The European Movement and the Union of European Federalists held a discussion on Friday (13 October) in Sofia on the EU’s future with three prominent Bulgarian MEPs from three different political forces.
As Bulgaria readies to take over the rotating Presidency of the Council of the EU from 1 January 2018, the discussion attracted considerable interest.
Bulgaria has a strong federalist and pan-European tradition and opinion polls have repeatedly shown that more Bulgarians trust Brussels than their own national authorities.
MEP Svetoslav Malinov, one of the panelists, was first to throw down the gauntlet by saying that French President Emmanuel Macron’s plan, outlined in his Sorbonne speech, for a eurozone parliament was “the most dangerous possible for a country like Bulgaria”.
Macron’s proposals included shoring up the 19-member eurozone with a finance minister, budget and parliament – ideas that have not yet won the backing of Berlin, before being put on the EU table for decision-making.
If Macron’s ideas materialise, there are concerns that the eurozone budget could turn out to be higher that the EU-27 budget, and that the non-eurozone countries would be relegated to the EU’s periphery.
Malinov represents a small centre-right force (Movement for a strong Bulgaria, or DSB), which was once strong, but which has been dwarfed by the ruling GERB party of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov.
Both GERB and DSB are affiliated to the European Peoples’ Party but at the last parliamentary election, DSB was unable to pass the 4% threshold and is not represented in the Bulgarian parliament.
Conversely, Malinov said, Macron’s plans for common defence and European universities are most welcome, and even his idea for democratic conventions for the future of Europe are of interest.
He added that some countries do not need such conventions, as “a living debate” is already taking place. In Bulgaria’s case, the media should be more involved, and the European elections should take place in a different way, with some distance from national politics, he added.
Malinov said he had participated in all European elections (in which Bulgaria took part) and that it has always been the internal agenda that took centre-stage.
The MEP also said it was “stupid” to attack the EU-Turkey migration deal and that possible similar agreements with Arab countries should not be obstructed.
MEP Andrei Kovachev (GERB, EPP) praised the European federalists and expressed his satisfaction that the EU’s common foreign and defence policy were “becoming a reality”.
He said that EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini was becoming more and more “what a minister of the foreign affairs of the EU should be”.
Kovachev said EU membership in no way diminishes the proudness of being Bulgarian, and that he saw no contradiction between the two. Europe should stay united, he said, adding that “the right model” was the European prosecutor, where countries are free to join if they so wish with no obligations to do so.
The EU will finally have a European Public Prosecutor Office from next year, based on ‘enhanced cooperation’, with 20 of the EU’s 28 member states participating, including Bulgaria.
The United Kingdom, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, Hungary, Malta, Poland and the Netherlands have elected not to be involved but are free to join at any point in the future.
Kovachev also cited an example from an opposite point of view: the Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base (CCTB). He said Bulgaria does not want to join at this stage because it would lose a competitive advantage. But he added this would last only until Bulgaria’s economy becomes more competitive.
Regrettably, Kovachev said Schengen was a different case entirely, because member states have prevented Bulgaria from joining, although the country is ready, a position held by the European Commission since 2011.
In his State of the Union speech, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called for Bulgaria and Romania to be admitted to Schengen “immediately”, but he was rebuked by other countries.
Kovachev said the Western Balkans was a priority for the upcoming Bulgarian Presidency, but added that the country’s leadership does not have “unrealistic expectations” and that he does not expect a Western Balkans summit in Sofia in May 2018 to give a date of accession to those countries.
The aim is to remind those countries that the EU has not forgotten its promise that they will become EU members, the MEP explained.
In the same regional context, Kovachev spoke of “monstrous prices” for mobile communication and internet streaming for people travelling between the EU countries and the six Western Balkans countries, specifying fees of €12 per megabyte and €3.50 for a minute of mobile telephone connection.
“It’s like you are in Jakarta, but in reality, you are on the other side of the hill,” he said.
Kovachev also spoke of the importance of transport corridors, not only North-South, but East-West, to the Black Sea, which so far have been neglected. Such corridors have recently become a big priority for Bulgarian PM Borissov.
The last to speak was Peter Kouroumbashev, an MEP from the S&D group. Kouroumbashev, a businessman, is not a member of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, but was on its list as part of the “citizen quota”, which includes prominent people who are not necessarily politicians.
Koroumbashev compared Juncker’s State of the Union speech and Macron’s Sorbonne effort, pointing out that Juncker mentioned Bulgaria repeatedly and Macron “not a single time”.
He said that together with Romanian S&D MEP Victor Bostinaru he had proposed a meeting of all Bulgarian and Romanian MEPs, aimed “not at discovering that the two countries are neighbours”, but focusing on the “mobility package” of posted workers, where both countries share differences with Macron, as well as on Schengen.
He further praised Juncker and slammed the European Council, where the member states sit.
“The Council does nothing. The file is not even touched,” he said, with reference to Bulgaria and Romania’s Schengen bid.
“A declaration of 50 MEPs, and 50 MEPs is something visible, it will carry its weight,” he said.
Kourumbashev added that he was disgusted by statements by EU politicians from across the political spectrum following Juncker’s appeal.
He said that in pre-election Austria, both centre-left Christian Kern and centre-right Sebastian Kurz had jointly spoken against opening up Schengen and the eurozone to Bulgaria and Romania, and was particularly critical of the position of the Austrian socialists, who said “let’s avoid another Greece”.
Such a statement, he said, amounted to “sheer ignorance of the facts, if not anything worse”, he insisted.
The MEP said it was “absurd” to compare the macroeconomic data of Greece in Bulgaria, in terms of foreign debt, inflation, budget deficit etc. Indeed, the Commission holds Bulgaria up as an example of a country close to meeting eurozone accession criteria.
Returning to the comparison between the Juncker and Macron speeches, Kouroumbashev highlighted that the Commission president was much more outspoken regarding the prospects of the Western Balkans, especially regarding Montenegro and Serbia.
He said it was “clearly in the interest of Bulgaria” for these two countries to join the EU, “without forgetting Macedonia and Albania”. Statements of a similar nature were absent in Macron’s speech, he said.
Juncker has outlined ten short- and medium-term priorities in a letter to the Estonian Presidency of the EU, one of which was to prepare a “strategy for a successful EU accession of Montenegro and Serbia as frontrunner candidates in the Western Balkans”.
But this has antagonised Kosovo, whose president, Hashim Thaçi, spoke of “Orwellian doublethink” in leaving the “Muslim majority” countries outside of the plans.
Kouroumbashev said he agreed with Kovachev that there was no time to waste in creating trans-national infrastructure in the meantime.
“When the Roman Empire built its transport corridors, it was not wondering which territories were part of it and which were going to join. It was just doing the job,” Kouroumbashev said.
He spoke in favour of three transport projects: from Split in Croatia to Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Nis in Serbia; from Pristina in Kosovo to Nis in Serbia; and from Skopje in Macedonia to Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia.
Regarding Macron’s plan for a common defence policy, Kouroumbashev said he would see it at least as a common border police force.
He added that in terms of EU migration policy, countries neglected the external borders, and the practice was that Croatia prioritised the Slovenian border, and Slovenia the Austrian border. Instead, it makes more sense to use the Turkey border as the EU’s common frontier, he stressed.
“The Hungarians have sent police officers to the Bulgaria-Serbia border. I wonder why. When you protect your home, you don’t install protections between the third and fourth room, you install them at the entrance door,” he said.
On double standards for food, he said that the honest solution should be that multinationals should create products distinct from their original, in terms of name and packaging instead of cheating the consumers.
Borissov used the term “apartheid” to accuse the multinational companies of double standards of food, with lower quality in Eastern Europe.
But the term was first used by Kouroumbashev himself.
The MEP spoke in positive terms about Macron’s idea for an supervisory authority for social standards in the EU. He said that he was not sure what the ideas for common European taxes were, in terms of re-distribution from that income, but added that he had himself proposed a tax on big internet companies.
“It’s not acceptable that Facebook and Google would have more than one million users in Bulgaria, without having paid a single lev [Bulgaria’s currency] as tax,” he said.
Kouroumbashev said he was against Macron’s idea for transnational lists, claiming that MEPs would lose contact with their electorate.
He said that as deputy member of the EP transport committee, he was witnessing “outright protectionism “ with the issue of the amendments to the posted workers file.
“When someone from the West does business in Bulgaria, they call it internal market. But when we try to make business on their territory, they say wait, the drivers must spend I don’t know how many hours of pause at parking lots, they must have contracts in the local language, they have to have an agent representing them in the respecting member state, they need to return home every three weeks. Basically they need to have three assistants, as the MEPs, to be able to do their job,” he said.