Bulgaria, the European Union’s poorest member state, on 1 January took over the bloc’s six-month rotating presidency. The country will undoubtedly be under pressure by Turkey and Russia to move forward their difficult relations with the 28-members bloc.
In the meantime, the ongoing migrant crisis, Brexit and the future EU long-term EU budget are among the top items on the EU agenda.
“Bulgaria will take charge of the EU presidency at a key moment for the union … May the motto ‘United We Stand Strong’ guide us,” EPP-affiliated Prime Minister Boyko Borissov wrote in a post on Facebook.
The motto of the Bulgarian Presidency will be the same as the national motto of Bulgaria “Unity makes strength”. The motto is engraved above the Bulgarian National Assembly’s official entrance.
“I am confident that we shall work with success on our priorities, on continuity,” added Borissov.
— Лиляна Павлова (@LilyanaPavlova) August 2, 2017
The presidency, which rotates between different EU member states, will give Bulgaria the opportunity to chair meetings and set agendas, as the bloc grapples with the record influx of migrants, management of its borders, rising populism and Britain’s EU divorce.
Taking over from Estonia, Bulgaria will have to manage a June deadline for EU leaders to agree an overhaul of the so-called Dublin Regulation, which states that the country of arrival is responsible to deal with asylum seekers.
The system currently puts too much pressure on frontline states such as Greece and Italy, but countries have been divided over how to replace it.
Normalised ties with Turkey
To solve the refugee crisis, Sofia is also expected to push for normalised ties with Turkey, with which Bulgaria shares a 260-kilometre border.
Relations have soured dramatically between the bloc and Turkey since the failed coup against president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2016.
Ankara is unhappy with the lack of interest for developing EU-Turkey relations during the upcoming Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU, according to a publication by the daily Hurriyet, quoted by Mediapool.
The article, titled “Turkey was ignored”, hits at the failure of Borissov to put a EU-Turkey summit at the agenda of the Bulgarian Presidency, as well as at the weak texts in which Turkey is mentioned in the 42-page Bulgarian Presidency Programme.
The article also criticizes Borissov for having recently said that the “hypocrisy” in statements reconfirming that Turkey will become a EU member must stop.
Reportedly Ankara expected Borissov to obtain the agreement for holding such a summit during the last European Council on 15 December.
Russia is also interested in leveraging its influence in Bulgaria during the presidency.
The Russian agency ITAR-TASS quoted on 1 January Bulgaria’s Minister for the EU Presidency Lilyana Pavlova saying that Sofia would put on the EU agenda the issue of lifting the EU sanctions against Russia.
“Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and the Bulgarian government consider it necessary to include the issue of sanctions as one of the priorities in the agenda of the upcoming debate. This issue will be discussed in various formats in order to find the best solution and resolve the problem,” Pavlova said, as quoted by TASS.
Such a statement sounds surprising. As others EU members, Bulgaria is not happy about the EU sanctions against Russia, as it sees business opportunities elapsing to other non-EU countries, such as Serbia. Nevertheless, every six months when sanctions were renewed, Bulgaria didn’t use its veto right which could kill the EU policy.
As Bulgaria now holds the EU Presidency, on the occasion of the last EU summit, Borissov has made it clear that his country would follow the EU mainstream as far as sanctions are concerned. But rather surprisingly, he mentioned the names of some of the EU countries opposed to the Russia sanctions.
On 2 January, Pavlova said she was surprised by the interpretation of ITAR-TASS to statements she had made to several media last November. She said the issue of sanctions was “closed” during the Estonian Presidency, since at the last summit in December EU leaders decided to roll-over the sanctions until 30 July 2018.
The episode could be seen as a foretaste of Moscow’s tactics with Bulgaria, a country treated by the Russian establishment as an unfaithful former wife.
In terms of internal politics, the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) is readying a no-confidence vote in Borissov’s government over corruption. Mathematically, the vote could not pass, even if the mainly ethnic Turkish Movement of Rights and Freedoms (DPS), also in opposition, would back the motion.
The Bulgarian President Rumen Radev, who was elected with the support of BSP, has also been critical of Borissov. In his New Year speech, Radev made no mention of the Bulgarian Presidency of the EU, but said that 2018 “will be a test for Bulgaria’s democracy”.
Radev and Borissov are deeply divided on their assessment of Bulgaria’s democracy. Borissov is generally happy with the status quo and obviously counts on the Presidency to better defuse criticism from political opponents or the press.
Reportedly, Radev still nourishes hopes that the judiciary system could be reformed to be able to counter high-level corruption. Unlike Romania, where even a former Prime Minister was sent to jail, in Bulgaria not a single high level official has been sentenced for corruption.
On 2 January, Radev vetoed legislation demanded by Brussels aimed at tackling rampant corruption, saying it fails to protect whistleblowers.
Parliament approved the new law in late December with a view to merging several existing agencies into a single body to fight corruption. It also broadened the list of high-level officials whose income, property and conflict-of-interest declarations would be subject to checks by the new body.
Parliamentarians however ruled out the possibility of lodging anonymous complaints against politicians, while also offering no protection from prosecution to whistleblowers.
Radev, warning of the “risk for repressive action”, said the proviso went against the Council of Europe’s Civil Law Convention on Corruption protecting people who report graft.
Radev’s veto obliges parliament to re-examine the bill but lawmakers can also overrule his objections, forcing him to sign the law even if it remains unchanged.
Environmentalists take the streets
Protests in Sofia took place in the recent days against the decision by the Borissov cabinet to open construction of tourist facilities in the Pirin national park. The developments are highlighting the mysterious ways the country works.
On 28 December, Borissov’s cabinet took a decision which runts counter its own efforts to calm down the country politically during its EU stint.
Bulgarian Government takes over EU Presidency amidst street protests over decision to permit construction and logging in Pirin National Park. https://t.co/U7n1ODSUNh
— Andreas Beckmann (@AndreasBeckmann) January 1, 2018
Borissov wants no trouble during the Bulgarian Presidency. But it was him who put into the cabinet agenda a vote to build a second ski lift in Bansko. As it always happens, his proposal was accepted. The development took place following a meeting of the PM with the United Patriots, a nationalist force that has consistently advocated the Bansko development, in favour of the business community against the environmentalists.
The Bulgarian nationalists, a minority partner in the Borissov cabinet, have lately exchanged their traditional rhetoric against lobbying for the highest bidder from the business community.
Svetoslav Terziev, a commentator for Sega daily, wrote that not all Bulgarians are ready to protest, but they represent a powerful charge of anger that can explode on any occasion. “Any sudden movement can mean not only losing balance but also falling into the deep. That’s why Borissov’s is so afraid. And if he’s so afraid, it makes sense for the people to get organised”, Terziev writes.