A few weeks ago, Irish MEP Clare Daly caused a media storm during the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) hearing, when she sharply criticized Commission Vice President Vera Joùrova for the European Union’s lack of action on Bulgaria – the poorest and most corrupt member of the Union. Daly is one of the most vocal MEPs in Brussels’s hemicycle, and among the most active Irish European representatives.
#Bulgaria is the most corrupt state in the EU & its people the most impoverished. The protesters on the streets of #Sofia want to know when #EU is going to stop emboldening & enabling the thugs in power there, and they deserve an answer – not more shameful EU fence-sitting @OCCRP pic.twitter.com/dNyWY9U3X0
— Clare Daly (@ClareDalyMEP) September 10, 2020
Our interview takes place less than an hour after Ursula von der Leyen’s State of the Union Speech, and Daly opens the conversation by calling it “a hypocrisy”:
“She talks about fair and free elections in Belarus, she talks about European money not being used to feed corruption… They have indisputable evidence that this is exactly what has been happening in Bulgaria and they have done nothing about it. The whole speech was so hypocritical, but in the context of Bulgaria the contradiction in her words was even clearer.”
For a European politician – or any politician in general – Daly is refreshingly straightforward and not afraid to tell me what she thinks. She is a member of Independents 4 Change, an Irish socialist party in the European United Left – Nordic Green Left group. We continue the discussion on Von der Leyen’s speech, during which the European Commission President laid out ambitious plans for the future of the EU in areas including the rule of law, foreign diplomacy and policy, and healthcare.
“That’s the brand of the European Union. It sounded like propaganda and I am sure a lot of citizens in a lot of European countries felt this way. Take the people in Italy, who felt that there was no solidarity in the beginning of this mess; and she talks about people in Afghanistan?” she laughs in disbelief.
I ask her whether Von der Leyen’s speech reflects the disconnect to which many have been referring during the summer of protests in Bulgaria, where citizens are still demanding the resignations of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and General Prosecutor Ivan Geshev amid rising concerns about corruption.
On many fronts the words do not reflect reality. And I think the only way of changing this is by the people in the member states organizing themselves. That is why there is more talk about Bulgaria now. There are not many Bulgarian representatives trying to champion the cause of the protests and that adds to the difficulty of discussing this in Brussels. This is not the case with other countries. I feel that there is more of a political division there, that does not seem to be the case with Bulgaria.
I do agree with her that it is difficult to navigate the Bulgarian political scene, to which she responds: “I know little about Bulgaria, but I am prepared to learn. I have been educated by a lot of information and activity from Bulgarian citizens, for which I am grateful. I do not think you need to be an expert to see that there is a blind eye being turned, and the only reason is either that the Commission is incompetent and does not know what is going on, or they do know and are willing to let it go on, due to the connections with the European People’s Party (EPP). And my belief is that it is the second case: they are incompetent, but not that much. They do not really mind, because their guy [Bulgarian Prime Minister Borissov’s party GERB is a part of the EPP alliance – Ed.] is there. He was clever enough to avoid targeting minorities, but that is not to say that there is no discrimination. People have been telling me that their coalition partner [The United Patriots coalition, a nationalist, far-right grouping governing with GERB – Ed.] is really homophobic and racist. But he is clever enough not to be too much in their face in the way that Poland and Hungary are, he is a bit more polished, and the Commission is happy with that. They think he provides a certain amount of stability.”
Similarly to the other MEP I spoke with – Sophia in ’t Veld from the Renew Europe group – Daly talks in club dynamics and political configurations. She tells me that “whoever is not in the club” gets criticized, effectively dividing important European values such as the rule of law and freedom of speech along ideological lines. Daly sees European structures from a critical left-wing perspective, as neoliberal administrations who put certain freedoms – like those of the markets for example – before others, such as the primacy of law when it comes to human rights.
Clare Daly’s political career goes all the way back to her student years, when she campaigned for abortion rights. During her early years as a politician, she was a part of the Militant Tendency inside the Irish Labour party which ultimately led to her being expelled in the late 80s. Perhaps this past and current political ideology led Bulgarian pro-government media to run headlines accusing her of being a “communist” who supports Lukashenko in Belarus.
I hear that they called me a communist. Someone came in this morning and told me there was an article on how I was investigated for conflict of interest in the European Parliament, but the girl who sent it said: “Do not worry, you have to realize there is no independent media in Bulgaria.” I had a meeting the other day and someone told me one of the other MEPs had called me a communist, and my response was that I’ve never been a member of the Communist party, but I believe some of the people who are in power in Bulgaria right now originated there. I mostly laugh at that, it is to be expected. I would be happy to see Lukashenko go, I have no problem saying that; I just think that this is the job of the Belorussian people to get rid of him, not the EU, not America, nor Russia.
I ask Daly about her interactions with Bulgarian socialists, who (at least in theory, if not so much in reality) are currently in opposition in Bulgaria.
“When I first encountered a problem with Irish property in Bulgaria, after I got elected, I wrote to all Bulgarian MEPs, regardless of party or ideology. I did not care, I would work with anyone. Only two of them actually bothered to answer, which is just crazy. One of them referred me to a colleague in the area, from whom I have never heard anything back. Then, when hearing the debates on Bulgaria in the European Parliament, I was struck by the fact that there was not really anybody actually from Bulgaria speaking out too much, even the opposition. And I cannot even get my handle around this Bulgarian Socialist Party, who are they? I cannot make out the divide, and also I have heard that the allegations about corruption are just as bad for them, if not even worse. When I got this relentless, massive response from Bulgarians to my speech in the LIBE commission, it just showed me the state of the vacuum. If that is what people have to cling on, God helps them! It has been really educational for me.”
Daly was supposed to go to Bulgaria, but a member of her staff tested positive for COVID-19 just when she was supposed to travel. She laughs and says she does not expect a quiet visit when she makes it. I ask her why even care about Bulgaria with a pandemic going on, the world heading into economic uncertainty, the EU struggling with much larger issues such as data protection, migration, finance.
When you are an MEP, you represent the citizens of Europe. Now, I see far too much influence here from big business and arms lobbies. I see MEPs who are clearly here to ride the gravy train or care for their own areas, but they do not see themselves as legislating for Europe. Any elected position that I was ever in, I saw as a platform to organize from. I do not believe in politicians changing things, I believe that people change things and politicians respond. And my job is to use the platform that I am privileged to have to give people the confidence they need to change things for themselves.
According to the Irish MEP “the Eastern countries were taken into the European Union very quickly, in many ways the Western European establishment did this as a buffer against Russia. The wealthy in those countries, many of whom came from the old communist regimes benefitting from the sales of state assets, have quickly assumed a new role and took to all the perks of the European money. The citizens of these countries are a nice pool of cheap labor for the Western business and the West is happy to play along.”
Daly thinks it is great that Bulgarians are finally beginning to show themselves. “It is very interesting, looking at the politics of it here, because it is not the same left-right divide we are used to”, she states and I immediately ask what she means by that. “It seems to me that everyone is corrupt across the spectrum”, she retorts. For her the demand for the rule of law is only heard when the rules apply to the political adversary. She says this needs to change, that concrete rules are needed, which would apply equally to everyone.
I cannot help but point out to her that she is painting a pretty dark picture of the European Union. With the rise of populism and Euroscepticism, I ask her a question mulled by many all across Europe: Why do we even need the EU?
This is a question that a lot of Italian people were asking when they were left alone at the beginning of COVID-19; this is a question that a lot of Irish people asked during the financial crisis, when Irish single parents had to pay for Munich stockholders’ losses. That is one of the reasons behind Brexit: it is not that they are all just little English racists but a lot of the people who voted for Brexit were working class people, who had previously supported Labour and felt they were let down. The problem right now is that the European Union is built to advance the interests of business. We tell the story about coming together after the war – and that was it at the start – but it has now become a big business project for the advancement of the financial interests for different industries. The citizens are being left behind.
“I would say we do not need a European Union in the way in which it is organized now, because if it keeps going this way – more people will leave. But I want to see unity in Europe (and beyond). We all have a mutual interest. Because you see this question more and more through the people who are elected in the EU parliament. And you see it in that appalling speech this morning, people listened to it, saying: I do not know who you are talking to, Mrs. Von der Leyen, because your little fairytale world is not our world.”
Whether one agrees with Daly’s sharp criticism or not, there is an undeniable gap between words and actions in Europe when it comes to addressing pressing issues. Politics and bureaucracy do seem to prevail, as we saw during the first months of the health crisis. My last question for her is whether speeches remain speeches after all, or can we expect, finally, concrete actions.
“It is not all bleak”, she says after scoffing at the mention of Von der Leyen’s speech. “There will have to be some action. You look at the rule of law in Poland and Hungary, slowly as it is, they are getting into a place where screws have been turning on those issues. We see the recovery plan after COVID-19 – it was a bit better than before, but still not enough. If they try and impose austerity again and make the EU citizens foot the bill of recovery, I think there will be an explosion. But I think that they are wary as well. Change is slow, you know. But it does happen. Whatever happens in Bulgaria, nothing will be the same again. Either there will be a successful breakthrough or not, but you can build on that and lessons will be learned.”
Еveryone knows that people in Bulgaria are organizing. The fact that the mainstream political establishment and media are not putting it on their front pages like in Belarus is really about geopolitical considerations rather than anything else. I do not think people should be too demoralized. We have a saying in Ireland: If you fight, you might win; if you do not fight or make a stand, you have lost already. The protests will certainly resolve in some kind of change, the people in power are worried. Whether they sideline us, or degrade us, or make only small concessions – the lessons will be learned for the future. I think they must be feeling the heat.
At the end of our conversation, Clare Daly says that it is hard to predict the outcome of the Bulgarian protests. “They are a long way from withholding any European funding, so maybe there will be warnings behind the scenes to not be so blatant when it comes to violations. But this idea of the European Union being a savior, coming down and sorting out things for you – they are just not going to do that. The institution only looks after itself. However, you can, by your organization, embarrass them into doing something. But the job of dealing with your government is yours.”