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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