Bulgarian EU aid nominee pulls out after she is labelled 'incompetent'

John Lichfield
Wednesday 20 January 2010 01:00

Bulgaria's much-criticised candidate for European humanitarian aid commissioner stepped down yesterday amid persistent questions about her competence and financial interests.

Rumiana Jeleva, the latest scalp of an increasingly self-assertive European Parliament, said that she had withdrawn "with bitterness" as a result of being the target of "untruthful accusations". She had come under intense pressure to stand aside to prevent a majority of Euro-MPs from rejecting the whole of the 27-strong Commission in a vote next week.

Formal approval of the new Brussels executive will now be delayed until deep into next month, but should then go ahead without difficulty. The Bulgarian government immediately announced that its new nominee for the job of the first-ever Brussels commissioner for humanitarian aid would be Kristalina Georgieva, 57, a senior World Bank official with substantial experience of aid and the developing world.

The entire episode is a considerable humiliation for the EU's poorest member state. In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, it is also a deep embarrassment for the EU to be involved in a political squabble over the identity of its first humanitarian aid commissioner.

It became clear earlier this month that Ms Jeleva, 40, who is Bulgaria's Foreign Minister and a former Euro-MP, had been identified by the left and centre in the European Parliament as the "weakest link" in the new Commission line-up. Bulgaria has been targeted by EU sanctions to try to persuade it to tackle corruption in the past, without notable success.

Ms Jeleva's past as a former manager of Global Consult Ltd, a consultancy that advises the government on privatising state-owned firms, and her husband's job with a bank which is alleged to be tied to organised crime, played into all the EU's anxieties about its most opaque new member.

She failed to dispel the doubts surrounding her candidature in a shaky appearance at an approval hearing in Brussels last week. She gave vague and halting answers to questions about humanitarian aid and reluctantly replied to questions about an alleged failure to declare all her financial interests.

Left-wing and centrist Euro-MPs made it clear they were likely to vote against the whole executive unless her nomination was withdrawn. They were accused of playing politics by the largest political grouping, the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), but the position of Ms Jeleva – and therefore the entire Commission – looked increasingly precarious.

Martin Schulz, the German leader of the parliament's Socialist group, said: "After such a poor performance in the parliamentary hearing, which highlighted her incompetence, this outcome was both inevitable and predictable.

"I regret the way in which the EPP group tried desperately to save her despite her performance. It was a serious mistake to put political allegiance before basic competence to do the job."

Bulgarian blight: Organised crime

* Bulgaria has been the target of blistering criticism by Transparency International (TI), the global monitor of state corruption, of its failures to implement meaningful reform since the fall of its communist regime.

* In February 2009, TI wrote that it "continues to be deeply concerned about high-level corruption, organised crime and mismanagement of EU funds in Bulgaria and Romania", and said EU sanctions should remain.

* Diana Kovatcheva, executive director of TI Bulgaria, wrote, "Corruption and organised crime in Bulgaria remain endemic. The Bulgarian government must put an end to the facade of change and launch real anti-corruption reform."

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