government has promised an independent commission to rewrite parts of the law.
“It gives more alibis to the executive branches to capture ever more power,” Mr Lamberts says. “We should have much stronger ways of forcing member states to respect the obligations they have freely subscribed to,” while also being tougher in using existing powers, he adds.
Violations of basic EU precepts do not only damage the bloc’s image — they also undermine the ties of trust that help bind it together. “It is a potentially fatal problem in the long run: this is a community of law first of all,” says Robert Cooper, a former senior EU foreign policy official.
Earlier this year, the Dutch judicial system, for example, stopped extraditing people to Poland on the grounds that they could not be assured of a fair trial in the country. In October, Poland’s national public prosecutor Bogdan Swieczkowski responded by ordering subordinates to conduct a “thorough analysis” of whether there were “obligatory grounds” for refusing to comply with European arrest warrants issued by the Netherlands, according to Polish media reports.
Viktor Vadasz, a criminal judge at the Metropolitan Court of Budapest and spokesperson of Hungary’s National Judicial Council, an independent, self-governing body, warns of the dangers posed by this erosion in judicial co-operation.
“If we are looking at an extradition hearing, and judges say ‘I won’t let my citizen be exposed to an unfair trial,’ that’s the end of the single market,” he says, noting the impact political verdicts could have on commercial affairs. “Without independent judges, the EU doesn’t function. Judges with mutual recognition and respect make it work.”
The bloc has attempted in recent years to expand its arsenal to combat rule of law breaches. In September it launched its first ever peer-review report on the performance of every EU country, in part to counter allegations that some nations were being singled out. The bloc has created a new European public prosecutor’s office to pursue cases involving the fraudulent use of Brussels money, in the face of some member states’ historical reluctance to do so.
The EU’s July summit struck a landmark agreement to introduce the new mechanism allowing funding to be cut when countries breach key principles. And yet it is far from clear that the European Council EU summit on December 10-11 will herald a solution to the rule of law impasse that is blocking the EU’s entire seven-year budget, as well as an additional €750bn Covid-19 recovery fund.
Some diplomats and officials think the pandemic emergency money might have to be forced through via a route that excludes Poland and Hungary altogether.
Poland’s deputy prime minister, Jaroslaw Gowin, insisted on Thursday that there was scope for compromise. But even if Budapest and Warsaw do drop their objections, the bloc faces profound questions over how it can defend the primacy of its founding values. Many observers stress that the impetus must come ultimately from within countries themselves. While the EU can be both guide and guardian on the rule of law, it is neither feasible nor desirable for it to lead those efforts.
Above all, the rule of law battles expose a costly failure of EU foresight about how “fundamental things are actually much more fragile than we thought they were”, says Julia De Clerck-Sachsse, a former EU adviser who is now a senior non-resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
“There was so much euphoria that democracy was winning that there was a sense we didn’t need to protect it,” she says. “But it was much more vulnerable than we would ever think.”
Additional reporting by James Shotter in Warsaw
Thousands protest against French Covid health pass rules
French politics updates
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Over 200,000 people marched in cities across France on Saturday in the biggest turnout of three consecutive weekends of protests, calling for an end to what they see as draconian rules forcing them to get vaccinated against their will.
They marched down the streets of Paris, Lyon, Marseille, and elsewhere, shouting “This is a health dictatorship!” and “No vaccination, no health pass!”, in protests that included a wide range of social and political movements.
Staunch Communists marched with supporters of the far-right Rassemblement National party and some from the gilets jaunes movement against a new law making Covid-19 vaccination compulsory for healthcare workers and requiring a health pass for anyone wanting to enter public places such as restaurants, bars and high-speed trains.
“This is an experimental vaccine, we do not know what all of the side effects will be for ourselves or our children,” said Catherine Largo, a 42-year-old dental assistant, who is legally obliged to get vaccinated before the autumn but says she will refuse to do so.
The vaccines used in France have been extensively tested around the world and approved by the European and French medical authorities.
“I won’t be able to find other work, because what else would I do?” she said, as she arrived at one of four protests taking place in Paris on Saturday afternoon. “We should have the choice, we should have the liberty to choose.”
Although the final version of the law was watered down last weekend, a vocal minority of French citizens remain up in arms about the rules which they believe infringe on their personal liberties. But despite the pockets of angry opponents, the policy has so far proved successful at boosting vaccination rates and has been met with approval from the wider public.
Over 60 per cent of people are in favour of the health pass to enter public places and 70 per cent support compulsory vaccination for caregivers, according to an Ipsos-Sopra Steria poll conducted this month.
Around 204,000 people marched on the streets of France on Saturday, up from 161,000 a week before and 114,000 the week before that, according to estimates from the interior ministry.
One protester missing this week was François Asselineau, president of the pro-Frexit Popular Republican Union party and an ardent campaigner against the health pass, who was unable to attend the march in Paris after he tested positive for Covid-19 on Friday.
The 2022 presidential candidate said he was suffering from “body aches, fever and a cough” in a video posted on his party’s website, but told his followers that he had obtained ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine as a treatment, both controversial drugs which scientists say have no proven benefit against Covid-19.
Macron announced the extended application of the health pass in the midst of a vaccination campaign that was losing momentum while the highly infectious Delta variant was spreading fast.
So far his decision to power ahead with the hardline vaccination strategy appears to have paid off. The number of first doses being administered per day has jumped back up to more than 350,000 after stagnating around 160,000 last month, according to data from the government compiled by Covidtracker.fr.
France has overtaken the US in the proportion of its population that is fully vaccinated — 52 per cent against 50 per cent in the US and 56 per cent in the UK, according to Our World in Data.
Only 7 per cent of people admitted to hospital with Covid-19 in France between May 31 and July 11 had been fully vaccinated, according to data released by the French government this week.
Turkey’s marine crisis: ‘death knells are ringing for Sea of Marmara’
For a decade, marine biologist Nur Eda Topcu has fought to preserve delicate corals off the Istanbul coastline, which environmentalists say are threatened by the dumping of industrial waste, fuel and sewage.
Now she fears a new threat may hasten the end of the Sea of Marmara’s coral reefs. A gelatinous substance colloquially known as sea snot has in recent months choked aquatic life, blighted fishing and repelled swimmers.
Long brown streaks of the marine mucilage were still visible across the Marmara in late July, while the gooey foam sank below the surface settling on the rare corals. Scientists warn that the sea, whose mix of Mediterranean and Black Sea currents foster coral usually found at far deeper depths, itself is at risk.
“The death knells are ringing for the Marmara,” said Topcu after surfacing from a recent dive to clean the slime that coated normally fuchsia-hued corals off an Istanbul archipelago. “We can’t stop the mucilage. It’s smothering the gorgonians [and] infecting them with harmful bacteria.” She fears most of Marmara’s soft, red Paramuricea clavata, listed as a vulnerable species of coral, will perish this year.
Factories have nearly doubled the deluge of wastewater they discharge into Turkey’s seas in recent years, according to official statistics. The 50,000 tankers that sail through the Marmara each year illegally dump waste and fuel, according to one municipal monitor. Almost two-thirds of the nation’s industry, including an oil refinery, carmakers, chemical plants and power stations, is concentrated in the region.
Most wastewater from Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, is only treated to remove solids, then pumped to the bottom of the sea. “We use it as our cesspool,” said Levent Artuz, a hydrobiologist at the Marmara Environmental Monitoring Project and author of a new book A Recent History of the Polluting of the Sea of Marmara.
The situation was not helped by the fact that sea temperatures had climbed by an average two degrees Celsius in the Marmara since the start of this century as pollution trapped heat, he said. A state project that diverted the Ergene River, one of Europe’s most toxic waterways, to the Marmara last year was “the tipping point”.
“The essential problem isn’t mucilage. That’s just a link in the chain of decades of degradation,” Artuz said. “We have zero chance of recovering the Sea of Marmara as it was. What we have to do now is figure out how to prevent the Marmara from harming us.”
In recent years, marine life has died in mass mortality events, and there have been infestations of jellyfish and algal blooms such as red tides and mucilage.
But scientists and fishermen say the current flare-up is unprecedented. Phytoplankton is flourishing because of nutrient-rich sewage and fertiliser from agricultural runoff while overfishing has wiped out populations of small fish and crustaceans that would consume the algae.
Gone are the mackerel, tuna, swordfish and other seafood that Istanbul was known for. This year’s haul was down 90 per cent from 2020 as mucilage clogged and dragged off nets, said Erdogan Kartal, the head of Istanbul’s fishing co-operative. “Even if we could supply fish markets, customers aren’t buying out of disgust.”
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, has vowed to crack down on polluters and “save our seas from this scourge of mucilage”. Thousands of cubic metres of the sea snot had been vacuumed up, the country’s environment minister said. In early July, he pronounced the Marmara “cleaner and bluer” than before.
Turkey is the only G20 country that has not ratified the Paris accords on climate change, and grassroots movements to protect the environment are often viewed as provocateurs by the government.
Authorities have refused to register a new Green party eager to fight climate change. Scientists also say that a planned shipping canal from the Black Sea to the Marmara could deplete oxygen in the Marmara and promote hydrogen sulphur gas that would envelop Istanbul with the stench of rotten eggs. Erdogan’s transportation minister argues that the cleaner water coming through from the Black Sea would improve the quality of the Marmara.
Along the way, there have been successes for Topcu and members of Istanbul’s Marine Life Conservation Society (MLCS). They secured protected status for the tiny outcrop of Neandros this April, stopping boats from dropping anchors or trawling for fish near its corals. They spent two summers transplanting fan-like yellow sea whips to Neandros after a nearby colony of the golden Eunicella cavolini was buried in debris from a government construction project.
“We carried them like a heart or kidney for transplant, keeping them in cold water and in the dark to prevent shock,” said Serco Eskiyan of the MLCS. It took more than 100 dives to harvest and replant 300 corals 30 metres down.
But Eskiyan, who has dived the waters off the islands since the 1970s and knows the area “like the rooms in my house”, was unable to locate the transplants in July, blinded by the sea snot that reduced visibility to a metre or two. “It looks like a different planet,” said Topcu.
A generation ago, the Marmara’s rich fauna included seahorses, poisonous scorpionfish and great white sharks, now all gone, though Eskiyan still occasionally confronts a rare angular roughshark when he hunts for “ghost nets” abandoned by industrial fishing boats that choke the corals. The MLCS has collected 32,000 square metres of the meshing since 2015.
“I have faith in the sea’s ability to renew itself from the damage people do. But now I question how much longer it can fight back,” Topcu said.
Ransomware attacks rise despite US call for clampdown on cybercriminals
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In mid-June, US president Joe Biden held talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to discuss a recent scourge of cyber attacks against the US, including by Russian-based criminal ransomware hackers.
Biden has said he told Putin in no uncertain terms that “certain critical infrastructure should be off limits to cyber attack — period”. Nevertheless, data show that ransomware attacks continue apace, including in sectors such as healthcare and education. It is unclear whether Biden will take further action in light of this.
Ransomware, which usually involves hackers seizing an organisation’s data or computer systems and only releasing access if a ransom is paid, has long plagued businesses large and small. The first known ransomware virus, PC Cyborg, was recorded in 1989, with victims infected via floppy disk and told to send a $189 cheque to an address in Panama.
Today, these financially motivated hacks are far more sophisticated — and are proliferating fast. Attacks have quadrupled during the pandemic, SonicWall data show, partly because the shift to remote working has left staff more vulnerable than if they were connecting to more secure corporate networks.
Additionally, hackers have swapped demanding cheques for requesting hard-to-track cryptocurrencies, meaning that as the price of bitcoin has risen during the past year, the business of ransomware has become all the more lucrative. It is also easier to launch attacks with little to no technical knowhow, given the growing market for “ransomware-as-a-service”, where hackers maintain their ransomware code but rent it out to others and take a cut of any extortion payouts.
While known attacks have reached unprecedented levels, the story of what we do not know — given that there are few rules around disclosure — may be far worse. Earlier this week, Bryan Vorndran, assistant director of the FBI Cyber Division and other cyber agency officials called for mandatory reporting rules around attacks, so that accurate data can be gathered and analysed by the US government.
Small businesses with little spare resources have tended to be the hardest hit by ransomware attackers. But the matter was thrust into the spotlight earlier this year after several audacious attacks on critical infrastructure such as the Colonial Pipeline, which led to fuel shortages for several days on the US east coast, the Irish health system and Brazilian meat supplier JBS. All of these attacks were believed to originate from Russia-based ransomware hackers, although the US government has accused Chinese state-backed groups of also orchestrating attacks.
The number of ransomware gangs stretches into the dozens and continues to proliferate as the economics remain so profitable. Vorndran said the FBI tracked 100 gangs, using an algorithm to rank them and the effect that each has on the economy. The largest one rakes in an estimated $200m a year in revenues, he said.
To help victims fight the gangs, a cottage industry for “ransomware negotiators” has emerged. These middlemen are tasked by victims with haggling down the ransom payments. As go-betweens, they also collect data on attacks, learning the playbooks of various groups in order to best know how to speak to them.
According to data from Coveware, the average ransom payment has fallen in the second quarter to $136,576, from more than $200,000 in the first quarter, amid an emergence of smaller ransomware groups. But in the majority of attacks — about 80 per cent — hackers are using the newer tactic of threatening to leak data as extra leverage in extorting victims. About half of these “leak threat” victims paid out in the second quarter, Coveware said.
Unfortunately, the negotiators’ services continue to be in high demand. According to data on reported attacks collated by Recorded Future, in the US there have been 10 attacks on healthcare, nine on schools and 10 on public state and local government groups during June and July this year. Despite Biden urging Putin last month to crack down on the criminal groups and warning against attacks on 16 critical entities, attacks on many of these key sectors have continued.
“The volume of targeted attacks on government organisations and enterprises that impact civilians, countries and the global economy will not end without a change in approach,” said Bill Conner, the chief executive of SonicWall.
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