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Turbulent times in Europe for Bulgaria

Alexander Andreev
January 1, 2018

Bulgaria has taken up the rotating six-month EU Council presidency. The country, which is under monitoring by Brussels, must work hard to keep the bloc united amid a looming Brexit and unresolved migration issues.

Flags of Bulgaria and the EU
Image: BGNES

Taking over the EU presidency in the present times poses a serious challenge for Bulgaria. Ongoing Brexit talks, debates to establish a coordinated position on refugee and migration matters, and preparations for the new EU budget from 2020 onward are just three of the most pressing issues to date.

Bulgaria's minister for the EU presidency, Lilyana Pavlova, said that a successful presidency will require reaching political consensus, engaging in dialogue and reaching mutual understanding. Bulgaria will endeavor to maintain the unity and stability of the bloc, Pavlova said. But her country has additional objectives, too. Pavlova said that her country wants to ensure young people have a bright future something that is inextricably tied to the EU's new budget as well as to Brexit.

Bulgaria will also focus on the prospect of western Balkan states joining the bloc, will strive to ensure safety and security amid the ongoing refugee and migration situation, seek a united defense policy, economic growth and devote attention to the EU's single digital market.

Bulgarisch-türkische Grenze
Bulgaria is hoping to soon join the Schengen areaImage: picture-alliance/Joker/est&ost/M. Fejer

Brexit and the migration package

But Sofia has come to realize that it will have to take a coordinating role that will aim to achieve some sort of harmony among EU states, rather than engage in bold leadership. The supremely complex Brexit issue and the EU's disunited position over migration can only be tackled through Bulgarian mediation, not top-down leadership.

Bulgaria will attempt to bridge the divide between eastern and western Europe over the so-called "migration package" before Austria takes over the EU presidency on July 1, 2018 — because Austria is known for its tough stance on migration.

Promoting the western Balkan states

Bulgaria is eager to present itself as a competent and constructive mediator in the context of the potential EU accession of the western Balkan states. It has already planned an EU summit on May 17, 2018 that will focus on the bloc's future expansion and integration.

The former president of the European parliament, Hans-Gert Pöttering, is said to be Bulgaria's unofficial adviser on the country's EU presidency. He is more cautious regarding the Balkan states joining the bloc. He thinks they must be made to understand that: "You will not join soon and you must undertake reforms, you must combat corruption and strengthen the rule of law. And in return you may expect similar treatment to EU states when it comes to reducing roaming charges, or in matters of digitization."

Boyko Borisov
Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov is trying to maintain a pro-EU courseImage: Getty Images/AFP/T. Charlier

An EU presidency with much left to be desired

Johanna Deimel, ‎deputy director of the Munich-based Southeast Europe Association, is concerned that Bulgaria — a country that remains under EU monitoring — is taking over the EU presidency, calling this state of affairs "a first."

She says the latest report on the country's progress published in the context of the EU's cooperation and verification mechanism (CVM) was "utterly alarming." It bemoans "a threat to the independence of the judges and the rule of law" and highlights unconstitutional legislation. Deimel says this means Bulgaria does not set a good example. "How are western Balkan states supposed to feel motivated to reform their respective judicial systems, strengthen the rule of law and combat organized crime, if such grave problems persist in Bulgaria?" Deimel also highlighted the country's media landscape, which still leaves much to be desired. "Is Bulgaria suited to hold the EU presidency, ask such tough questions and put them on the agenda? I'm skeptical about that."

A pro-European majority

These aren't the only reasons why Bulgaria's EU presidency may not be an ideal fit. Currently, Bulgaria's ultra-nationalist electoral coalition United Patriots are part of the ruling government.

Daniel Kaddik, from the liberal Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, finds this unsettling: "Known xenophobes, nationalists and protectionists will chair the various councils. And it's clear deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov hates minorities when he publicly calls the Roma "ferocious apes."

Valeri Simeonov
Simeonov has called the Roma 'ferocious apes'Image: BGNES

Hans-Gert Pöttering, meanwhile, expects Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov to keep his coalition partners under control "so that he can maintain his pro-European course." For this, Borisov has the backing of most Bulgarians. Gallup International recently found that 62 percent of Bulgarians trust the EU — a 12 percentage point rise compared to December 2016. And 55 percent of those surveyed said they expect the country's presidency will be a success.

Sofia hopes its presidency will help pave the way to joining the Schengen area, and increase its chances of adopting the bloc's shared currency. Observers think Bulgaria is likely to join Schengen but fret that the country isn't yet cut out to join the eurozone, despite its solid economic performance.