The Bulgarian Presidency: more about style than substance

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

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov arrives for an European People's Party (EPP) leaders meeting ahead of the European Council meeting in Brussels, 28 June 2018. [Julien Warnand/EPA/EFE]

With no major faux pas or any ground-breaking policy change to speak of, Bulgaria’s first term as EU President is unlikely to go down in the annals of history. Yet Sofia can nevertheless look back on its six months in office with a sense of satisfaction, writes Vladislava Gubalova.

Vladislava Gubalova, PhD., is a Research Fellow with the Future of Europe Programme at the GLOBSEC Policy Institute (GPI). 

From the outset, Bulgaria emphasised that it wanted to use its presidency to clarify the EU’s future relations with the Western Balkans. And while no immediate promises were made to bring the region into the fold, Sofia nevertheless embellished its integrationist credentials by promoting infrastructure and telecommunications as avenues for closer cooperation. This was appreciated by many Western Balkan states, who enjoyed a return to the European spotlight.

Bulgaria also oversaw the unveiling of the EU’s new strategy for the Western Balkans at the Sofia Summit, which raises the prospect of accession by 2025. To this end, Montenegro and Serbia were able to open new chapters in their accession bids, while Albania and the newly-named Republic of Northern Macedonia were given start dates for their respective applications. It’s a strategy that undoubtedly benefitted from the resolution of the latter’s dispute with neighbouring Greece.

Under Sofia’s watch an agreement was reached on the European Electronic Communication Code, which paves the way for the development of 5G fast internet enabled networks. Building these networks will allow EU states to make better use of the Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things. The European Commission is also confident that proper investment will help the EU’s Gross Domestic Product to reach EUR910 billion and create 1.3 billion jobs by 2025.

Bulgaria’s biggest win arguably came when the European Commission agreed to increase the country’s allocation in the next EU budget. While Brexit will result in less contributions, changing priorities and a new scheme for assessing need will also divert funds from established money pots. However, thanks to increased funding Sofia should have tools at its disposal to advance convergence with fellow member states and challenge its status as the EU’s poorest country.

(Familiar) Bumps in the Road

Sofia was unable to transport its ‘good neighbour’ approach in the Western Balkans over to the perennially thorny issue of migration. Relocation quotas among EU member states remain a major sticking point and reform of the Dublin regulations remain a dim and distant prospect. Moreover, Central European states rejected Bulgaria’s ‘compromise’ of financial incentives and mandatory relocations only in extreme circumstances, while Italy railed against the idea that point of entry countries should be responsible for registered migrants for 8 years.

The consequences of the EU’s migration dispute are plain to see. Temporary border checks over the past two years have damaged the free flow of goods and people while business revenues have decreased. Consequently, Bulgaria was unable to advance its bid to join the Schengen area. Indeed, in the absence of any consensus on the flow of migrants around the EU, Sofia might have to wait considerably longer before it fulfills its EU ambitions.

Bulgaria was also unable to use its presidency to support its entry into the Exchange Rate Mechanism II (ERM II), a pre-requisite for joining the Euro. While the country technically fits within the agreed criteria, the European Commission recently published that casts doubt on its readiness to join the ERM II. Concerns remain over possible institutional instability during times of economic crisis. Much like Schengen, Sofia’s ERM aspirations remain out of reach.

The Final Verdict

An ill-prepared Youth Forum in Sofia was perhaps the only other blemish on a Bulgarian EU presidency that was more about style than substance. On the domestic level, Sofia’s enthusiasm and excitement for its six months in office helped to keep opposition parties in check. Indeed, maintaining support for the presidency was essential, given that the current Prime Minister Boyko Borissov failed to accelerate Bulgaria’s accession to the Schengen area and ERM II.

There can be no doubt that Bulgaria has emerged from its presidency with a reputation for being organised and capable of working with the EU’s competing agendas. These are qualities that were also forged against the backdrop of divergent opinions on migration and budget allocations, as well as challenging political conditions in Germany. Sofia’s ability to stay focused on the task at hand amidst political turmoil elsewhere has only enhanced Bulgaria’s efforts to portray itself as a strong regional player and unifying platform for the Western Balkans.

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