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Procedure : 2021/2868(RSP)
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Document selected : O-000057/2021

Texts tabled :

O-000057/2021 (B9-0034/2021)

Debates :

PV 16/09/2021 - 3
PV 16/09/2021 - 5
CRE 16/09/2021 - 3
CRE 16/09/2021 - 5

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Verbatim report of proceedings
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Thursday, 16 September 2021 - Strasbourg Revised edition

3. United States sanctions and the Rule of law (debate)
Video of the speeches
Minutes
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  Die Präsidentin. – Als nächster Punktder Tagesordnung folgt die Aussprache über die Anfrage zur mündlichen Beantwortung an die Kommission zum Thema „Sanktionen der Vereinigten Staaten und Rechtsstaatlichkeit“ von Juan Fernando López Aguilar im Namen des Ausschusses für bürgerliche Freiheiten, Justiz und Inneres [2021/2868(RSP)] (O-000057/2021 - B9-0034/21).

Ich erinnere noch einmal kurz zu Beginn der heutigen Sitzung, dass bei allen Aussprachen dieser Tagung keine spontanen Wortmeldungen und auch keine blauen Karten akzeptiert werden. Außerdem sind wie bei den letzten Tagungen Zuschaltungen aus den Verbindungsbüros des Parlaments in den Mitgliedstaaten vorgesehen.

 
  
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  Juan Fernando López Aguilar, author. – Madam President, it is my privilege to present and raise before you this oral question addressed to the Commission. On behalf of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, which I chair, the situation goes like this.

Background in summary: on 2 June 2021, the US Administration announced that its Department of Treasury had sanctioned three individuals and their networks in Bulgaria, three Bulgarian citizens, on the grounds of engaging in corruption. Of course it is a fact that corruption poses a serious risk and challenge to the whole rule of law framework that we have set forth, to economic growth, to the credibility of democratic institutions and human rights for one thing.

These sanctions stem from the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which is in force in the United States, adopted by the US Congress, bearing the name, as you are aware, of Sergei Magnitsky, a tax expert who came up with the exposure of a network of corruption and gross and massive violation of human rights in Russia. Allegedly arrested on unlawful grounds, in an infamous prison facility, beaten to death in a year.

That means that ever since Sergei Magnitsky was reported dead in 2009, the United States decided to come up with this new US legislation bearing the name of Sergei Magnitsky, the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, in order to impose sanctions for corruption and gross or massive violation of human rights everywhere, wherever in the world, and it happens that this time it is making an impact on EU citizens, EU individuals, citizens of Bulgaria, and thus citizens of the European Union.

Also on the same date, another three former public officials, Bulgarian public officials, were designated – that is the term – by the US Department of State according to Executive Order 13818 of the United States, which entails that they cannot enter the United States. Of course all of the assets are to be frozen and a number of sanctions entailed with these measures. That is why the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE), and in particular the Monitoring Group on Democracy, Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights, raised concerns over the consequences of such a US sanctions scheme on the EU approach in the fields of democracy, rule of law, fundamental rights and the fight against corruption which is, yes, a higher priority for all of us.

As a follow-up an oral question has been addressed by the LIBE Committee to the Commission and that is why we are here, to bring explanations to the following concerns.

First, how does the Commission view the fact that a third country, namely the United States, considered an ally of the European Union for sure, acts on corruption in the EU and its Member States? Second, how does this change the assessment by the Commission of its current approach and in particular of an evaluation of its own actions so far in this matter in the fight against corruption? Third, what actions are planned by the Commission or what does the Commission envisage for a robust approach against corruption at state level? Will the Commission be more proactive in acting on corruption and threats to the rule of law across the Member States?

Let’s remember that we have put in place nothing less than the rule of law conditionality and the recovery of funds linked to full compliance, of course the values of Article 2, rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights, but also the fight against corruption, in written debates on resolutions adopted and LIBE concerns have been raised concerning the fact that the Commission no longer publishes this so-called corruption report. I can remind you that your predecessor, Cecilia Malmström, being Home Commissioner, set in motion a mapping of corruption across the European Union and its Member States. Yes, that was an achievement, but no continuation, there has not been a follow-up, so our question also touches upon whether the Commission would reinforce the corruption monitoring and drawing conclusions and including recommendations in several rule of law reports against corruption?

Finally, the role of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, EPPO – finally in place, finally there, acting against fraud, corruption, misappropriation, these kinds of cross-border serious crimes, combating corruption – it’s also important that this is further clarified given the need for a coherent EU approach in all in this context. Would the Commission envisage developing also a common anti-corruption strategy in the EU? Are you, Commissioner, developing that strategy? Are you catching up? I look forward to hearing the Commission’s feedback on these issues, important not only for the fight against corruption in itself, but also for upholding Union values within the EU, on which we dwell in every plenary of this European Parliament.

 
  
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  Ylva Johansson, Member of the Commission. – Madam President, honourable Members, Mr López Aguilar, the fight against corruption is our top priority, a priority of this House and of the Commission, as President von der Leyen made perfectly clear once again yesterday in her State of the Union speech here in this plenary.

She said that investments that enable our children to have a better future must not be allowed to seep away into dark channels, and she said: corruption is not just taxpayers’ money stolen, it is investors scared off, big favours bought by big money and democracy undermined by the powerful.

I could not agree more. As Commissioner responsible for Home Affairs, I might add that corruption enables organised crime. When criminals buy people and buy politicians, they buy power. For all these reasons, we are fighting corruption, tooth and nail.

To come to your first question, the United States share our commitment to fight corruption. At the recent EU—US Summit on 15 June 2021, both sides confirmed their commitment to defend universal human rights, prevent democratic backsliding and fight corruption.

Regarding US sanctions against corruption in any EU Member State, let me say this. The EU does have strong concerns about the US imposing sanctions against EU nationals, especially without prior consultation. It is for the EU Member States to carry out criminal investigations against those responsible for corruption. The EU and US have strengthened their cooperation on sanctions and can discuss potential concerns in the framework of this dialogue.

The second part of your question has regard to the fight against corruption. To start with, we are fighting corruption as a criminal threat. As Europol’s Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment shows, 60% of criminal networks engage in corruption. As decided by the Council in May, fighting criminal networks that spread corruption will get special emphasis under the European Multidisciplinary Platform Against Criminal Threats (EMPACT), the instrument for EU internal security cooperation.

The fight against corruption is also a key priority under the Commission’s new EU strategy to tackle organised crime. We are protecting those who expose corruption. By the end of this year, Member States must implement the Whistleblower Directive. This directive protects whistleblowers in both the public and the private sector across the EU. The Commission supports Member States in their fight to root out corruption. We have set up a new rule of law mechanism. We are closely monitoring the fight against corruption in an intensive dialogue with Member States.

The Commission has already adopted two EU Rule of Law Reports, annual reports that address systematic threats to the rule of law, including corruption. As President von der Leyen announced yesterday, we will introduce specific recommendations to Member States in next year’s Rule of Law Report, which will make the mechanism stronger and sharper.

The country chapter on Bulgaria in this year’s report highlights the US sanctions under the US Global Magnitsky Act, targeting certain Bulgarian citizens for committing acts of corruption, including a former Member of Parliament. Next year’s Rule of Law Report will follow up on this issue as appropriate. Since 2007, the Commission has been monitoring Bulgaria under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism. That is the instrument to assist Bulgaria in judicial reform and the fight against organised crime and corruption.

Bulgaria is making progress but will need to turn commitments into actions. Any decision on ending the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism will take into account the position of the Council and of this House.

President von der Leyen also made clear yesterday that the Commission will leave no stone unturned to protect EU taxpayers’ money. The Commission will make full use of the new conditionality regime. We can, and will, impose measures on Member States for breaches of the rule of law that undermine the EU budget.

Every single euro of the Recovery and Resilience Facility must go to the recovery of our Member States, to the economy and health care, and not a cent must end up in criminal pockets. The Commission will prevent misuse of recovery funds by checking if Member States’ internal control systems are up to the task, and we will fight abuse of recovery funds by carrying out risk—based controls and audits.

The European Public Prosecutor’s Office is up and running and can investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of criminal offences affecting the Union’s budget, including corruption. When the Commission assesses potential breaches of the rule of law in the Member States, we will take effective and timely cooperation with the European Public Prosecutor’s Office into account.

The European Public Prosecutor’s Office will also cooperate with authorities of third countries. In fact, it already has established communications channels with US counterparts. The Commission will do what it can to support this cooperation.

Yesterday’s State of the Union speech once again made clear that the fight against corruption is at the top of our agenda, and I know I can count on you to join us in this fight.

 
  
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  Stanislav Polčák, za skupinu PPE. – Paní předsedkyně, vážená paní komisařko, korupci v Evropě řeší Spojené státy. Když odhlédneme od skutečnosti, že to je od blízkého spojence poněkud nezvyklé: Co to vypovídá o schopnosti Evropské unie a jejích členských států bojovat s korupcí účinným způsobem? Selhává na tomto poli Evropská unie? Já jsem s pozorností vyslechl, co říkala paní komisařka, a jsem velmi rád za její vystoupení. Udělali jsme toho strašně moc v oblasti samozřejmě veřejné žaloby, zřízení úřadu veřejného žalobce, strategií. Domnívám se, že bychom měli pokročit dále, např. vytvořit opravdovou evropskou policejní strukturu ve smyslu Europolu jakožto organizace, kterou bude řídit a plně tedy umožňovat její práci v členských státech Evropská unie. A dokáže Evropská unie s korupcí také efektivně zápolit nejen v případě malých ryb, ale i v případě těch velkých?

Problémem České republiky, ale nejen České republiky i řady jiných států, je střet zájmů nejen českého premiéra, ale i dalších osob, které v důsledku zneužívání svého postavení získávají velké množství nejen národních, ale také evropských prostředků. Střet zájmů je, ve své podstatě, institucionalizovanou korupcí. Mám obavu, zda Evropská komise v takovém případě, kdy korupce vzniká na nejvyšší úrovni, zda s ní dokáže účinně bojovat. Vysílá tak trochu nešťastný signál, kdy se dlouho nic neřeší, že zákon, nebo chcete-li také regulace, platí jen pro některé. Jedno pořekadlo říká, že malá síť zachytí jen malé ryby, ty velké ji protrhnou.

Já jsem velmi rád za to, co řekla paní komisařka. Doufám, že Evropská komise udělá maximum pro to, aby pravidla platila pro všechny a aby korupční kauzy nemusely být řešeny zvnějšku jako v tomto případě Spojenými státy.

 
  
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  Елена Йончева, от името на групата S&D. – Г-жо Председател, в началото на месец юни една държава членка, България, беше разтресена от санкции, наложени от американската администрация на няколко български граждани заради корупция и търговия с влияние.

България тази година се превърна в страната с най-мащабни санкции, налагани в един ден по закона „Магнитски“. Българските граждани знаят много добре проблемите с корупцията в страната. Българските граждани протестираха срещу превземането на съдебната система в страната, срещу нагласените обществени поръчки и корупция, и когато го правиха, те бяха бити и унижавани, заплашени и влачени по съдебни зали.

Днес, г-жо Комисар, от името на всички български граждани, които чакат отговори от Европа, искам да Ви попитам следното: България е обект на мониторинг в областта на правосъдието и вътрешните работи и въпреки наличието на всички инструменти, в нито един доклад до момента не са констатирани нещата, за които говорят американските власти. Защо? Откъде идва разликата, че във Вашия доклад, г-жо Комисар, се говори за напредък, наличие на резултати. Критиките обаче са прекалено предпазливи, докато САЩ открито говорят за системно даване на подкупи на високопоставени лица, в това число и на действащ политически лидер. Кой е този политически лидер, г-жо Комисар? Нека да съм ясна, не призовавам към европейски санкции, а към ефективност във Вашите действия, така че да откриваме проблемите и да помогнем на държавите членки като България да ги преодолеят.

В тази връзка е вторият ми въпрос: Имала ли е Европейската комисия сходна информация с тази, която разпространи американската администрация? Ако не, какви действия са предприети от страна на Европейската комисия за установяване на фактите? Защото, ако изнесената от американските власти информация е вярна, то имаме сериозен проблем с върховенството на закона в Европейския съюз. Не само заради ситуацията в България, но и заради това, че явно нашите инструменти не са ефективни. Ако изнесеното обаче от американската страна не е вярно, то как трябва да реагираме, за да защитим имиджа на Европейския съюз и водещата роля на държавите членки в тази област в международен план?

 
  
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  Sophia in 't Veld, on behalf of the Renew Group. – Madam President, it’s not the first time that the United States intervenes in European matters in the area of the rule of law, fundamental rights and democracy. They have put pressure on Poland, for example, in the case of the Lex TVN, which we discussed yesterday. They’ve put pressure on Hungary for violation of fundamental rights. But imposing sanctions is actually a whole different ballgame – I also wonder if the Magnitsky Act is the correct instrument for this.

This should wake us up. Dear Commissioner, I hear you say ‘it is for the Member States to fight corruption and the European Commission, the European Union, will support this’. But it’s a ridiculous situation. We know that there is corruption in many Member States and there are Member States which are vulnerable, including my own. Yet, the European Commission says, ‘Oh, you know, this is a national matter’. We have a third country, a non—EU country, imposing sanctions. This should wake us up. This shows that there is a problem with the way that the European Union functions.

I think there’s also a problem with the way the European Commission operates. I think the Commission is lax and slow and hands—off and too intergovernmental, basically. The Commission should decide: is it serving the citizens or is it serving the governments? If it’s serving the citizens, then it should be much more actively fighting corruption, because corruption is, poison.

Europe has to keep its own house in order. Now, this House has always been very active. The European Parliament Democracy Rule of Law Fundamental Rights Monitoring Group is monitoring a range of countries: Malta, Slovakia and also Bulgaria – we will be travelling there next week – and Slovenia. But we have also raised questions to the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Spain, the Greek authorities, etc., etc.

I am glad to hear that the Commission, as of next year, will include country—specific recommendations in the Rule of Law Report, but that is clearly not enough. The Commission, under the pressure of the same Member States, has abolished the annual corruption report. I think that was a very bad sign.

But there are sufficient instruments at your disposal. It’s also a question of enforcement. Here again, we see that the Commission is bowing to pressure of the Member States. It has been raised by the previous colleague. There is the CVM. Since 15 years, the Commission has been monitoring.

So what has been achieved? It cannot be that the Commission says ‘everything’s fine, progress is being made’ and then the US is imposing sanctions. There is a gap here that cannot be explained. The Commission is not doing enough. The Commission should face up to the Member States, serve the citizens and fight corruption, because corruption is poison.

 
  
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  Daniel Freund, on behalf of the Verts/ALE Group. – Madam President, colleagues, Commissioner Johansson, the situation in Bulgaria is much worse than what is reported in all the monitoring of the European Commission. And thanks to the change in government, we can better grasp today the scope of corruption, of nepotism, of money laundering that is taking place in the country. And it also shows the failure of the Commission to really do anything about this.

I was in Sofia two weeks ago. I spoke with a number of officials from the interim government, and the stories that you hear are shocking. There are stories of bags full of cash in government offices. There are state assets being looted. There are – or there were – criminals with direct access to the former Prime Minister.

And it’s in this environment that the US sanctions came, and to quote a Bulgarian politician, it dropped a political bomb. So these Magnitsky sanctions against three corrupt oligarchs – one of them, Vassil Bojkov, known for bribing the government, known for his connections to Russia.

I think these sanctions had the desired effect. The individuals were named, shamed and sanctioned. And if you see that Bulgarian officials are actually hoping for a second round, at least the Americans are doing something when the Europeans so far remain inactive. So it is a shame that this decisive action doesn’t come from Brussels, it doesn’t come from Europe: we rely on the Americans to help out with the fight against corruption and the stealing – including of EU taxpayer money – in the country.

So dear colleagues, I think we can all agree that this doesn’t look good for the European Commission. It shows that the measures are not working. You have said today that you will monitor the situation, but monitoring isn’t preventing or fixing anything. And you have also said that you will make full use of all the tools – but clearly, you are not making use of all the tools.

The rule-of-law conditionality mechanism has already been mentioned, but let me also say that the Bulgarian officials actually told me that they had asked for help – not only the Commission, also the Member State’s government – they want technical assistance on money laundering, on public procurement officials, on how to reform the administration, and they are saying that they’re not getting that help.

So how is this possible? Why don’t we protect effectively EU taxpayer money, including in Bulgaria? Why does it take US sanctions to tackle corruption, and why aren’t we helping with that? And why don’t we at least help a Member State government, when it’s asking for help and for technical assistance?

 
  
 

(Die Aussprache wird unterbrochen.)

 
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