• Even though his foray foreign policy aims to distract the attention of both the EU and the Bulgarian public from his lack of genuine interest in domestic reforms, Brussels could force the PM to move ahead on certain aspects of judicial reform.
"Mr. Borissov, you'll go down in history as a unifier, like King Boris III did," Krasimir Karakachanov, United Patriots co-leader and Defense Minister exclaimed in an interview for offnews.bg media portal just before Bulgaria and Macedonia signed a long-awaited treaty of friendship and good neighbourly relations at the beginning of August. The Prime Minister's party lieutenant, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, called him "an undisputed leader in the Balkans and a person who can always talk to European leaders". Even Socialist opposition politician and business mogul (albeit provenly close to the ruling GERB party) Georgi Gergov named him "Europe's carrier of peace".
And don't get us started about the ode to his foreign policy acumen as described in entire chapters of a biographical book about him, "Boyko, who always comes back", published by Trud publishing house.
With all the dithyrambs coming from the GERB party and friendly media, it is clear that in his third term as prime minister Boyko Borissov will concentrate on the government's foreign policy agenda. Of course, the reforms of the European Union, the refugee crisis, the strained relations with Russia all call for active diplomacy. Yet, there are two more pragmatic explanations. First, the upcoming Bulgarian presidency of the Council of the EU in the first half of 2018 is a unique chance for Mr. Borissov to shine in Brussels. There will be long line of prominent politicians who will shake his hand, which will be easily sold in Bulgaria as a foreign policy success. Second, Mr. Borissov's conviction that he can't make great strides in his domestic agenda, particularly in pursuing reform of the judicial system and the fight against widespread high-level corruption.
No more internal issues
For more than six years in power (with two pauses) since 2009, Mr. Borissov seemed to have been preoccupied with domestic priorities, ranging from the construction of highways in his first term, to keeping the stability of his fragile coalition in the second one. His foreign policy stints were unremarkable and usually extended from trips to Brussels, where he has been long seen as a credible and stable partner to Germany, to damage control after a scandal about Russian energy projects in Bulgaria or Turkey's threat to open its border to refugees.
Now the government seems to have set much more ambitious foreign policy goals. It was in the first days of Mr. Borissov's current term when he visited Paris to meet with newly elected President Emmanuel Macron reign (actually he was the first foreign leader do that) and stated officially for the first time that his government intends to apply for the Exchange Rate Mechanism II (ERM-II), the 'waiting room' of the Eurozone.
"Bulgaria has fulfilled all criteria to join Schengen," Borissov stated, referring to the EU area of border-free travel after he welcomed Mr. Macron for the second time, this time in late August in Varna, on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast.
Next, apart from the treaty with Macedonia, Borissov's summer Balkan overtures included Athens, Belgrade, Trieste and Istanbul, where he and his team discussed energy and transport infrastructure, connecting gas pipelines and using European funds to finance the completion of the European Corridor 8. The Bulgarian PM invited his Greek and Romanian counterparts to a forum in Varna to discuss the above topics and his Ministry for the EU Presidency put the speeding up of the integration of the Western Balkans into the EU at the forefront of its priorities.
How and why did this change of attitude happen?
First of all, it didn't happen overnight. As Parvan Simeonov from Gallup International Balkan commented for Sofia-based Capital newspaper, after eight years in active politics, six and a half of which in power, Borissov has gained the rank of a senior European politician. Secondly, his pose of a balancer has spread from his domestic image into his international one and he is well received both in Berlin and Paris, as well as by Hungary's controversial PM Victor Orban and Turkish authoritarian president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Yet, the most crucial factor that explains his sudden interest in international affairs is his party's total inability (and possibly unwillingness) to deliver on a set of domestic priorities. Judicial reform, creation of a specialized anti-corruption unit and adoption of a related law, tackling graft and organized crime seem to have faded away in the agenda of Borissov's third cabinet, as he surrounded himself with stability-minded coalition partners. The lack of capacity for policymaking and the mass lobbying by various groups driven by private interests steer the debates in the National Assembly. The stated high foreign policy goals and the numerous photoshoots with foreign leaders partially fill the void left by the lacking substantial domestic political debate.
There is an international spin to Mr Borissov's internationalism as well: he is seen as a representative of the breed of 'good' Eastern European leaders' which is rare nowadays, especially compared to trouble-making Poles and Hungarians, and event to a certain extent Romanians, whose political leaders openly attacked key institutions - the Central European University in the case of Mr Orban in Budapest, the Constitutional Court for Mr Jaroslav Kaczynski in Warsaw and anti-corruption legislation in the case of Mr Liviu Dragnea in Bucharest. Compared to them, Mr. Borissov's good act (at least publicly) gives him a certain dose of credibility in the West.
Get rid of monitoring
What is more, by pushing for joining the ERM-II and Schengen, he can win big on at least two fronts. Domestically, he can show to the last remnants of opposition that he is pursuing a pro-European agenda. On the European field, in case of success, he would take out two of the main leverages the EU has been using in the past decade to push for crucial reforms in Bulgaria. By far, Bulgaria's entry into Schengen has been linked by Netherlands and Germany to the lack of progress in judicial reform, as measured by the European Cooperation and Verification Mechanism. Maybe Mr. Borissov expects the monitoring of the judiciary will be dropped once Bulgaria joins the free-movement area.
This is why Mr. Borissov was so quick to agree on supporting (albeit not wholeheartedly) Emmanuel Macron's wish to push forward amendments to the controversial Posted Workers Directive and generally limit the access of Eastern European workers to the French labor market. In return, the Bulgarian PM was promised the backing of Paris for Schengen and ERM-II, which would fit well with both Mr. Macron's vision of closer EU integration and Mr Borissov's goal to score a political victory and shed uncomfortable European oversight.
Yet, difficult times might be coming for Mr Borissov's diplomatic career. The EU has just opened up the debate about the next Multiannual Financial Framework for 2021-2026 and it seems that the expected exit of Britain, one of the biggest net contributors to the EU budget, combined with the drive of the large European states towards integration in key sectors, such as the armed forces and safety mechanisms in case of new emergencies (increased refugee flow, financial meltdown, etc.) would pit Eastern Europe against the West.
Newer members, like Bulgaria, rely greatly on European solidarity payments to balance their sheets and to produce economic growth. If funding priorities change, no international tours and big words about energy projects will help Mr. Borissov. Yet, he has always been known better as a tactical player, not a strategic one.