Bulgaria seeks enhanced EU role with Balkan expansion push

Bulgaria seeks enhanced EU role with Balkan expansion push
Lilyana Pavlova, minister of the Bulgarian presidency of the EU, and her colleagues set out Sofia's priorities for the next six months.
By Denitsa Koseva in Sofia December 20, 2017

Bulgaria has set helping the Western Balkan countries get closer to membership in the European Union as its priority during its upcoming presidency of the bloc, while it simultaneously attempts to position itself closer to the core of the union. Specifically, the country’s top politicians plan to indirectly lobby to enter the eurozone’s waiting room, the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM2), and to join the Schengen area.

Bulgaria has set four priorities during its presidency that starts on January 1, 2018: young people, the Western Balkan countries’ EU perspective, security and stability in a united Europe and the digital economy. These priorities have been coordinated with EU’s current chair, Estonia, and with Austria, which will take over in the second half of 2018.

Although these priorities were not drawn up by Bulgaria and the country will only be able to perform activities agreed with the other EU member states, local analysts believe that politicians in Sofia will try to benefit from any positive outcome during the country’s presidency.

“As we are part of a bigger team, our steps towards the Western Balkans could lead to results that our country can use to demonstrate leadership qualities and prestige,” Petar Cholakov, chief assistant at the Social Control, Deviation and Conflicts department at the Sofia-based Institute for the Study of Societies and Knowledge, told bne IntelliNews.

The Western Balkans seem to be the top priority for Bulgaria, as the country has stated that it will try to help all six countries to speed up the accession process via more funding for infrastructure, energy and other projects. 

Bringing countries from the region into the EU will mean Bulgaria, which was one of the later entrants from the former Eastern bloc having joined in 2007, is no longer a peripheral country on the EU’s southeast frontier. In addition, if and when the Western Balkans join — which is still a far off prospect for most of the region — Bulgaria as one of the existing members that pushed for their accession will gain new allies within the enlarged union.  

Changing priorities

Still, the impetus isn’t only coming from Sofia. After being off the agenda while Brussels dealt with the migrant crisis and other pressing issues, enlargement has once again become a priority for the EU in general as politicians see the bloc will only benefit from political stability in the Balkans.

“Regional players like Russia, Turkey and Islamic State aim to spark conflicts on the Balkans — in this way they would also weaken Europe through the so-called spillover effect. For that reason, the initiative for inclusion of Western Balkans has been identified as priority not only by Bulgaria, but also by Germany — a country-leader and a motor of the alliance. Austria, which will take over the presidency after [Bulgaria], also considers the topic strategically important,” Cholakov said.

However, the six Western Balkan countries are at very different stages in the process of EU integration, with Serbia and Montenegro having the best chance to join sooner.

Albania needs to speed up its ongoing judicial reforms, while Macedonia has to resolve a long-running dispute with Greece over its name, which it shares with a northern Greek province, though there are signs a breakthrough could be imminent. Bosnia & Herzegovina and Kosovo are far from getting candidate status as the two countries still need to implement key reforms, and Kosovo is not recognised by five EU members.

In terms of its other priorities, when it comes to the EU’s stability, Bulgaria is hardly in a position to persuade the bloc that it can be a leader, considering its own problems with the lack of security on its border with Turkey.

In recent weeks, local journalist Elene Yoncheva of the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party has made a series of videos showing big holes below the fence that is supposed to prevent illegal migration between Bulgaria and Turkey, as well as groups of migrants freely crossing the border. The government denied that the problem exists, but also said that will strengthen the border’s security.

“Adding to [the problems with the border with Turkey], the problems with the judiciary… and the level of corruption in the public sector (the highest in EU), we shall hardly persuade the other member-states that we can be a leader in this area,” Cholakov said.

In addition, in its latest Co-operation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) report issued in November, the European Commission once again criticised Bulgaria on the lack of progress in judicial reform and the fight against corruption. The country has failed to make significant progress in the past 10 years.

This will be the first time a country under the EU’s monitoring process will take over the chair of the union, although Bulgaria will be followed by Romania, which is also subject to the CVM monitoring, in the first half of 2019. 

High hopes

Despite the lack of serious influence Sofia is seen as having within the EU, political analysts expect the Bulgarian government led by Boyko Borissov will most likely attempt to indirectly lobby for the country’s inclusion in ERM2, and will use any positive outcome during the presidency for its own future benefit.

“Some politicians and ‘public figures’ describe the EU chairmanship as little children imagine their birthday, i.e. that all other children in their class, even the teachers, will have to give them gifts, that they should get the biggest piece of cake after blowing candles accompanied by loud applauses and singing ‘Happy birthday’. There is no such thing,” Cholakov said.

He added that the EU presidency cannot solve the main problems for Bulgaria to allow it to make progress on topics such as Schengen and membership in the eurozone; the role is mainly organisational rather than political.