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Europe diary: Westminster and Bulgaria
11 May 2006

In his diary this week, BBC Europe editor Mark Mardell takes a Brussels-eye-view of Tony Blair's problems, and wonders at the Bulgarian practice of letting police drive sports cars seized from thieves.

The diary is published every Thursday.

THE BRUSSELS PERSPECTIVE

After almost 20 years before the Westminster mast, it is fascinating to watch the shenanigans back home from across the channel.

Margaret Thatcher
Eerie: EU neighbours react to Blair's plight as they reacted to Thatcher's
From here, it looks pretty terminal. But many in Europe are bewildered. On recent trips to Italy and France, voters told me much the same: "We know people in Britain are fed up with Blair, but compared to our lot he looks pretty good".

Eerily similar to what people were saying for years after Mrs T went.

MISSING THE GOSSIP

The actual reshuffle has been watched with great interest in Brussels. Charles Clarke made a big impact during the British presidency. Although his robust style stuck in some throats, many more were impressed by his willingness to appear constantly before the European Parliament and engage in serious debate.

MINISTERS RATED IN BRUSSELS
Geoff Hoon, Charles Clarke, Margaret Beckett and Jack Straw
Clockwise from top left:
Geoff Hoon - enthusiast
Charles Clarke - big impact
Jack Straw - respected
Margaret Beckett - efficient

The new Europe minister, Geoff Hoon, is an enthusiastic European and a former MEP but people are unsure what Margaret Beckett will be like. She's thought here to be efficient and obedient to Blair, but Jack Straw was respected. Underlying all this is a fear of how a Gordon Brown government would behave towards the EU. He's seen as hostile to the European ideal, dismissive of the euro and contemptuous of the process. Just what they expect from perfidious Albion.

At times like these people always ask me if I miss Westminster. I have to admit to being seriously fascinated and a little frustrated to not hear the gossip. But I got details of the reshuffle as I boarded a plane back from Sofia. Bulgaria is a much under-rated country (more on why I liked it next week). And politics is a lot more interesting than Mr Bootle replacing Mr Pootle.

HIGH-SPEED POLICE

In rural Bulgaria it's pretty common to see a farmer making his way to his fields in a cart pulled by a single old nag. The police in the capital, Sofia, can rely on a little more horsepower.

Police Porsche in Sofia
Confiscated convertible: Is this your car?
It's the only place I've ever seen the police drive a Porsche convertible. Complete with blue flashing light and repainted in white with smart blue stripes. This is not profligacy with public money but something odder. Like the BMW and Merc driven by the Bulgarian police, it's been stolen somewhere in Europe, shipped to Bulgaria by criminal gangs, and then confiscated.

So far they've been luckier than one judge, who was proudly going to work in a top-of-the-range four-wheel-drive until its German owner spotted it and demanded it back. So if this is your long-lost car do contact the Bulgarian police. I'm sure they'll be delighted to hear from you.

SNOUTS IN TROUGH

There are squeals and grunts from the pigs greedily pushing each other out of the way as a fresh juicy bundle of grass is thrown into their pen. But the farmer here on the Thracian Plain is fed up with politicians and bureaucrats with their snouts in the trough.

It's hard to get people to tell their tales of corruption, despite the certainty of many international reports that it is rife
Bulgaria is likely to get a sharp rap on the knuckles for failing to tackle corruption, and its entry into the EU, planned for 1 January 2007 may even be delayed. This farmer applied for European Union money to rebuild a cowshed that had burned down.

According to the rules he should have got half his investment back. He was turned down, for no apparent reason. Now 20 or so politicians and civil servants are being investigated for allegedly embezzling the fund to the tune of around £3m (4.4m euro).

But it's hard to get people to tell their tales of corruption, despite the certainty of many international reports that it is rife. The man from the Bulgarian anti-corruption website says he has no concrete examples. When we ask in exasperation how people can measure corruption, as they do, without individual stories, we are told "social indices".

The Bulgarian press at least is full of stories. I ask one businessman if corruption makes it hard for him. "Yes, very difficult". How? He smiles and looks at me as though I'm an idiot, which I'm sure he thinks I am. "Well, the bureaucracy can be very difficult." But what does that mean in practice? "We have long and firm experience of standing up to the bureaucracy," he says, smiling a sad smile.

DARK HEART

Tobias Jones
Tobias Jones: He could have been writing about Bulgaria
Corruption becomes a problem, not when the odd official can be bribed but when it becomes impossible to avoid and only holy fools refuse to play the game. On the way back from covering the Italian elections I read Tobias Jones's brilliant book, The Dark Heart of Italy.

I'm struck by the similarity between deep problems he identifies in Italy with what also seems true in Bulgaria. People do not respect the state but can cringe before authority. They believe, with some evidence, that politicians are crooks and this justifies their own cheating.

Heavy-handed bureaucracy is subverted by reliance on a clannish network of family and friends. But is it worse in Bulgaria than other parts of the world, even dare I say it, than the EU itself?

Please send us your comments on issues raised in the diary, using the postform below.


Your comments:

Corruption in the state bureaucracy is the cancer of post-communist countries, affecting the lives of ordinary middle-class citizens. Croatia is no better than Bulgaria in that matter. Bulgaria in my opinion is still not ready to join the EU, as it needs more time to tackle this criminal practice. As for Croatia, I just don't understand our PM who is convinced Croatia will become a full EU member by 2009. It takes a much longer time to heal this society from widespread corruption than 3 years. Or should we join the EU quickly, unprepared and embarrassed? Good luck to us all!
Bojan, Plitvicka Jezera, Croatia

The extent of corruption in Italy may not be as pervasive as one experiences in Bulgaria but the magnitude of it relative to the GDP is indeed staggering.
Abolade St. John, Oxford, England

A key problem with Bulgaria is the fact that still many high-level officials have ties with the mafia or are corrupt in other ways. But Bulgaria isn't the only place like that. With Canada, I'm not saying our officials are corrupt, but I'm not denying it either... Also Hells Angels, the North American mafia, is quite visible. Certain places they have their own grocery stores, cafes, clubs... How did Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania get into the EU? I doubt they were as prepared as Romania and Bulgaria are. But I guess a common border with Russia was more important.
Alexander, Canada

Progress is good and I am finally happy to see it appreciated in Bulgaria and Romania. If they are pushed back a year it would be a shame. I also think that Croatia, Macedonia and even Serbia deserve such rights and it is unfair for the West to be so harsh in accepting the people of these comunities to join prosperity. Corruption is just an excuse. The West is very discriminatory and is very good at pointing out what is wrong with a particular country, and only accepts them once they know for sure they can benefit from their behalf.
Eduard, Arlington Heights, Illinois -USA

My wife's Bulgarian and I've been there every year for about the last 7. Things are certainly getting better on a day-to-day basis in Bulgaria with regard to corruption. There is still a problem at the upper echelons and with organised crime though.

What really drives you nuts is the bureaucracy! Reams of red tape to get the simplest things done with a government attitude that "it's for your own good so put up with it". Some of this is a rather over-enthusiastic demonstration of improvements for the EU authorities I think. A bit more attention to how it impacts the average citizen would not go amiss!

I would like to see Bulgaria in the EU so that the improvements can continue, the over-zealous ones can calm done, and those that would turn a delay or a "no" into a weapon to pursue a more unpleasant agenda would be powerless.
Andy, Ilford, UK

To answer to Boyan Yordanov and Tsonko. Of course lobby is important but I think it's more than that. France is not such a big help for Romania as it was maybe in the past. They didn't even ratify the accession treaty - not a very helpful signal. Corruption didn't disappear from Romania overnight and it won't disappear easily, but investigations started against some senior politicians. At the same time you don't see "contract killings" on the streets of Bucharest as the case in Bulgaria seems to be.
Paul Ivan, Cluj, Romania

One tends to forget that "corruption" is simply the "back-channel" of democracy in action. When government - either self-appointed or elected - fails to provide support for the needs of constituents, either the governors are replaced or "invisible" government takes its place. Since any policy established to govern any group of people will, inevitably, inconvenience some of the group, the incentive to find an "alternate" way of achieving their goals becomes their motivation. More laws to protect the disenfranchised fail.
Brett Brennan, Bullhead City,Arizona,United States

The other day, a Sofia traffic officer swaggered up to me and demanded to see my driving licence. He stubbed out his cigarette, then straightened his cap, and said "You know, when we join the EU, we will wreck it!" Such is the Bulgarians' confidence in their own country.
Eddie, Sofia, Bulgaria

Cheers from Bulgaria, and really glad to see so many people responding to this brilliant article! I just wanted to say that Bulgaria has always been a country of paradoxes. We see people living as kings, and others hardly making their living. We see policemen driving Porsches and peasants with their carts.

As to corruption - our worst problem indeed. I read an article in the press recently. The author asked the question if some of the people here don't favour corruption, because they consider it immoral and unethical act, or because they never got any benefits from it... tough question.

I see my country in the EU, and despite all the odds, I believe there's no other way for us, but join on time!
Liliya Todorova, Varna, Bulgaria

Interesting comment about Bulgarian corruption - they should feel right at home in the EU. In my opinion you can't get any worse than not having your accounts signed off for 11 years. Don't get me wrong though as I am sure there are a lot of other countries with corruption problems, our recent "cash for peerages" scandal in the UK just proves this.
Disgruntled Eurosceptic, England

I've been living outside Bulgaria for nearly eight years and I do agree with Petar, Prince George, Canada on his observations about the positive change of the situation. The nearly overnight improvement of the level of corruption in Romania makes me think that we are probably not winning the fight with corruption in our country but we are definitely losing the lobbying battle in Brussels. Unfortunately this is what matters after all.
Tsonko, Brussels, Belgium

Pointing Romania as more prepared for the EU entrance than Bulgaria shows the difference between the fruits of the countries' lobbyism in Europe, but certainly not a significant difference in their preparedness. Unfortunately we Bulgarians have never had from anyone the support France gives to Romania. One thing that is often omitted is that there are forces in Bulgaria who try to shift the attention from the poor economy conditions to the "long subversive Turkish hand" which is allegedly the one to blame for all the misfortunes. If these forces succeed to stir the Bulgarian society and lead to open confrontation between the Bulgarians and the Turkish minority I guess that would be the end of the EU dreams. I hope that will never happen.
Boyan Yordanov, Malta

Rest assured fast drivers - after several years living in Bulgaria I can say that the police Porsche can most often be found (double) parked outside a cafe with the occupants enjoying an espresso. On the more serious issues: Is there still a lot of corruption? Is it derived from the old state order? Is the situation getting better? The answer to all three is Yes. It's important for the EU to support Bulgaria in going through what many other countries have already experienced, rather than taking a short-term, superior view that will alienate people in this small, oft-neglected, but lovely corner of Europe.
Philip, Sofia

Strange how some people blame everything on half a century of Communist rule. For 500 years Bulgaria was a part of the Turkish empire - the very state that officially had the so-called "bribe tax". Ugly Soviet-style buildings? 2/3 of London is council housing of exactly the same style and level of maintenance. Holland itself is not exactly so innocent, time after time huge corruption scandals surface in the local press, only never to make it to the international press. We are taking good care of our image abroad.
Piet, Amsterdam, NL

Instead of wooing Bulgaria and Romania with membership, we should provide them with economic aid until they're strong enough to actually make a meaningful entry. Europe should stop looking to the East, and instead concentrate on wooing Norway, Iceland and Switzerland - successful democracies with roaring economies and no corruption in sight!
Matt Smith, Lancaster, UK

I am Greek, but I have a business that operates in Bulgaria. There is corruption in Bulgaria, as there is corruption in Greece, as in France, UK, US and so on. The problem is not whether there is corruption, the problem is whether corruption is so obvious and apparent that the EU cannot close its eyes and pretend that it is not there. So Bulgaria has to wait a few years, until the mafia attains the knowledge, does some money-laundering and comes out on the other end as respectable hotel owners, restaurant and club enterpreneurs and so on. And I agree with comments that Bulgarian corruption matters that much... but did it not matter that the budget for security for Athens 2004 went from 500 million euros to 2 billion? And how did that happen? How do you call the pressure to increase the budget? Is that not corruption? It is only a matter of words and disguise.
Anastasios, Athens, Greece

I too welcome this piece about Bulgaria. I visited both it and Romania in 2004 and at the time the concern was that Romania was the one further behind in the accession process and would not fulfil the criteria to complete negotiations for their entry. At the time the Bulgarians were seen to be further ahead in the accession process and were worried about the Romanians holding them back. I hope to see both in the EU in 2007. I am glad you visited Bulgaria Mark, I hope you liked Sofia and that you got outside to see the Thracian Plain. I hope you got to visit the Roman city of Plovdiv with its contrast between its Roman and other preserved buildings in the centre and the Soviet buildings around it. A very great city.
Andrew Tattersall, London, UK

It is refreshing to read how Mark has discovered Bulgaria... Having been almost anywhere in Europe and in the US, there is a lot to come back to in Bulgaria, starting with its people, traditions, culture and openness to other cultures. Also, the impressive health, childcare and educational systems, which expats in Bulgaria do appreciate.

However, EU politicians have a tough decision to take next week... There are chances that Bulgaria will deal with this type of corruption in a similar manner as Slovakia did, that is after EU accession. Dealing with the corruption at that level is much tougher than making the police more realistic about the way they conduct themselves. I hope they will keep in touch with the UK police, which at large has built a significant amount of support and trust with the general public.
Rumyana, London

I left Bulgaria some 10 years ago. Corruption was pretty bad at that time as it had been over the previous decades. It was considered 'normal' since most of us didn't know anything better. For the last few years things have improved significantly. We have visited the 'old country' regularly almost every year and were able to witness the changes. For example, I was stopped for speeding 2 years ago and the police refused to take my small 'tip' - something unheard of before. Right now the corruption is primarily a problem with the big players - those high in the political and financial ladder... To change the things 'up there' requires major shake-ups from the very top - similar to the ones we now see in Romania. It is good to see something is being done - left out of control corruption can stiffle the society. We've seen that happen in many countries, for example in Africa. With respect to that I think EU has done a very good job applying pressure. It is working. The fact that corruption is an issue in other countries, including EU members is a different issue.
Petar, Prince George, Canada

I read all those comments and cannot stop to be amazed by people's reaction on what is going on in the "New Europe" and Russia. The "freeing democracy" help by the West created new oligarchies, criminal associations of thieves and previous politicians/apparatchiks. Look at Russia's billionaires! Those guys were supposedly earning $100 a month before the so-called democracies formed. They steal without limit... We remove one oligarchy and promote a new bunch of criminals!.. Unfortunately, I can see a new wave of nationalist and fascist movements emerging in all of the previous Soviet bloc countries. Who could they trust? What else do they have to believe in, rely on? The dishonesty and lies of the West?
arthur glab, leamington, canada

There is a lot of corruption in Bulgaria but it is certainly not at the level it was a few years ago. I think that Bulgaria has made progress in this field and the EU's reluctance to accept us is not just because there is corruption in the country but because we are looked at as second-class citizens, inhabiting a place which has been always portrayed as a "powder-keg" or a place of clannish violence (i.e. the Balkans). There is corruption in every country, read David Sirota's just published book "Hostile Takeover" to learn more about corruption in the US.
Martin Marinos, Pernik, Bulgaria

Corruption is endemic in most countries. I live in a country which has been an EU member for 20 years, and I live in a city that has recently had its mayoress, deputy mayoress, ex-mayor, town planner and numerous other officials and businessmen arrested and imprisoned with regard to fraud of at least 2.4 billion euros. I'm sure Bulgaria is no worse.
John W, Marbella, Spain

I lived in Bulgaria for nearly two years in the mid-nineties.Whilst living in Sofia I took delivery of a Mitsubishi Pajero. The first night it was parked in an underground car park in the centre of town, under direct police surveillance with an armed guard on the front gate.The next morning the vehicle had disappeared never to be seen again. After reading Mark's report, it would appear nothing changes.
Steve Atkin, Tunbridge Wells, England

I find that the main problem in Bulgaria is the lack of action. People can be seen day and night at cafes complaining about the situation and how the government is, but do nothing about it. The western world is idolized and everyone wants to be like USA, but that mentality leads to even greater struggle and grief through lack of money and great corruption.
Martin Toumbev, Toronto, Canada

Having moved to Bulgaria to live and work 6 months ago, I read Mark's article with interest. What he is saying about Bulgaria is very true. Bulgarians are weighed down by sometimes mind-numbing bureaucracy. People complain about it but don't see that it can be changed. Corruption is a sensitive issue here but I don't think it is as ingrained into society as in some countries. I hope the EU decides in favour of Bulgaria on 16th May, membership is just what this country needs.
Abi Robinson, Varna Bulgaria

I do think that corruption in Bulgaria is worse than in (Western) Europe, although you certainly have a good case with Italy. Last week I read a comment from someone who asked us to stop bashing Italy, but it is the simple truth. Berlusconi behaves like a sort of semi-democratic oligarch from Eastern Europe. But leaving Italy aside, I dare to say that corruption is practically non-existent in the Netherlands, and I cannot imagine the case being very different in Britain, France, Germany etc.

A different case would be to compare Bulgaria with for example Slovakia, or one of the other new members. These might have developed somewhat more than Bulgaria, but the distance between Bulgaria and one of the new members is probably still smaller than that between the new 10 and the old 15.
Menno Bart, Amsterdam

Bulgaria has had 500 years of foreign rule in the form of the Ottoman empire, a brief respite before another 50 years of communist rule. The country and people are struggling to come to terms with a new system. The EU needs to be actively helping and supporting Bulgaria rather than sitting in judgment on whether this long suffering nation is "fit" to join our club. I very much doubt whether the present members would have done any better under similar circumstances.
Mark Hampton, Paris France

I am not happy about the state of corruption in my country but the most worrying factor is that when I speak to people here, they all think of it as something natural and call me crazy when I tell them to stand for their rights. It is as if the whole population has been brainwashed to accept the negatives of those who are in power and this is most troubling news.
Pesch, Sofia, Bulgaria

Bravo Mark & BBC for printing these excellent & very interesting e-mail replies - it makes fascinating reading & should be compulsory for MEPs & MPs as well as the Great & the Good in the EU institutions - (perhaps they are!) - ESPECIALLY good to expose the very diverse nature of thinking & real citizen experience of EU member nationals to British audiences, who continue to have a "blind spot" of interest on EU issues & remain poorly educated and informed on the realities of the EU - both the positives & the negatives.

I am a "traditional Brit" in background & upbringing & a proud "nationalist" however living 30 years in the EEC & EU I have grown to recognise that all "we" Europeans MUST form a cohesive but diverse political & well as economic union in order to continue to play a role on the world economic & political arena. Otherwise we will slowly decline into a "theme park" of past glories and tourist centres for the rest of the world's peoples to visit and admire the splendours of our PAST...

PLEASE BBC take this up as a MAJOR issue for PUBLIC debate within the UK & also on the wider EU canvas - MARK should have a regular programme exposing the difficulties and the challenges of the "EU PROJECT" & Britain should have a more active role with a better educated & aware Public.
barrie hartley, Brussels --Belgium

I am starting to get really tired of all the bad press Bulgaria is getting at the moment. Yes, there is corruption, but what do you expect of a country that was left in devastation sixteen years ago? I wish people would stop believing that the situation will change with a magical stick. Let it run its course, I say. But then again, I am a Bulgarian.
Miglena, London, UK

I would like to thank Mark for his last comment on bureaucracy and corruption in Bulgaria...

I really don't believe that six million people will make all that much difference to the general corruption level in Europe, or indeed will place any real strain on the EU, but I do believe that the Bulgaria as a whole represents a very good investment in strategic and economic terms for the European Union. This is reflected in their presence in Nato and the recent decision to build US bases in the country.

The organisation which measures perceived corruption sees Bulgaria as having less corruption than most of its neighbours, including Greece and Italy.
Henry, London, UK

I believe that if Europe is to have a culture convergence, it has to be around the concepts of justice, fairness and respect of government, and that it is worth sacrificing anything to achieve this. The alternative is an oligarchy of more or less self-serving interest groups, to the point of criminal law-bending and the traffic of influence.

I feel that the often-recorded aversion to the EU is fully justified on this count ... To avoid going down the same path as the US has travelled, Europe has one big advantage - ingrained Christianity, which provides a just God as final arbiter over more or less corrupt human nature. However, given that this recourse is deliberately ignored by the current lawmakers (the trial Constitution also did an excellent job of blurring anything fundamental), I hold out no hope whatever for the ideal of Europe actually turning into anything good.
JN Williams, La Louviere, Belgium

I must add that until 20 years ago also the Dutch highway police drove in a Porsche convertible with blue flashing light and painted in white with smart reflective orange. (Only bought and paid for by the taxpayer and not confiscated.) So police driving in a Porsche was not unique for the Bulgarian police alone.
Jan Pieter Wagenaar, Aerdenhout

For the past 10 years I've spent about 6 months of each year in N. W. Bulgaria, as a volunteer teacher, and visitor. I've made some great friends, and though wary of treading on sensitive toes, I sometimes suggest that strong protest can produce improvement. This is commonly met with "What can we do? What is the point?" I've seen corruption in its most overt state, God only knows what transpires behind closed doors. I'll continue to visit Bulgaria, because I thoroughly enjoy the people, but they are suffering, in many ways.
Michael Grimes, Trenton, Ont., Canada. K*V ^V^

As an expat living here in Sofia it is interesting to see Bulgaria finally appearing on the radar - as Mark Mardell writes it is an underrated country of great potential and of remarkable history and culture. It is changing rapidly but it retains an air of the wild east. I dare say that there are places that are equally corrupt in western Europe - it's just that here it is blatant.
Richard Larkin, Sofia

With regard to police driving Porsches. Please note the Dutch Police have used Porche Carreras for a long time in the 60's, 70's and even the 80's. Albeit Porches bought through official importing channels..
H. de Vries, Sneek, Netherlands

Getting hard evidence of corruption is the hard part, because poth parties to a corrupt deal are guilty even if one of them is a victim in some sense. That stops whistle-blowers dead. But a contributing cause of corruption is unnecessary regulation that can be arbitrarily enforced. The EU is definitely heading in that direction, and anecdotal evidence suggests that even militantly transparent processes in the EU can be subverted by those with sufficient knowledge and determination to take advantage of the loopholes in transparency. Those, perversely, are quite opaque and can hide many shady deals. We'll never know how many, or how shady, because transparency doesn't extend as far as letting the wider world know what a fool the EU can be.
Geoff Walduck, Moscow, Russia

Many police departments in the United States use confiscated vehicles.
P J, San Francisco

I am appalled by the stream of negative articles about Bulgaria that have appeared in Western European press recently. All of them concern the high level of corruption in Bulgaria and the existence of organized crime. This is why I am happy that Mr. Mardell makes a good comparison with Italy and poses an even better question: is corruption in Bulgaria worse than elsewhere? I think the answer is, despite the thrust of Mr. Mardell's previous notes, probably not.

Here is some food for thought. All these recent reports about Bulgaria say how better prepared Romania is for EU membership and by implication somehow less corrupt. Transparency International - the most trusted authority on corruption studies - seems to think differently. Their 2005 corruption perception index puts Bulgaria at 57th place, right after EU member Latvia, well before EU member Poland, which is 70th, and well before Romania, which placed at the 85th place among the most corrupt countries. I don¿t deny that corruption exists as a problem, but I think we should put it in perspective - and these numbers are a good way of doing this.
Rositsa Petrova, Sofia, Bulgaria

It's a shame that Charles Clarke departed the Cabinet, as he was one of the more articulate members of the Labour Government. There were a lot of rumours suggesting that if the foreign prisoner crisis did not happen then Clarke would have been moved to the Foreign Office. Considering Clarke is pro-Europe it would have been interesting to see the less enthusiastic Chancellor's reaction.
Manjit Mand, Birmingham, United Kingdom

Just a little bit of information for all British holidaymakers. The Austrian Police, have added Porsches to their cars on the Austrian Autobahns. These Porsches have a top speed of in excess 300 KpH. So be careful when racing across Austria, otherwise you will lose you licence!
Michael Chambers

The situation in Catalonia is very similar to that in Italy as well, despite Barcelona's modern, go-getting reputation. I cannot speak with authority on Spain as a whole, but I imagine it to be the same.
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