The former long-serving leader of the S&D group in the European Parliament Hannes Swoboda provided insight ahead of the visit to Brussels on Wednesday (8 November) of the Bulgarian government in preparation for the upcoming Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU.
Hannes Swoboda is an Austrian social democratic politician. He has been a member of the European Parliament since 1996. Within the Parliament, he represents the Social Democratic Party of Austria and from January 2012 to June 2014, he was also the president of the group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats. He has been a frequent visitor of Bulgaria, especially in the pre-accession period.
Swoboda spoke to EURACTIV’s Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.
Let’s come back to the early days when Bulgaria was close to EU membership but was handicapped by the situation with organised crime, which made the country a special case, because Romania didn’t have that problem. Both countries however were handicapped by corruption. At that time the Bulgarian interior minister Rumen Petkov promised that his country would crack down on three organised crime groups; a major pledge made to obtain EU membership. He didn’t name those groups. Years have passed, do you think the promise was kept?
I remember very well the talk I had with the minister of interior in Sofia. It was very clear to me, already then, that it would be not easy to solve those issues in one stroke, or in a few years. And nevertheless, all in all we have the impression that the fight against corruption is not pursued in a thorough way, in an impartial way, because it’s not useful if the left fights the corruption of the left and the right fights the corruption of the right. In Romania and Bulgaria the job is not done, but I don’t want to mix the two countries. Overall the work is very much unfinished.
But other EU members have also their problems, like Poland, which is under a “rule of law” procedure, or Hungary, which professes “illiberal democracy”. How does Bulgaria appear against such a background?
You are right, Bulgaria cannot be singled out as “the bad guy”, but the central-eastern European area, part of the south, part of the east, has persisted in some sort of backwardness, which creates a division, and that of course gives a bad image when we think about the work needed in the Balkans to prepare them to join the EU. And by the way, Balkan issues will be dealt under the Bulgarian Presidency. Yes, it’s true, it’s not Bulgaria alone, it’s many countries and I don’t exempt my own country, Austria, but it doesn’t make things better. So it should not be an excuse to say: why blame us when others are about the same.
The Bulgarian Presidency has taken advice mostly from the EPP. If you were to give advice to the Bulgarian Presidency, what would it be?
It would not be directly related to the presidency, but good examples are needed, and more transparency, openness, analysis of what successive governments have done to fight corruption, and some action should be considered even before the presidency. The presidency should be the occasion to do this with more strength, more determination, to give a good example to the countries of the Western Balkans.
And with regard to Russia? Bulgaria has a strange relationship, with traditional gratitude for Russia having liberated Bulgaria from Ottoman domination on the one hand, and sometimes hostile remarks at the highest level, especially under the former president…
In Bulgaria I see a lot of back and forth with friendly and unfriendly remarks. The Russian people deserve of course friendship and support, and we shouldn’t forget that in the fight against the Nazis Russia suffered the biggest number of victims. On the other hand of course there are policies under Putin which are not acceptable. We should continue dialogue, with the citizens, with the intelligentsia, so I don’t think it’s good to cut off the relationship with Russia. And Bulgaria, because of the good relations they have, the language that is not difficult to understand, the religion, I think they should use this position to be in dialogue with Russia. What is important is the ability to speak to the Russians on equal terms, although issues like the nuclear power project [Belene] could be an obstacle.
There were times at the end of the 1990s when the European left was helping consolidate the Bulgarian left. Now the left is largely united, it’s the second largest force, in opposition. It is also strongly opposition-minded, the latest announcements are for calling a no-confidence vote in January, during the presidency. Is this a good idea?
We had a situation with the Czech Presidency with three successive governments, and Belgium had no government during many months of its presidency. You cannot stop domestic policies. But I think that on some critical issues, like foreign policy, or European policy, there should be as far as possible a common position and this should not be a distraction from the presidency. I think the Bulgarian socialists should present their concept how they want to promote the elements necessary to modernise the country, how to have an open, transparent policy, a policy against corruption, how not to tolerate partners that are obviously corrupt. There must be a new start for the left, and in bringing in the new generation. Part of the younger generation was very disappointed by the past behaviour of socialists in government. A new dialogue with the younger generation is absolutely necessary, if the Bulgarian left wants a new chance to bring the country forward.
Do you think Boyko Borissov could do a decent job during the presidency?
I don’t want to make personal comments, but we have a situation when we have many strange guys leading governments. Maybe the purpose of Europe is also to give them a framework, even if they have some strange ideas personally, to put some limits on their activities. I hope, and the whole of Europe hopes that Bulgaria will give a good example. Also because there are prejudices against Bulgaria and the situation in the Balkans is still critical, if Bulgaria doesn’t proceed well during its presidency, a lot of people will say: look, all these countries down there, in the Balkans, we cannot take them, because they are not able to fulfill a European role. Whatever is happening and whatever the internal discussions are, it’s very important to have a successful Bulgarian presidency, to raise the image of Bulgaria, and to give this region some sort of new positive light inside Europe.
This interview is republished from BulgarianPresidency.eu, a journalistic project to monitor the upcoming Bulgarian Presidency.