There were high hopes in Bulgaria ahead of the country’s first EU Council presidency, but even before the official launch ceremony on January 11 it has become a public relations disaster for Sofia. Unless things are turned around quickly, this will put paid to Bulgaria’s ambitions — and similar hopes in neighbouring Romania — of using its presidency to take on a more central role within the union.
The first week of Bulgaria’s presidency started with mass protests over the government’s controversial decision to allow part of the Pirin national park to be turned into a ski resort, while both police and scientists used the government’s fear of potentially messy unrest to improve their pay packages. Dissatisfied with their initial deal, however, police officers are now threatening to protest during the official launch of the presidency on January 11 and picket future events if their demands are not met.
On day eight of the Bulgarian presidency things got even worse when a prominent businessman linked to the ruling Coalition for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) party was gunned down in broad daylight outside his Sofia headquarters. While the reasons for Petar Hristov’s shooting are not yet known, the incident inevitably raised questions about the links between business and criminal groups. Together with the decision on the Bansko ski resort expansion, which critics claim was murky and the result of “political blackmail”, it has shone a harsh spotlight onto the failure of the Bulgarian government to effectively tackle organised crime and corruption — exactly what officials wanted to avoid during their six months in the EU’s hot seat.
The accession of Bulgaria and neighbouring Romania to the EU at the tail end of the wave of eastward expansion in the mid-2000s raised questions about whether the two countries were fully prepared to join, or whether their accession had been rushed, particularly in the area of the fight against corruption and (in Bulgaria’s case) organised crime. This was the reason why the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) was launched to monitor the two countries’ convergence with EU standards in this area — though the latest Corruption Perceptions Index from Transparency International does show Romania scored better than “old” EU members Greece and Italy, even though Bulgaria was still rated the most corrupt country in the EU.
Despite progress recorded in successive annual reports, they have so far not managed to make sufficient headway to have the rather humiliating monitoring regime lifted. Indeed, the latest CVM reports issued by the European Commission in November criticised the two Balkan countries for their patchy progress on judicial reform and the fight against corruption.
Bulgaria’s latest attempt to adopt new anti-corruption legislation was aborted when the bill was rejected by President Rumen Radev in December on the ostensible grounds that too many loopholes had been introduced. Meanwhile, the failure to tackle organised crime during the 11 years since its accession to the EU is “a major stumbling block to the country’s development and wider European ambitions,” wrote Brussels-based public affairs consultant Nicholas Kaufmann in a comment for bne IntelliNews.
And even Romania — once considered a beacon in the fight against corruption thanks to the efforts of the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) to bring corrupt officials including serving ministers to justice — is now backsliding. 2017 saw the largest protests since the fall of communism as the government tried to neuter the DNA in what was widely seen as an attempt to help top officials avoid prosecution. While the government backed down at the time, a series of standoffs and repeated efforts to weaken the judiciary and tools for the fight against corruption followed, and 2018 is shaping up for more of the same. The latest twist in the saga is the adoption of legislation overhauling the judiciary, which has sparked criticism from EU officials and even fears that Romania could follow Poland into a serious rift with Brussels.
This failure to live up to EU expectations when it comes to tackling corruption is at odds with the wish expressed in both Bucharest and Sofia to become closer to the core of the bloc. As some of its most recent entrants (only Croatia joined later, in 2013) and the EU28’s poorest economies, they are still seen as very much on the periphery of the union, and not just because of their geographic location in Europe’s southeast corner. In addition to being subject to the CVM, they have so far been unable to join the Schengen zone, and are a long way off adopting the euro.
This has led politicians from Bucharest and Sofia to speak out against the idea of a multi-speed Europe, and in favour of closer integration of the entire bloc, as stressed by Romanian Foreign Minister Teodor Melanescu and the Minister for the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU Lilyana Pavlova at the Aspen Forum in Bucharest in October 2017.
Their first presidencies of the union — Bulgaria for the next six months and Romania in the first half of 2019 — were seen as a chance to improve their positions, not least because their leadership will come at a time of significant change within the bloc. Brexit, due to take place during the Romanian presidency, will inevitably result in a shifting of the balance of power. And the two Balkan countries are taking the helm after a period of self-examination as the liberal democratic foundations of the EU were shaken by the recent migrant crisis.
Romania and Bulgaria have also seen a chance to redefine themselves as the pro EU members of the eastern bloc in contrast to the recalcitrant position of several Visegrad 4 countries. In December the European Commission triggered the so-called “nuclear option” against Poland for undermining the rule of law with its reforms to the judiciary, while Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban indicated he would back his fellow illiberal democrats in Warsaw in their fight with Brussels. Meanwhile, the Czech Republic’s prime minister Andrej Babis has been vocally critical of the EU, particularly on the issues of migrant quotas, federalisation and sanctions against Russia — although should he hold onto his position as premier he is likely to take a more pragmatic line than his pre-election rhetoric indicates.
By contrast, Romania and Bulgaria have been the “well behaved” new entrants from Eastern Europe who — to an extent because they lack the economic opportunities of their richer neighbours to the north — are seeking more integration rather than seeking to reassert their national sovereignty. Both say they want to join the eurozone, for example, although there is no firm adoption schedule for either state. But while corruption remains such a serious concern, they could well fail to take advantage of their presidencies of the union to take a more central position.