On January 1, 2018, eleven years since it became a member of the European Union, Bulgaria took over the rotating EU Council Presidency from Estonia. Until the end of June, Sofia will host summits and meetings and coordinate the policy agenda of the European Council, in line with the priorities established by President Donald Tusk and the ‘Trio’ of countries which hold the Presidency over an 18-month period.
Taking on Tallinn’s mantle
Estonia’s presidency, which began the trio, will prove a hard act to follow, with commentators finding the Tallinn presidency to have scored highly overall, especially in their ‘specialist subject’ of digital governance.
The priorities of the Bulgarian presidency are broad-ranging and ambitious, grouped under banners focusing on cohesion and youth; Western Balkan connectivity; security and stability; and digital economy and skills.
The rotations of the Council Presidency rarely incite much enthusiasm from EU citizens or receive much coverage in the press, but this often belies their importance, both for nation itself and the EU as a whole.
Bulgaria, despite a generally positive economic outlook for the year ahead, is the EU’s poorest country. With an income per capita of 47% of the EU average, it is also facing steep population decline.
Corruption remains a significant problem, and has led to tense relations with Brussels. In 2008, only one year after Bulgaria’s accession to the EU (which was already considered premature by many), EU funds were frozen. Since then, the EU has shied away from taking direct action on corruption, but the problem has not gone away.
According to a report by the Centre for the Study of Democracy, a Sofia-based think-tank, consecutive governments have declared their intention to act to reduce corruption, but undermined all genuine measures against it. Meanwhile EU funding only has a tangible impact on corruption if accompanied by strict conditions.
A shaky first month
If one of the aims of Bulgaria’s EU Council Presidency is to shake off this image, and encourage the rest of the EU to associate the country with something other than corruption, then the year did not get off to the best start. The government’s corruption reform was passed after parliament was forced to override President Rumen Radev’s attempt to veto it.
Radev claimed that loopholes included in the legislation would limit its effectiveness. In addition, the government faced a no-confidence vote, initiated by the opposition – once again over failures to tackle corruption – which it survived by 131 votes to 103.
As the Council Presidency officially began, a protest was taking place on the streets of Sofia, condemning the government’s decision to expand a ski resort of Bansko, located in a national park, as well as corruption surrounding the move. Just over a month in, Bulgaria has yet to make headlines for the right reasons.
Some blustery headwinds
Turning to the situation in the EU which Bulgaria must navigate, some key issues on the agenda mean that Bulgaria will face even more scrutiny than previous holders of the Presidency.
Topics such as Brexit negotiations, Commission pressure to push through contested legislation on migration and the Banking Union, as well as the EU’s own budgetary plans post-2020, will undoubtedly expose divisions, and it will be up to Bulgaria to manage these rifts.
At the same time, they will of course be preoccupied with their own priorities, seeing the spotlight of the Presidency as an opportunity to speed up the country’s entry into the Schengen area and even the Eurozone, as well as promote Western Balkan integration.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU Commission President, has expressed support for these aims, adding to Bulgaria’s appetite to push the agenda. However, member state governments, often facing pressure from Eurosceptic parties, are unlikely to facilitate Bulgaria’s dreams of joining either the Schengen Zone or Eurozone without extremely stringent requirements.
A distant dream?
According to one Bulgarian citizen living in Brussels, entry into either the Euro or the Schengen club is viewed by the majority of the population as unlikely in the foreseeable future. And while the government presents the Presidency as a milestone in EU integration, many remain apathetic.
Despite the gap between the government’s priorities and the interests of the population, this may not prevent Boyko Borisov, the Prime Minister, from pushing his integration agenda.
That said the country’s political stability is currently fragile, only guaranteed, according to some, by an unofficial truce between the ruling parties and a national desire to improve the country’s image during the Presidency. As the demonstrations in January show, the government cannot rely on the population remaining pliant.
In the eyes of another Bulgarian living in Brussels, the Presidency exposes hypocrisy not only from the government, but also from the EU. Poland is coming under increasing pressure for the government’s attacks on the rule of law and rhetoric is harsh. Meanwhile, Bulgaria is afforded far more leniency, with Juncker calling himself a good friend of the Prime Minister.
To coincide with the Presidency, the Greens in the European Parliament have published a report on corruption in Bulgaria, calling for the EU to step up internal anti-corruption measures. The report suggests Bulgaria’s case provides the perfect opportunity for the EU to hold itself to the same high standards it is failing to demand of the Black Sea state.
The Council Presidency is always a delicate balancing act, and never more so than now, with the UK’s departure from the union forcing other matters off the agenda. Last round, Estonia was able to showcase a policy area in which it has particular expertise and promote it at the EU level.
For Bulgaria, a wide range of goals have been established by both sides, each of which provoke fundamental questions on the future direction and form of the EU. Overall, the Bulgarian Presidency has more to prove than most.