Sunday

5th Feb 2023

Opinion

What to expect from Bulgaria's EU presidency?

  • Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borisov. It will take Bulgaria the next 25 years, at an unprecedented annual productivity gain of four percent, just to reach EU average income levels (Photo: Vesselin Zhelev)

Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk competed with one another in Sofia last week to heap the most praise on Bulgaria, which assumed the presidency of the Council of the European Union for the first time on January 1.

Juncker joked of once holding the fate of Bulgaria's EU ascension in his hands, but promised Sofia would find its place in the Eurozone and the Schengen border-free travel zone.

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For all their confidence, however, Europe's top officials cannot dismiss serious doubts over whether Sofia can protect European interests against Brexit negotiations, a hybrid Russian threat, illiberal and populist movements, and the tense deliberations over Emmanuel Macron's eurozone proposals.

Are Juncker and Tusk right in believing the Bulgarians can pull it off?

To answer that question, we should look to Bulgaria's four priorities, decided together with predecessor Estonia and successor Austria.

The agenda includes the "economic and social cohesion" of the EU, the "security and stability" of Europe, the digital economy, and –bmost importantly – the "connectivity" binding the Western Balkans and the rest of Europe.

Bulgaria is a problematic standard-bearer for economic and social cohesion, to say the least.

The country technically meets all of the criteria to join the Eurozone and clearly has Juncker's support for its candidacy, but Bulgaria is also by far the poorest country in the EU with GDP per capita that is just 47 percent of the EU average.

The World Bank notes "productivity will need to grow by at least 4 percent per year over the next 25 years for Bulgaria to catch up with average EU income levels".

Sofia is also ranked 75th of 176 on the Transparency International corruption perceptions index and 109th of 180 on the World Press Freedom index.

Economic advancement is undermined by systemic corruption the government does little to address.

This scourge is visible everywhere: small towns host dozens of casinos and empty luxury shops, while the beneficiaries of illicit activities drive expensive cars and ordinary people are left to deal with a failing health system. High-ranking officials suspected of corruption face no consequences.

Pervasive rot

The EU is aware of this pervasive rot.

Brussels put Bulgaria under special supervision via the cooperation and verification mechanism (CVM) a decade ago, but the economy is still in thrall to organised crime.

A half-hearted anti-corruption law passed by parliament in December was immediately vetoed by president Rumen Radev – and then reinstated by parliament.

Foreign investors highlight the fact that the independence of Bulgaria's judiciary is highly questionable.

Corrupt local interests make it more difficult to attract and keep foreign investment.

In an open letter to the government, the country's major foreign business associations (representing France, the UK, US, Canada, Norway, and Austria) warn "the pervasive sense of lawlessness and impunity eroding Bulgarian society… contributes to Bulgaria largely lagging behind other EU members from Eastern Europe in all socio-economic aspects."

Onerous government regulations have sent many Western companies packing, leading foreign investment to markedly decline in recent years.

For all the huffing and puffing, Sofia's banner economic growth is merely the result of domestic consumption and absorption of EU funds.

Will Bulgaria have an easier time safeguarding European security?

As a Slavic and Orthodox nation, the country is a prime target for Russian propaganda.

BNO Shipka is a leading paramilitary organisation with deep ties to Moscow, has been sending militia groups to hunt refugees along the border with Turkey. Bulgaria's nationalistic, pro-Russian United Patriots have entered government as part of the ruling coalition.

Some of their ministers will be chairing EU committees during Bulgaria's presidency – only to be replaced later this year by Austria's far-right.

Russian energy interests

Russian interests in gas, nuclear, wholesale and retail fuel-distribution have secured their stakes in Bulgaria's energy sector through strong links with local oligarchs and politicians.

In Bulgaria's defence, the country is a committed member of NATO and is attempting to break the Russian stranglehold over its energy through diversification.

To succeed, the Bulgarians need the EU to show resolve in creating a genuine energy security policy that counters Moscow and offers workable alternatives. Juncker is right in insisting EU membership was the right decision.

Beyond its benefits to Bulgarian citizens, EU and NATO membership have jointly brought Sofia into the fold of Europe's security interests.

For all its struggles, the presidency could help Bulgaria boost replicate the economic dynamism of other 'new' EU members.

The focus on the "digital economy" was tailored to Estonia, but also highlights Bulgaria's overall lack of preparedness for the future.

The World Economic Forum ranks Bulgaria 69th of 130 in "networked readiness", behind even non-EU Balkan states including Macedonia (46th) and Montenegro (51st). This has encouraged investment in digital skills for an economy that sees far too many young people leaving to work elsewhere in Europe.

In fairness, Sofia is not the most problematic country for Brussels, avoiding Poland's violations of the rule of law and Hungary's provocations over EU refugee quotes.

Bulgaria's presidency could ultimately demonstrate its commitment to progress and constructive European consensus – but we should not underestimate the hurdles it will need to surmount in getting there.

Nicolas Tenzer is the chairman of the Paris-based Centre for Study and Research for Political Decision (Cerap), editor of the journal Le Banquet, author of three official reports to the government, including two on international strategy, and of 21 books.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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