The Brief, powered by Amazon Web Services (AWS) – Bulgaria’s mid-term review

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Three months of Bulgaria’s EU presidency have elapsed. So how is the bloc’s poorest member faring in its debut at the helm?

As Brussels insiders know, the EU presidency is a well-oiled machine that pretty much runs on its own. The biggest challenges are unexpected international events beyond its control.

For Bulgaria, those have come in the form of the growing tension with Russia [the Skripal poisoning case], and the destabilising potential of Turkey’s military excursions against the Kurds. Bulgaria tried hard to make its voice heard, with mixed results.

With his EU counterparts, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov has made efforts to appease the two major geopolitical players. He has strongly lobbied and obtained a ‘Leaders’ meeting’ with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Varna, and has warned British PM Theresa May against overreacting in the Skripal case.

Borissov is undoubtedly Erdogan’s preferred interlocutor in the EU, if not his Trojan horse. Borissov makes no secret of the fact that he fears what would happen if Turkey were to change its policy and release the three million migrants on its territory into Europe, via Bulgaria.

A second Varna summit will take place before the end of the Bulgarian Presidency.

Though Borissov seeks to build a similar relationship with Putin, he will not succeed because Moscow consistently treats Bulgaria with disdain, like an unfaithful ex-wife. At the last EU summit (22-23 March), Borissov boldly stated his country would not expel Russian diplomats. However, when he returned to Sofia, Bulgaria recalled its own ambassador in Moscow “for consultations”.

There is little doubt that Western pressure was put on Borissov, simply because his allies do not trust him to become Putin’s privileged interlocutor in the same way that he was allowed to be Erdogan’s pal.

In term of presidency blunders, top prize goes to Deputy Prime Minister Valery Simeonov, and it’s the price of Borissov’s cumbersome coalition partnership with the nationalist “United Patriots”.

Simeonov first made extremely offensive and threatening comments against the co-president of the Green political group in the European Parliament, Ska Keller, who came to Bulgaria to support protests against a plan to develop business tourism in a protected park.

This prompted reactions from the leaders of all European institutions, but Borissov remained silent.

Secondly, Simeonov called the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill a “cigarette billionaire” and a “second-class KGB cop”, which hardly helped Borissov’s efforts to win Putin over and advance various energy projects with Moscow.

Last but not least, the opposition to the Istanbul Convention from conservative parts of the Bulgarian society, including the United Patriots and the Socialist Party, did not exactly boost the country’s image in the EU. The convention, meant to prevent domestic violence, is no longer on the Bulgarian Parliament’s agenda.

In the upcoming presidencies, (Austria, Romania, Finland, Croatia, Germany), there are two more debutants.

One of them, Romania, will be overseeing the UK’s departure from the bloc – the historic moment is exactly a year away – and the next EU-wide election, after going through four prime ministers in the past year. It might make for an even more interesting case review.

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The Roundup

A fight has started between the German ministries for economic affairs and energy and environment over who should lead a highly strategic future commission that is tasked with preparing the country’s exit from using coal.

France is about to open a public debate on the future of the Montagne d’Or, a highly controversial gold mine project in French Guyana, which WWF France has demanded be abandoned.

As 5G is expected to become available to European consumers by 2025, the EU’s cybersecurity agency ENISA has warned the superfast mobile networks come with “extremely dangerous” cybersecurity risks.

After last week’s public outrage following the revelations that millions of Facebook profiles were secretly used to help political campaigns, EU Digital Commissioner Gabriel says users “need to know what happened with their data.”

UK voters call for Theresa May’s government to get on with Brexit, despite more than four in ten of them condemning its ‘shambolic’ handling of the exit talks. Brexit Day is now exactly a year from now, on 29 March 2019.

A fellow journalist colleague went on a quest to find out how Brussels has secreted away UK’s Article 50 letter – and dusted off Britain’s initial 50 reasons for wanting to join what would eventually become the EU.

In an interview, former heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko spoke about his work as the mayor of Kiev, the sanctions against Russia and his personal plans for the future.

“Minority SafePack”, an EU citizen’s initiative demanding protection for minority communities, has one week to go to collect the remaining 20.000 signatures it needs to be put before EU lawmakers.

The Erasmus+ program has become increasingly popular in France: in 2017, the country’s agency registered a 20% increase in financial applications for the mobility project compared to 2016.

Member states must have the option to index child benefits to the cost of living where the benefits are paid out, argue Morten Loekkegaard and Troels Lund Poulsen.

Look out for…

The Brief is taking a break after today. We will be back on Wednesday with the latest news.

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