With new legislation, Bulgaria’s government is trying to limit inconvenient civil engagement in projects it deems strategic.
Anelia Stefanova, Programme director | 24 July 2017
Photo by JD Mason on Unsplash.
The Bulgarian government is currently trying to rush through legislation that would restrict the rights of civil society to challenge certain infrastructure projects. The move is intended to ensure that Bulgaria receives EU funding for the environmentally harmful Struma motorway project.
Bulgaria’s ruling party proposed legislation that will restrict the possibilities for citizens to appeal governmental decisions on so-called “strategic projects”.
If adopted, the legislation would allow the government to limit the role of the judiciary in case of an appeal on environmental matters. It envisages an increase in legal fees for filing an appeal proportional to the size of the investment. Courts are furthermore asked to move more quickly and provide their ruling within 6 months. The government will be able to speed up the environmental permitting procedure for the projects it can choose arbitrarily. A second appeal against a court’s ruling will not be possible anymore.
In a letter from July 21 to Jyrki Katainen, European Commission Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness the Bulgarian environmental community called on the European Commission to prevent such a deterioration of civil rights in Bulgaria.
Civil society organisations believe that the law changes are motivated by Bulgaria’s urgent need to absorb EU Cohesion Funds. An environmental permit is a prerequisite for projects to receive the funding. For Bulgaria’s biggest transport project, the Struma motorway, this is a vital financing source. But the project is still under preparation and with only three and a half years before the end of the current EU budget period, Bulgaria risks losing EUR 800 million if the motorway is not completed in time.
The delay is caused by the authorities’ unwillingness to construct the motorway outside the Kresna gorge, a biodiversity hotspot and NATURA 2000 site. The environmental permit from 2008 for the Struma motorway considers the bypass of the gorge feasible and the best option for the local population and for the nature. In 2013, the European Union committed to provided funding for this option specifically. However, pressured by the construction companies building the motorway, the government is already for few years looking for a way to route the motorway through the gorge.
For this to become possible, a new environmental permit is needed, quickly. The process for a new permit are supposed to start already in August. The new law would make it easier for the government to dismiss criticism from civil society against a routing through the Kresna gorge.
Civil society organisations are campaigning for the motorway to bypass the gorge for two decades already. In a complaint filed with the European Commission on July 12, they made clear that the government’s plans would be a violation of EU law.
Instead of making an effort to improve the project preparation process and to comply with EU legislation on biodiversity protection, the Bulgarian government is now stubbornly trying to limit inconvenient civil engagement altogether. The measures proposed would greatly limit the effectiveness, independence and quality of the judicial system and violate the constitutional right to live in a healthy environment.
More than 35 non-governmental and civil organisations supported the letter to the European Commission. They call on the Commission to give a clear sign that compliance with EU law is non-negotiable for EU funded projects and to encourage the Bulgarian government to instead strengthen public control and increase the quality of the preparation of important infrastructure projects.
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