It took courage to bring Bulgaria into the EU

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

The Alexandre Nevski memorial church was built after the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-78, which liberated Bulgaria from Ottoman rule. [Georgi Gotev]

On 15 December, Bulgaria will mark the 20th anniversary since it made its EU membership application. On this occasion, Dick Roche recalls the country’s EU path and questions if the treatment it gets from the EU is fair.

Dick Roche, a former Irish Minister for the Environment and former Minister for European Affairs was a member of the ‘Friends of the Community Method Group’ which campaigned in the Convention on the Future of Europe for a retention of Treaty provisions that underpinned the concept of the equality of the member states in the EU.

On the day that Bulgaria became a member of the EU [1 January 2007] I had a conversation with a colleague about the then newest member state.

The day of joining ceremonies in Sophia had seemed relatively low key. I commented this was possibly a good thing that the public were being realistic as to the challenges that membership would bring.  

My companion commented that the less flamboyant celebrations in Bulgaria probably had more to do with mixed feelings with the idea of EU membership than anything else.

The EU, he suggested, made intrusive and unsympathetic demands on Bulgaria – and on Romania – for changes, some with constitutional implications, that none of the more established EU member states would tolerate.

The EU negotiators had failed, he suggested, to recognise the courage of Bulgarian leaders, who had taken political risks to bring their country into the EU.

He instanced the decision of Bulgaria’s Foreign Minister, Solomon Passy, to sign an agreement to close Bulgaria’s Soviet era nuclear power units – without having received the prior agreement of his parliament, and of Irina Bokova, current Secretary General of UNESCO, who in his words had ‘browbeaten’ PM Videnov to sign Bulgaria’s letter of application for EU membership at a time when Bulgaria might have faced in another direction.

Had they been less courageous, Bulgaria would not have made EU membership in 2007 and would probably at this point be in a similar status as Moldova.

These two points, my companion argued, indicated a lack of sympathy in Brussels to the challenges facing Bulgaria and Romania, a ‘general failure’ by older member states to empathise with the newer members and ultimately raised the question of how ‘equal’ the newest member states of the Union would be in the expanded EU.

At the time, the comments struck me as less than generous.

This week, as we mark the 20th anniversary of Bulgaria’s application and head towards the 8th anniversary of Bulgaria’s membership, I am less certain that my companion was wrong.

Perhaps, more than any other issue, the debate on the Commission proposals to amend the Renewable Energy Directive 2009 propelled the issue of the equality between the member states of the Union back into my mind.

The Renewable Energy Directive [RED] established an overall policy for the production and promotion of energy from renewable sources in the EU as a means of addressing the EU’s obligations in the fight against climate change.

In the case of EU member states such as Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary, the 10% mandate for renewable fuels in road transport offered a means of emulating the very positive changes that similar provisions in US law delivered over the three decades to rural America – while also helping Europe to meet its greenhouse gas obligations.

The ethanol mandate in the US brought about a quiet revolution in American agriculture and rural life. It incentivised farmers to produce more food, more fuel – ethanol – and more high protein animal feed from the same area of land more sustainably than ever before.

The change brought investment and jobs to rural areas that were once on their knees. It provided farmers with a reliable and steady income stream where previously they only knew uncertainty.

The RED promised to deliver similar benefits to central and eastern EU member states which have huge unrealised potential to create a vibrant biofuel industry that would create thousands of jobs, provide new income streams for farmers, much needed rural investment in some of Europe’s poorest regions while helping the EU to achieve its GHG targets, to cut Europe’s dependence on imported fossil fuels and to address a huge protein deficit which forces EU food producers to import huge amounts of animal feed, much of it produced from GMO material and containing traces of industrial antibiotics.    

Things looked bright, until the Commission launched proposals to cut back the 10% mandate for renewable biofuels in the RED back to 5%. The proposal had an immediate chilling impact on investment. The CEO of one major EU operator spoke of the EU’s “dysfunctional political system “turning clean energy companies into a “zombie industry”.

The justification for the Commission’s about face was concern about unintended and potentially negative impacts of the mandate and in particular about possible indirect land use change impacts, particular in developing third countries, arising from EU policy.

During the debate on the proposals, there were lurid claims about EU biofuel policy driving major land grabs in developing countries, about dramatic spikes in world food prices, food shortages and generally negative ILUC impacts. The strength of evidence to support the claims was questionable.  

As always, there was a ‘compromise’ solution. The mandate was not cut in half as the Commission suggested – it was scaled back to a 7.5% figure.

The amendments were heavily skewed against the interests of the ‘newer’ EU members.  By and large biofuel producers in the older member states could ‘live with’ but which does not ‘do it’ for the newer member states where the unutilised capacity exists. The revision of the RED and the ban on state aid for biofuels closed the door on the opportunity for rural communities in CEE member states to experience the breakthrough enjoyed by rural communities in the US.

There is now a new ‘twist’ to the story. In 2013, some might say rather late in the day, the Commission appointed Ecofys, IIASA and E4Tech aimed at assessing the extent of ILUC impacts.

In the interest of transparency the three firms published details of their approach to the task giving some hope that after a fractious debate there might be an outbreak of common sense and the opportunity for a more objective discussion on biofuels.  

The Commission has had the report for some time, but has point blank refused to make it public. Even more remarkable the Commission is robustly resisting calls for the report to be published, for reasons that can be best described as fatuous.

The point in all of this is not to rerun the debate on the 2012 proposal to amend the RED, but rather to bring the focus back to the starting point and to the fundamental question as to the level of equality that exists within the Union.

Is the EU really a Union of equals, or to paraphrase George Orwell, is it a Union where all member states are equal but some are more equal than others?

The way the debate on amending the RED ‘panned out’ and the secrecy that now surrounds a study on one of the central issues in that debate tilts the answer more in the direction of Orwell than of the ‘founding fathers’.

There can be no doubt that in the debate the interests and preoccupations of western, longer standing member states trumped those of the newer central and eastern EU members.

At a time when disturbing numbers of citizens are ‘falling out of love’ with the European project, this a matter of some significance.

Subscribe to our newsletters

Subscribe