Bulgaria, hidden away in one of the forgotten corners of the EU. To hear the less-than-resounding echo in the European press on the events that have been taking place in Bulgaria for more than 40 days, and especially the clashes in front of the Parliament on July 23, this country of 7 million inhabitants, a member of the Union since 2007 and located on one of its eastern borders, appears not to be important enough to awaken much concern about its fate.

And yet the issue that lies at the heart of the protests should worry all Europeans. It’s an issue that the European Union and the democratic values that all its inhabitants are supposed to share, are all based on: the rule of law and respect for that rule of law by the powers that be.

In Bulgaria, as Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung points out, "cliques stemming predominantly from the old Communist nomenklatura and intelligence services have hijacked large parts of the state's institutions in order to pursue their businesses interests in a wide gray area where politics, business and organised crime overlap."

Everyone knows it, as revealed by the progress reports of the EU on the reform of the judiciary, corruption and the fight against organised crime. And yet aside from the suspensions of European subsidies, no serious action has been taken by the EU to force Bulgarian authorities to stick to the commitments made during the country’s accession.

Bulgaria is not the only problem country. Romania, whose progress is also evaluated, remains far from perfect. And in Hungary, the constitutional reforms introduced by the government of Viktor Orban, which have come under criticism from the Council of Europe more than once, are debated regularly in the European Parliament.

The discussions about these three countries, however, are extremely politicised. Viktor Orban enjoys unconditional support from a large section of the European People's Party (EPP), while his Eurosceptic and protectionist positions are causing mounting distrust among liberals. The most recent Romanian election campaign was the scene of a struggle for influence among the EPP, Socialists and European Liberals. And leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party Sergei Stanishev, currently holding a majority in Sofia, is also the chairman of the Party of European Socialists (PES), which has not uttered a peep of criticism about the recent suspicious appointments that sparked the protests in the street.

How to avoid this abuse of process and truly defend the respect for the rule of law in Europe? The establishment of an independent oversight mechanism proposed by MEP Rui Tavares, in the case of the Hungary, is a first step. The idea of "more debate, beyond the purely economic problems, on the manner in which the member states comply with the rules of law and ensure respect for fundamental rights" currently being studied by the European Commission, is another.

In the same way that accession to the single currency is subject to respect for the famous convergence criteria of the Maastricht Treaty, accession to the EU is subject to the Copenhagen criteria, which includes commitments regarding democracy and the rule of law. And yet while with the onset of the debt crisis, the member states have agreed to toughen up on sanctions and their application if states fail to comply with the economic criteria, they remain pusillanimous when it comes to evaluating and punishing failures to respect the rule of law.

We saw the consequences of this double standard the very next day after the clashes in Sofia. Meanwhile, in Greece, subject to stringent austerity in return for financial aid, a neo-Nazi party with seats in Parliament was able to organise a gathering on July 24, despite an attempt by the state to ban it, and play the Greek version of a Nazi anthem in the street, unmolested.

Could the EU impose measures and a table of applicable sanctions to guide political and institutional organisation in its member states? Given the current mood of defiance towards "Brussels", this intrusion into the sovereignty of the states would be a risky step. But it is precisely this tolerance towards violations of democratic values that fuels the rejection of the EU, and in the case of Bulgaria and Romania, of new members of the club, whether they have already entered or are still only candidates. It is a very fine line to tread, but one day it could well be necessary to walk it.