PM Borissov: Bulgaria ‘cuts through living flesh’ to balance budget

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Despite having made deep and painful cuts to its administration to avoid IMF assistance as it strives to join the euro zone, Bulgaria’s new government enjoys wide popular support, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov told EURACTIV in an interview. 

Boyko Borissov is leader of the EPP-affiliated party GERB (Citizens for an European Development of Bulgaria). GERB obtained 39.7% of the vote and has 116 MPs in the 240-seat single-chamber parliament. The GERB government has the support of several small parties.

He was speaking to Georgi Gotev.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

Your party, GERB, was created in 2006 and acceded to power rather quickly following last July’s elections. Its popular support has been growing since the poll. How do you explain this success? 

Throughout the years, people realised that it is coming true. Three years ago [as mayor of Sofia], I told the citizens of Sofia that I will build a metro, and now the citizens of Sofia have the metro. In fact, this is the only major construction work in the country since 1989 – a modern, European metro. 

When the other day Commission Vice-President and Transport Commissioner Antonio Tajani was in Sofia, he told me he hadn’t seen such a fine metro. Before I was elected, they only privatised and destroyed kindergartens. Since I took over, there are 20, 30 new kindergartens. I’ve lost count. Every week, we open a new kindergarten. And the people who think and who compare say: the former one was selling and privatising, and the new one builds, so that more and more children have access to kindergartens. We rehabilitate streets. I chased the Wolf out. 

Can you explain who the Wolf is? 

The Wolf was a monopoly over Sofia’s waste collection. If you didn’t pay, it went on strike. 

You’re talking about the mafia? 

Of course. And now that the Wolf is not there, you can see how clean the city is. There is no monopoly, and if one company does not deliver, it loses its contract. 

But the Wolf is not the only mafia structure in Bulgaria? 

I think that with the tax reforms, with the linking of the gas stations to the revenue office, smuggling will suffer a severe blow. And that’s already a fact. Almost every day, we arrest policemen who misbehave. Because of this, in previous years people did not even dare to complain. Each step we make is welcomed by society. 

What are your ambitions for your term with respect to the EU? Joining the euro zone and the Schengen space? 

Absolutely. 

What about exiting from the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, which was part of the accession package? 

This is very important. Let me tell you that right now we are slashing the administration, we are cutting through living flesh, because without a balanced budget, there can be no talk of joining the euro zone. The balanced budget is the cornerstone. It would be too easy to do like Hungary, take a [IMF] loan, and get through the winter. But what about after? 

So you will not seek an IMF loan? 

We hope not. We hope we will balance our budget ourselves. 

What is the situation regarding efforts to join the Schengen border-free area? 

Right now several tenders are ongoing, tenders which in the past have been tainted. The EU is making available to Bulgaria 161 million euros for helping the country to attain the Schengen criteria. A very minimal part of this amount has been absorbed so far by the former government. I fail to understand why. We have been given four additional months for conducting the tenders, so that the work could continue. Our objective to join Schengen remains 2011. 

We are aware that you would not disclose the name of the future Bulgarian commissioner for the time being. But can you say which portfolios interest Bulgaria? 

We would like most to obtain the regional policy portfolio. It would really suit Bulgaria. However, we understand that under this portfolio, one third of the EU budget is managed, and therefore it is not an easy objective, as other countries are also interested. But we would be able to say more after the 27 September elections in Germany and the [Lisbon Treaty] referendum in Ireland on 2 October. Until then we will conduct consultations with EU member countries, as other countries do, to identify the most appropriate portfolio for the Bulgarian commissioner. 

Besides the regional policy portfolio, which is our preference, although I doubt we will get it, another portfolio which we find appropriate is science, research and innovation. Bulgaria has scientific and technical traditions, a Bulgarian was the inventor of the computer [Bulgaria-born US citizen John Vincent Atanasoff is widely considered to have invented the first electronic digital computer, with the assistance of student Clifford Berry, in 1939. During the communist period, Bulgaria was specialised in computer technologies within the Soviet bloc]. 

We have enough arguments to ask for such a portfolio. But we have also in view the enlargement portfolio and EU neighbourhood policy. We know that in the next few years only Croatia and Iceland are awaiting accession. It is not a very busy agenda, but it has a high political value. 

These are our three priorities and when I discussed this informally yesterday [17 September] with our partners, this is what I have told them. 

How do you view the new portfolios recently proposed by European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, in particular a commissioner responsible for justice, fundamental rights and civil liberties, including citizens’ and minority rights? 

Bulgaria has a big Roma population without having had a record of violence like in other countries. During the Yugoslav wars, Bulgaria was seen as ‘an island of stability’, despite also having different ethnicities. Wouldn’t Bulgaria be interested in this portfolio? 

All Commission portfolios are prestigious and important. But such a portfolio would also suit Romania, or Hungary. Our preference is the three portfolios I enumerated, and if we find the necessary support in the EPP and among the member states, this would be a better option. 

Will the next commissioner be a man or woman? 

I count heavily on women and I have entrusted to women positions in Bulgaria which have never been held before by women [the ruling party candidate for the post mayor of Sofia is a woman]. I notice that all speak about gender equality, but when I was sitting yesterday at the Council table, I didn’t see any other woman except Ms. Merkel. That’s why I an pushing for women to take high positions. The Bulgarian women which have represented Bulgaria in the European Commission, in the European Parliament, have delivered results and won wide respect. I am not giving a bad opinion on Ms. [Meglena] Kuneva, I know that this problem is of interest to you. She is a good commissioner and has accomplished her mission. 

Is her only handicap that she is not a member of the ruling party? 

Her only handicap is that when she saw, when from Brussels she knew with certainty that the government of the triple coalition is catastrophic for Bulgaria, when we now make public the minutes of the former governments, in which the ministers from the NDSV say that during the coming winter the Bulgarians will be left to a bread and water diet, when from these minutes we see how they have blatantly violated the laws for public procurement, when beyond any doubt NDSV was buying votes, Kuneva kept silent. 

[The former government was a coalition led by the Socialist party. with junior partners the NDSV party established by former infant king Simeon II, of which Kuneva is a member, and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms party, consisting mainly of Bulgarians of Turkish ethnicity. Both NDSV and DPS are ALDE-affiliated]. 

The liberal party leader Mr. Verhofstadt called for Ms. Kuneva to be reappointed. Did you explain your reservations to Mr. Verhofstadt? 

I am discussing the issue with you now, not with European leaders […] I think this is a matter of an internal Bulgarian nature. The bottom line is, when you behave like this, you also bear the guilt. 

I am repeating: Ms. Kuneva is a very good professional. Without any doubt, my relationship with her is very good. But she has been too much of a partisan candidate, bound by party discipline, and her silence was conveying the message that the triple coalition was the right one for the country. 

Bulgaria would look different today if one year ago, Ms. Kuneva had said the way the government is led will bring about a budget deficit, that this government is violating public procurement legislation, that it radicalises the relations of the country with Brussels. 

If she had done so, this would have helped solve the country’s problems. Therefore we have a problem. Yes, I would have proposed to Ms. Kuneva, so that we can use her potential, and take advantage of what the country has invested in her. But you would agree that the most important, the most iconic position for one country in the EU institutions, cannot be given by the ruling party to another political force. 

It would have been different, if two years ago, when GERB won the first [2007] elections for the European Parliament, or when we won by a landslide at the [2007] local elections, NDSV had said: we understand that you will be the next to govern. 

As we seek continuity, we offer you one position. Just one symbolic post. As I gave them the post of national bank governor [recently reappointed under the GERB government]. But they didn’t make a step in our direction. 

Is there external EU pressure on you over the commissioner post? 

No. Because there is no such practice. Just imagine me going to see Ms. Merkel or Mr. Sarkozy and tell them which candidate they should nominate. 

But any other lobbying? 

If it can be called lobbying, then let me say that EPP president [Wilfried Martens], its leader in the European Parlament [Joseph Daul], categorically said that they strongly call on us to nominate a commissioner from our ranks. They say – it is your decision, but these are our party principles. Otherwise anyone who would tomorrow stand against you could be awarded the best-paid job. As a recompense. This is not fair. 

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