He probably believes he can remain prime minister. According to the preliminary results of Bulgaria’s April 4 parliamentary election, Boiko Borisov’s conservative GERB party won the largest share of the vote, with 29 percent. The search for coalition partners has begun.

The biggest winner—though not in terms of numbers—was a protest party led by television moderator and singer Slavi Trifonov. With over 13 percent of the vote, which was not bad given the way the coronavirus prevented campaigning, the party’s result showed how Trifonov’s anticorruption campaign had gained traction.

Judy Dempsey
Dempsey is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of Strategic Europe.
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Bulgarians are fed up with their country’s corruption. They are also disappointed with the EU’s failure to apply pressure on Borisov and the way the European People’s Party (EPP), the conservative bloc in the European Parliament of which GERB is a member, has only praise for Borisov. The EPP believes he is fighting corruption.

If the EU is ever surprised by Euroskepticism or disappointment with the EU, don’t always blame populists. Blame the EU’s lack of backbone in speaking out against corruption and degradation of the rule of law and media freedom, which are now increasingly common in several member states. Anticorruption campaigners and those trying to protect the rule of law have often looked in vain to the EU to defend the values that are supposed to characterize the bloc.

Back to Bulgaria. Until the coronavirus prevented them from continuing their protests, Bulgarians had come out in their thousands to ventilate their anger at the erosion of the rule of law, the intimidation of judges, and rampant abuses of power. After many years in office, Borisov has turned Bulgaria into what one European Parliament legislator called a “mafia state.” That is how Hungary, led since 2010 by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, has also been described.

Take a look at the rest of the region. Poland’s governing Law and Justice (PiS) party continues to emasculate the judiciary, while state-run television has become a mouthpiece for PiS. It is depressing viewing. Polemics, blame games, and mudslinging dominate the news cycle. The narrative is “us against them.” The center ground is all but destroyed.

Slovenia, which takes over the rotating presidency of the EU’s Council of Ministers on July 1, is taking a leaf out of Orbán’s book. Independent and public-sector media are under threat. But no doubt, apart from a mild rebuke, the EU will turn a blind eye to this latest trend, rather than propose that the presidency be passed to another country. Now that would have an impact.

Over in Prague, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš is taking swipes at the media. In Slovakia, a new prime minister has been sworn in after the previous one resigned following a unilateral decision to buy the Russian Sputnik coronavirus vaccine. Romania is struggling to clean up its judiciary.

All in all, the health of democracy and the rule of law in swathes of the EU—and not just in Central Europe and the Western Balkans, as Cyprus and Malta show—is not in good shape. Why is this so?

One factor is a combination of intellectual complacency and political cowardice. When ten countries joined the EU in 2004, followed in 2007 by Bulgaria and Romania and later by Croatia, the old EU member states didn’t conceptualize the difficulties of internalizing a battery of EU legislation for societies and cultures that had barely come out of a communist past. Nor did the Western European countries consider how the economic, social, and political upheavals after 1989 had shaped their Eastern neighbors.

The more distant past played a role as well. The political culture of Eastern Europe that preceded Nazi domination was markedly different from that of Western Europe. Over the centuries, Western Europe had been rooted in the ideas of the French Revolution, English philosopher John Locke, or German liberalism, interrupted by several wars. Eastern Europe’s political experiences were, in most cases, entirely different—not least because of many occupations, the role of the landed gentry, a weak bourgeoisie, and large agrarian populations that were radically uprooted after 1945 in the quest for rapid industrialization.

Returning to Europe after 1989 was not about returning as such but about the enormous unarticulated challenge of reconciling different political and sociological cultures. Yet, somehow, “they” in the new Europe were supposed to behave like “us” in the old Europe.

That doesn’t excuse the EU’s weaknesses in defending the rule of law in all of its member states. It doesn’t excuse Bucharest, Budapest, Ljubljana, Prague, or Warsaw for running roughshod over values, transparency, and the rule of law. And it doesn’t excuse the EPP or the other groups in the European Parliament for not speaking out. For them, securing political influence in the parliament has taken precedence over defending EU values.

Above all, the greater the degradation of the rule of law in EU member states, the greater the chance democracy will be weakened. Leaders of the EU’s institutions and governments are making life easy for Moscow and Beijing. The EU has only itself to blame for the assault on Europe’s democracies from within.