What Bulgaria wants from its presidency of the Council of the EU
Sofia hopes to make a breakthrough on the country’s membership in the Schengen area and Eurozone. It also hopes to change its image as an underachiever.
Mr Borissov (left) and Mr Juncker (right) are on good terms as the President of the EC said Bulgaria is ready to join both the Eurozone and Schengen
In June the Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid declared that her country’s goal in its turn at the presidency was to see that "the European winter of discontent starts to give way to a new spring." Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov has been far less poetic on the subject. Following a meeting with the members of the European Commission in November, Mr. Borissov said that his ambition is to help make the EU stronger – a blunt message in step with his bruiser-like demeanor and with Bulgaria’s own pragmatic objectives.
"Less is more", said Martin Selmayr, chief of staff of the President of the European Commission Jean- Claude Juncker, while discussing the priorities of the presidency with Bulgarian members of parliament during a visit to Sofia in October. The EU’s executive arm prefers to work with the presidency and to close as many open legislative files as possible, rather than veer off into new high-flying visions.
Only Bulgarian President Roumen Radev, who has a limited role in Bulgarian politics and foreign affairs, boldly declared after a meeting with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron in December: "Bulgaria has the ambition not only to be a mediator and coordinator during this presidency but to put on the table the most critical issues facing the EU."
As one Bulgarian diplomat put it: "Our goal is to show that we are not different, that we can reasonably deliver and that we can be trusted." This would be a major advance for Bulgaria, which suffers from an appalling image abroad. Indeed, Bulgaria has earned a reputation as the EU’s most corrupt country and as the poorest among its 28 member states and, well, the Bulgarian assassination umbrella has not been entirely forgotten.
The Bulgarian Holy Trinity
In addition to effectively expediting the EU legislative agenda, Bulgaria’s main goal during the upcoming six-month presidency is to make a breakthrough on three sticky issues: the country’s admission into the EU’s frontier-free Schengen area, the ending of the monitoring of the its inefficient judicial system under the EU’s Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), and the acceptance of the country into the ERM II, the Eurozone’s membership qualification mechanism.
The European Commission declared Bulgaria ready to join the Schengen area back in 2011 by, but a number of member states, with Netherlands and Germany taking the lead, vetoed the accession. Their reasons included Bulgaria’s rampant corruption and widespread organized crime. In 2009, Sofia tested the ground for ERM II (Exchange Rate Mechanism) entry but, amidst a crisis in the Eurozone and mounting concerns about the integrity of Bulgaria’s financial regulators, Bulgaria was rebuffed.
According to Mr. Juncker, Bulgaria is now ready to join both the euro area and Schengen. He also has stated he would like to see monitoring by the CVM end by 2019. The changes would be in the interest of both the European Commission and most EU member states. Acceptance of Bulgaria into the ERM II would change nothing – Bulgaria will be still years away from official adoption of the euro, but would send a message that that the Eurozone is still a desirable realm. As to the CVM, the European Commission appears fed up with it. The CVM has proven unable to yield meaningful results in Bulgaria – for example there is not even a single conviction of a corrupt high-level public official or politician.
This Holy Trinity of objectives – entry in Schengen and the Eurozone and elimination of CVM - are of paramount importance to Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, who has invested his full stock of personal capital into the forthcoming Bulgarian presidency. At the moment, his domestic agenda is blocked by his coalition partners in the ruling government and by powerful business lobbies. To counter this, Mr. Borissov has resorted to diplomacy abroad. According to media supportive of the present government, Mr. Borissov is scoring victory after victory on the international field as the undisputed peace maker in Southeast Europe. An invitation to Bulgaria to enter the ERM II or the Schengen area will do much to prop up Borissov’s approval rating.
Western Balkans on Bulgaria’s mind
During its presidency, Bulgaria will also lend focus to the countries of the Western Balkans: Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Kosovo. To a certain extent, this is a forced priority. Bulgaria itself has few achievements to showcase, unlike Estonia and its successes in digital policies.
The recent rapprochement between Bulgaria and Macedonia – the two Balkan countries signed a friendship treaty this past August) – came just at the right moment. Bulgaria can now claim that it has achieved progress in building neighborly relations - an accomplishment that now needs to be solidified in the always volatile Balkan region.
"We can’t leave the Balkans to Turkey and Russia; every time the EU turns its back on the region, someone comes in and tries to destabilize it," a high-level Bulgarian official explained. Sofia will push for integration of the Western Balkan countries into the EU in terms of transport infrastructure and export market access and will try to achieve a more welcoming timetable for their accession into the EU. A spokesperson for the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Capital newspaper that it considers the EU summit on the Western Balkans, to be held in May, as the most important event during the forthcoming Bulgarian presidency of the Council of the EU.
The importance of the Western Balkans has heightened since the start of refugee crisis in 2013. The countries of the region straddle one of the main migration routes into western and northern Europe. According to sources, Prime Minister Borissov’s focus on the Western Balkans has received personal encouragement from German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Germany took in the largest influx of migrants in 2013 and is now trying to restrict the flow.
Money, money, money
"The fact that we are in the kitchen will help us steer the debate", according to a high-ranking Bulgarian diplomat, referring to upcoming negotiations on the EU’s budget (MFF) for the period 2021-2027.
These negotiations are invariably tough; the EU may be based on values and principles, but every seven years it all comes down to who pays the bill. The stakes are high for Bulgaria and the other East European members of the EU. Brexit, the UK’s departure from the EU, will deprive the MFF of 10% of its revenues. New common EU policies – including defense procurement, border protection or fundamental changes in the existing policies such as development aid, might place additional burden on the EU budget.
One of the means to meet budgetary shortfalls due to Brexit would be to require EU member states to increase their annual contributions. Doing so would be in the interest of Bulgaria, the country being a net beneficiary of the EU budget. In 2015, Bulgaria contributed 424 million euro into EU coffers but the country received six times that amount in return. If an agreement would be reach to increase the contributions of member states, Bulgaria would pay approximately 50 million euro more if current budgetary provisions remain intact after 2020, a relative small amount considering the returns.
However, proposals are afield for serious cuts in the EU policies financed from the budget, which could cause the net inflow in Bulgaria to decline. Many EU policies are difficult to change or are political minefields like the Common Agricultural Policy. Thus, amongst the main targets of austerity-related cut backs would be the EU’s Cohesion Policy, which supports the poorest member states, of which Bulgaria is the poorest in terms of gross national income per capita. If member states would chose to roll back the Cohesion Policy, Bulgaria could stand to lose up to 200 million euro annually.
The European Commission will unveil its first budget proposal at the end of May and actual negotiations will begin in the second half of 2018. However, the initial draft is usually crucial, because it sets the framework for the negotiations. Informal negotiations have already begun under the radar and will intensify during Bulgaria’s presidency. Bulgaria hopes to steer the debate away from radical changes in the MFF. No official position has been announced, but diplomats and experts say that Sofia will try to push for a trade-off. On the one hand, member states will increase their contributions into the EU budget, on the other, net beneficiaries will need to fulfill more conditions to gain access to EU funds.
The Presidency of the Council of the EU is a test for Bulgaria, which will check how the country is doing in a complex, but mundane bureaucracy operation. There is no need of high-flying visions, but of some ordinary and well organized work – a feat, so rare in Bulgaria.
The selection of Ivan Geshev as the next Prosecutor General will likely go unopposed, triggering seven more wasted years on the anti-corruption front and even more blatant institutional abuse of power.
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