Pirinski: The European left needs a more powerful message

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The parties of the European left have not yet been able to rise to the challenge of the world economic crisis, Georgi Pirinski, chairman of the National Assembly of Bulgaria, told EURACTIV in an interview.

New-York-born Pirinski, a son of a political immigrant, has also served Bulgaria’s foreign minister. He gave this interview in English. 

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

Ten weeks from now, the European elections will be held, with 27 EU countries voting simultaneously for the first time. This must be a special moment for Bulgaria, one of the two latest newcomers? 

So it is, undoubtedly. There is the realisation that this is a special election, that the European Parliament will be acquiring new powers and a new role, and for Bulgaria, which has been a member for two-and-a-half years, the very real issues – farm policy, regional policy – have become very pertinent for the Bulgarian citizen. So I hope and believe there will be a new interest in following the campaign and voting for the candidates of the various parties. 

Bulgarian media spread the news that you will top the list of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) for the European elections. Can you confirm this? 

You may have an impression of how some Bulgarian media operate. I would not want to expand on that. 

So it’s obviously too early, at least in Bulgaria, to say who the candidates are, or what the main slogans will be? 

No, I don’t believe it is too early. I believe the political parties should be putting forward their candidacies and their platforms. There is serious preparation in the different political parties for producing platforms, which proceed from the general manifestoes of the European political families. 

There is an effort by the BSP to bring down to the Bulgarian realities the general message of the Party of European Socialists’ manifesto, and I know that the parties of the centre-right are trying very much to popularise the platform of the European People’s Party. 

These elections are different, because they are being held against the background of an unprecedented world economic crisis. Do you think this will give a certain advantage to leftist forces, which have always fought for change of the system? 

That is the expectation, but for the moment I don’t see that the parties of the left are really able to generate the kind of support for their platform for which a crisis of the present type would presuppose. This is a real challenge for the Left parties, because clearly they cannot simply produce slogans, they have to be realistic enough, but at the same time they have to show a different approach. And the expectations of the public, as we see in some of the protests which took place these days, that people come first – this is a very strong message. How you translate that message into practical policy is a real challenge. 

You have been in politics throughout the Bulgarian transition, and held top positions both in government and in parliament. As a heavyweight of the European left, did you voice your concerns with other leaders from other countries? 

Actually I had the opportunity to discuss this once, in Sofia, where we received the visit of representatives of the European Parliament. We didn’t find the solution to the problem, but we recognised that the left needs to come out with credible and very clear commitments that speak to the citizens from the point of view of his worries at the moment. And I think this is the problem of the left. Very often, we are too expansive in words, but not sufficiently powerful in the message we translate. 

The European centre-right has a candidate for one of the highest EU top jobs, as José Manuel Barroso is their candidate for a second mandate as Commission president. But if EPP-ED does not win the elections, obviously somebody from the left will take over this top job. But there is no obvious candidate. 

For that, you have to ask my friends from the left in the European Parliament. 

Do you see the Liberals in a more difficult position, because one might say this crisis is because there was too much liberalism in economics? 

You could say that, but I don’t want to be too critical of the liberals as a political tendency. I believe the problem for any political tendency is to gain the trust of the citizens. 

The Lisbon Treaty is now stalled in two countries, Ireland and the Czech Republic, where the stumbling block is the Senate. In Bulgaria, ratification in parliament has been pretty smooth. You advocate parliamentary cooperation, although the cooperation between national parliaments and the EP is still embryonic. Do you thing more cooperation would have brought a better climate in the Czech Senate? 

You are right, Bulgaria was the sixth country to ratify the Lisbon Treaty. That was in March last year. It was an act of Bulgaria and its citizens to contribute to the strengthening and the better functioning of the Union. It is a fact that in Bulgaria, in the third year of membership, support for EU membership is way above 50%, and we remain generally a Euro-optimistic society. The question, however, is that this optimism needs to be translated into practical support for institutions and policies, and here I come to your question about national parliaments. 

I have felt in the past two or three years of this parliament in Bulgaria, that citizens are manifesting a new will to be better informed what Parliament has been doing, and even more, to directly participate in the discussions in the committees, and to have their opinions considered seriously. And from this, I believe we should profit, we should use this new citizens’ activity, precisely in contacts between national parliaments, to make reality out of the principle of subsidiarity and proportionality in the functioning of parliaments. Because up to now, it has been more of an intention, and we have been far from using the potential of these concepts. 

We’re speaking in Brussels, where you participated in a conference in the Belgian Senate, dedicated to the influence of the Belgian constitution of 1831 over the first Bulgarian constitution of 1879. You seem to have a privileged relationship with the Belgian parliament.

This is certainly what I felt this morning (30 March) in the Belgian Senate, attended and opened by the President of the Senate Mr. [Armand] De Decker, and with the very active participation of Senator [Francis] Delpérée. What was interesting is that the constitution of Bulgaria 130 years ago, when the country reappears on the political map, was discussed in the light of reflecting the Belgian constitution of 1831. 

But these influences were traced to the present day, in the new constitution of the Republic of Bulgaria of 1991, and Belgian senators and professors pointed out texts from their 1831 constitution, reproduced in the Bulgarian constitution of 1991 in their pure form, which in Belgium has been diluted in consequent transformations. 

Maybe Bulgaria is trying to play a similar role with the Western Balkans today? 

It’s interesting. In recent years, when I spoke to political figures from Serbia, from Croatia and other countries, it turns out that they have been taking on board legislation which the Bulgarian Parliament has been adapting, as a harmonisation exercise, for the Bulgarian legal system. And they have been using that, without us in any way organising this. 

The language probably helps, as Bulgarian is similar to the languages of the former Yugoslavia? 

Probably. And the Bulgarian parliament has undertaken to be the seat of a regional secretariat for parliamentary cooperation, part of the system of cooperation in South Eastern Europe. And we are trying to contribute by providing a network of information, by organising workshops and conferences, with the very strong support of the EP and other national parliaments, such as the Federal Parliament of Germany. 

And there is another very interesting experience I would like to mention, there is school for political education in Bulgaria, called the Bulgarian School for Politics, inaugurated 15 years ago as part of a programme under the Council of Europe, which has an international programme. Last year, the graduates came to parliament, and I was able to give them their diplomas. At that time, they gave me a joint declaration they had adopted. I should mention that these were young leaders from all Western Balkan countries, including Kosovo, including Serbia, all the others plus Bulgaria. In the declaration, they said “we want to contribute to the development of cooperation in the Western Balkans, but there is no transportation, we have to wait for visas, and if we want to fly from one country to another, we have to go to Central Europe first”. 

So I sent this declaration both to EP President Poettering and to all the presidents of parliaments from the region, and was happy to receive answers from almost all of them, really recognising the very urgent need for this voice to be heard, and for the EU to undertake a set of policies, opening up the Western Balkans in order to make it an area able to move towards accession. 

But perhaps you will agree that these days, the mood is not in favour of enlargement? 

Indeed, enlargement is not on top of the agenda, but that should not lead to forgetting, that in the way of infrastructure, of procedures, the area should not become a black hole, it should not become an isolated enclave inside Europe, that it rather should be integrated. 

Bulgaria will hold parliamentary elections this summer. Why these were not merged with the European elections? 

Indeed, there were strong proposals to have these elections on one date. One problem, which has to do with the constitution, is that the mandate of the parliament finishes on the day previous elections were held [four years ago]. And those were held on 25 June 2005. Dissolving the parliament before that is really not possible. But there is also another argument – these elections are about different issues, one European, the other national, and holding them together could overshadow European priorities. 

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