EU country briefing: Bulgaria

Bulgaria big changed [Photo: Robert Steenland and Christoph Sebald]

The following article is a part of a series of brief country profiles for the EU-28 ahead of the European elections in May.

Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, together with Romania. The country’s accession made Cyrillic the EU’s third official alphabet aside from the Greek and Latin alphabets.

Like its northern neighbour, Bulgaria’s membership was subjected to safeguard clauses in the areas of organised crime, corruption and judicial reform. This is organised through the EU’s Mechanism for Cooperation and Verification.

This was done to ensure that continued reforms in these areas take place after the accession and this EU monitoring is ongoing.

Bulgaria has not been able to join the Schengen area so far, due to being blocked by certain member states, particularly the Netherlands, over rule of law concerns.

The country has not adopted the Euro yet, although it is expected to join the Exchange Rate Mechanism II (ERM-II) this year, giving it a chance of becoming a eurozone member by mid-2022.

Romania and Bulgaria both represented borderline cases for accession in terms of meeting the EU acquis, explaining the ongoing monitoring and concerns. Making the continental EU contiguous by creating a land border to Greece, while surrounding the Western Balkans pending its integration, was enough to tip the decision in favour of accession.

Bulgaria’s population is steadily shrinking. In 2017, the country recorded a population of 7.1 million, amounting to 1.6% of the EU total (minus the UK).  Roughly 9% of Bulgaria’s population is of Turkish ethnicity.

The country will elect 17 Members of European Parliament (MEPs) in this year’s European Parliament (EP) elections, 2.4% of the (expected) post-Brexit total of 705.

A bit more than one third (36.3%) voted during 2014’s EP elections, below the EU average of 42.6%. A majority (55%) of Bulgarians consider the EU as a good thing whereas 10% consider it a bad thing, just below the EU average (62/11).

Just 51% of people in Bulgaria feel like citizens of the EU (47% don’t), which is the lowest in the EU. Moreover, despite Bulgaria’s (technical) legal obligation to join the Eurozone at some stage, the public is less than enthusiastic, with just 35% of people in favour of joining.

Economy

Bulgaria remains the EU’s poorest country, with 4 out of 10 people being at risk of poverty or social exclusion by some measures, along with having the highest level of income inequality in the club. This is partly caused by persistent corruption, reflected in the highest Corruption Perception Index among all EU countries.

The country also struggles with the demographic decline due to low birth rates and emigration. This, in part, is also why the IMF remarked that ‘‘Persistent net emigration and population ageing continue to reduce the labour force, aggravating already-pressing labour shortages and skill mismatches.’’

Nonetheless, annual real GDP growth was 3.2% on average from 2014 to 2018, way above the EU average (2.1%), albeit from a lower starting point. This is expected to continue by 3.6% in both 2018 and 2019 according to the EC’s latest winter forecast.

Its total GDP was 51 billion in 2017, 0.4% of the EU total post-Brexit. Per capita, real GDP was 6,300 in 2017, less than a quarter of the €27,700 EU28 average. This amounts to 49% of the EU28 average in purchasing power standards (PPS).

Unemployment is very low (5.2%) in the country, far below the EU28 average of 7%. While the rate is significantly higher for the youth (12.7%), this is still below the EU28’s 15.6%.

Political context and direction

The Bulgarian transition towards democracy began after the end of communist rule in 1990. The same year elections for a Constitutional Assembly and President took place. The Constitution was adopted in 1991 and established a parliamentarian unicameral system.

The Prime Minister and the cabinet remain the focal point of the executive, while the President has a ceremonial and symbolic role, with a limited say in domestic affairs, except for setting up caretaker governments when needed.

The evolution of the political landscape during the last thirty years has been defined by fragmentation and personalisation of the party system. Centre-right political parties have led most governments since independence.

On the other hand, centre-left governments, dominated by the Socialist Party (BSP), governed during limited periods between 1995 – 1997, 2005 – 2009 and 2013 – 2014. The BSP is the successor of the Bulgarian Communist Party.

Since 2009 the political landscape has been dominated by the succession of three centre-right governments led by the political party GERB and the current Prime Minister, Boyko Borissov.

Since its creation, GERB has adopted a populist discourse, which initially attacked the corrupt elites. The resignations of the first two GERB cabinets due to social protests (2014) and reduced social support (in the presidential elections in 2017), were followed by re-election of the same party.

A resurgence in the popularity of BSP, and ebbing of support for GERB led to the election of the BSP-supported candidate for President, Rumen Radev in 2016.

This presidential election prompted Borissov to resign (as he had promised in the event of a GERB loss), leading to snap parliamentary elections. However, while the BSP gained many seats, elections were again won by the GERB.

Reform of the electoral system is a recurrent theme in Bulgarian politics. The experience of eight reforms to the electoral code has led to the politicisation of this issue. In a 2016 nationwide referendum, citizens showed their support for a majoritarian system.

However, the legal turnout threshold of 51% was narrowly missed. Key concerns include the introduction of an electronic vote, the regulation of preferential votes, voting abroad, campaign transparency and vote-buying.

Moreover, Bulgaria has one of Europe’s worst press freedom rankings according to Reporters without Borders, which observed that ‘‘Corruption and collusion between media, politicians and oligarchs is widespread in Bulgaria’’.

Corruption and protracted Rule of Law reforms in key fields, as Judiciary and Prosecution, remain important challenges to be addressed. The recent revelation of high-level corruption scandals led to the resignation of key figures in the cabinet and the Parliament.

Since May 2017, GERB governs together with a coalition of far-right nationalist parties (United Patriots). Bulgarian political landscape is defined by the presence of several right-wing nationalist political parties, which adopt an intolerant discourse.

The far-right coalition of United Patriots (27/240 Members of Parliament (MPs)), includes political parties such as Ataka, VMRO and the National front for Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB). The party “Volya” (12/240 MPs) represents a similar populist trend.

On the other side, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) (25/240 MPs) represents the Turkish ethnic minority in Bulgaria. The country’s high proportion of Muslim citizens (due to its historical Ottoman rule), constitute the core supporters of the Party.

Recently, the parliament has also stopped functioning ordinarily, as differences regarding a last-minute reform to the electoral code and the regulation of the Central Electoral Commission has prompted the Bulgarian Socialist Party to stop attending regular parliamentary sessions since February 2019.

The debates and hasty adoption of new reforms in this field has led to accusation against GERB of trying to benefit from such legislative changes. Volya and MRF currently push GERB over the quorum for legitimate Parliamentary sessions, following the BSP’s withdrawal.

Reformist and anti-corruption political parties on the centre-right, opposing the government, include “Yes, Bulgaria” and “Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria” (DSB). Both currently have no (longer) representation in the national parliament. For the forthcoming EP elections, these two parties and the “Greens” have formed the coalition ‘Democratic Bulgaria” (DP).

The mentioned corruption scandal this year, dubbed  ‘‘ApartmentGate’’, that has led to resignations of key GERB members, has undermined support for the ruling GERB party, and could play a key role in determining whether it will lose in favour of BSP.

Predictions

The relatively low electoral participation is expected to be observed also during the 2019 elections for the European Parliament. Apart from the effects of the corruption scandal engulfing GERB, the actual turnout could prove most crucial.

Moreover, if polling stations are limited as they were in 2017, the equal voting rights of Bulgarian citizens abroad might be negatively affected.

A recent domestic poll indicates the GERB (34%) and BSP (33%) are neck and neck, leading the electoral competition. They could bring 7-8 MEPs seats each to the European People’s Party (EPP) and Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), respectively.

The DPS, mainly backed by the Turkish minority, would remain the third political force for Bulgaria in the EU Parliament with circa 11% of all votes, which would result in 2 MEP seats for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group.

Many of the other parties are expected to fall short of reaching the 5.88% barrier needed to win an MEP mandate.

The Democratic Bulgaria coalition is close to the threshold with 5.1% of the vote. DSB (in the Democratic Bulgaria coalition) is currently represented by one MEP in the European People’s Party (ЕPP) group.

The lack of agreement between the far-right nationalist parties has negatively affected their perspectives to nominate MEPs, and each of them currently falls short of the electoral threshold.

Overall it appears that GERB and the BSP will remain in leading positions, despite the lack of certainty over which one will come out on top. They are expected to be followed by DPS.

Marta Stoyanova Matrakova is a PhD researcher based in Université Libre de Bruxelles and LUISS Guido Carli. She studies the processes of democratisation in Eastern Europe. She holds a Master’s degree in EU International Relations and Diplomacy from the College of Europe.

Daniel Matthews-Ferrero is a Marie Curie PhD researcher in the POLITICO programme at the University of Aberdeen, focusing on contemporary Western European populism. He holds a Master’s degree in European Interdisciplinary Studies from the College of Europe.

Robert Steenland works as an evaluation and research consultant in EU policies, as well as an analyst in EU politics.  He holds a double degree master in European Governance.

More information on Bulgaria and the European elections at EUelectionsBulgaria.com

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