In comparison to its predecessor, Estonia, Bulgaria will assume the Presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU) on 1January 1, 2018 with less lofty ambitions. In June the Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid declared that her country's goal in its turn at the presidency was to see that "the European winter of discontent starts to give way to a new spring." Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov has been far less poetic on the subject. Following a meeting with the members of the European Commission in November, Mr. Borissov said that his ambition is to help make the EU stronger - a blunt message in step with his bruiser-like demeanor and with Bulgaria's own pragmatic objectives.
Bulgaria has never been perceived as a great achiever and now the tactics of the presidency team is to keep expectations low and then jump over the lowered bar. A too ambitious approach is not in favor with the European Commission either.
"Less is more", said Martin Selmayr, chief of staff of the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, while discussing the priorities of the presidency with Bulgarian members of parliament during a visit to Sofia in October. The EU's executive arm prefers to work with the presidency and to close as many open legislative files as possible, rather than veer off into new high-flying visions.
Only Bulgarian President Roumen Radev, who has a limited role in Bulgarian politics and foreign affairs, boldly declared after a meeting with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron in December: "Bulgaria has the ambition not only to be a mediator and coordinator during this presidency but to put on the table the most critical issues facing the EU."
As one Bulgarian diplomat put it: "Our goal is to show that we are not different, that we can reasonably deliver and that we can be trusted." This would be a major advance for Bulgaria, which suffers from an appalling image abroad. Indeed, Bulgaria has earned a reputation as the EU's most corrupt country and as the poorest among its 28 member states and, well, the Bulgarian assassination umbrella has not been entirely forgotten.
The Bulgarian Holy Trinity
In addition to effectively expediting the EU legislative agenda, Bulgaria's main goal during the upcoming six-month presidency is to make a breakthrough on three sticky issues: the country's admission into the EU's frontier-free Schengen area, the ending of the monitoring of the its inefficient judicial system under the EU's Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), and the acceptance of the country into the ERM II, the Eurozone's membership qualification mechanism.
The European Commission declared Bulgaria ready to join the Schengen area back in 2011 by, but a number of member states, with Netherlands and Germany taking the lead, vetoed the accession. Their reasons included Bulgaria's rampant corruption and widespread organized crime. In 2009, Sofia tested the ground for ERM II (Exchange Rate Mechanism) entry but, amidst a crisis in the Eurozone and mounting concerns about the integrity of Bulgaria's financial regulators, Bulgaria was rebuffed.
According to Mr. Juncker, Bulgaria is now ready to join both the euro area and Schengen. He also has stated he would like to see monitoring by the CVM end by 2019. The changes would be in the interest of both the European Commission and most EU member states. Acceptance of Bulgaria into the ERM II would change nothing - Bulgaria will be still years away from official adoption of the euro, but would send a message that that the Eurozone is still a desirable realm. As to the CVM, the European Commission appears fed up with it. The CVM has proven unable to yield meaningful results in Bulgaria - for example there is not even a single conviction of a corrupt high-level public official or politician.
This Holy Trinity of objectives - entry in Schengen and the Eurozone and elimination of CVM - are of paramount importance to Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, who has invested his full stock of personal capital into the forthcoming Bulgarian presidency. At the moment, his domestic agenda is blocked by his coalition partners in the ruling government and by powerful business lobbies. To counter this, Mr. Borissov has resorted to diplomacy abroad. According to media supportive of the present government, Mr. Borissov is scoring victory after victory on the international field as the undisputed peacemaker in Southeast Europe. An invitation to Bulgaria to enter the ERM II or the Schengen area will do much to prop up Borissov's approval rating.
Western Balkans on Bulgaria's mind
During its presidency, Bulgaria will also lend focus to the countries of the Western Balkans: Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Kosovo. To a certain extent, this is a forced priority. Bulgaria itself has few achievements to showcase, unlike Estonia and its successes in digital policies.
The recent rapprochement between Bulgaria and Macedonia - the two Balkan countries signed a friendship treaty this past August) - came just at the right moment. Bulgaria can now claim that it has achieved progress in building neighborly relations - an accomplishment that now needs to be solidified in the always volatile Balkan region.
"We can't leave the Balkans to Turkey and Russia; every time the EU turns its back on the region, someone comes in and tries to destabilize it," a high-level Bulgarian official explained. Sofia will push for integration of the Western Balkan countries into the EU in terms of transport infrastructure and export market access and will try to achieve a more welcoming timetable for their accession into the EU. A spokesperson for the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Capital newspaper that it considers the EU summit on the Western Balkans, to be held in May, as the most important event during the forthcoming Bulgarian presidency of the Council of the EU.
The importance of the Western Balkans has heightened since by the start of refugee crisis in 2013. The countries of the region straddle one of the main migration routes into western and northern Europe. According to sources, Prime Minister Borissov's focus on the Western Balkans has received personal encouragement from German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Germany took in the largest influx of migrants in 2013 and since and is now trying to restrict the flow.
Money, money, money
"The fact that we are in the kitchen will help us steer the debate", according to a high-ranking Bulgarian diplomat, referring to upcoming negotiations on the EU's budget (MFF) for the period 2021-2027. These negotiations are invariably tough; the EU may be based on values and principles, but every seven years it all comes down to who pays the bill.
The stakes are high for Bulgaria and the other East European members of the EU. Brexit, the UK's departure from the EU, will deprive the MFF of 10% of its revenues. New common EU policies - including defense procurement border protection or fundamental changes in the existing policies such as development aid might add place additional burden on the EU budget.
One of the means to meet budgetary shortfalls due to Brexit would be to require EU member states to increase their annual contributions. Doing so would be in the interest of Bulgaria, the country being a net beneficiary of the EU budget. In 2015, Bulgaria contributed 424 million euro into EU coffers but the country received six times that amount in return. If an agreement would be reach to increase the contributions of member states, Bulgaria would pay approximately 50 million euro more if current budgetary provisions remain intact after 2020, a relative small amount considering the returns.
However, proposals are afield for serious cuts in the EU policies financed from the budget, which could cause the net inflow in Bulgaria to decline. Many EU policies are difficult to change or are political minefields like the Common Agricultural Policy. Thus, amongst the main targets of austerity-related cut backs would be the EU's Cohesion Policy, which supports the poorest member states, of which Bulgaria is the poorest in terms of gross national income per capita. If member states would chose to roll back the Cohesion Policy, Bulgaria could stand to lose up to 200 million euro annually.
The European Commission will unveil its first budget proposal at the end of May and actual negotiations will begin in the second half of 2018. However, the initial draft is usually crucial, because it sets the framework for the negotiations. Informal negotiations have already begun under the radar and will intensify during Bulgaria's presidency. Bulgaria hopes to steer the debate away from radical changes in the MFF. No official position has been announced, but diplomats and experts say that Sofia will try to push for a trade-off. On the one hand, member states will increase their contributions into the EU budget, on the other, net beneficiaries will need to fulfill more conditions to gain access to EU funds.
The Presidency of the Council of the EU is a test for Bulgaria, which will check how the country is doing in a complex, but mundane bureaucracy operation. There is no need of high-flying visions, but of some ordinary and well organized work - a feat, so rear in Bulgaria.
1. Bulgaria will lead the EU.Well, no.
Despite all the hype around it, Bulgaria's Presidency of the Council of the European Union doesn't mean it will actually lead the EU. To begin with, the Council is only one of the EU's three main institutions. It is similar to the upper chamber of parliament in a federal country, in that it comprises representatives of the EU's 28 member states. The Council shares its legislative powers with the European Parliament in a majority of the EU legislation fields. However, unlike in most parliamentary nation states, only the European Commission, the EU's executive branch, has the right to initiate legislation.
To make things even more confusing, however, the Council has executive powers as well. The council adopts the subordinate legislation for the implementation of the EU's regulations and directives, which in the member states is done by the governments. This executive power is one of the EU's most arcane but important procedures (called comitology), but the president of the Council of the EU has no role in it. Rather, the Council president acts as a mediator between all EU institutions and member states and facilitates the legislative process. The powers of the president are deliberately weakened by the rotation of the office among member states every six months. The Presidency role was further limited by the last EU treaty (2007) which shifted a number of its tspowers to the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
2. Bulgaria will push its own agenda and ideas in the EU.Hardly so.
The Presidency of the Council is intended to be impartial and, actually, the position hurts the holder's ability to push hard for its home country's interests. It can be done, but using indirect ways, for example via proxy member state. Most important, the legislative agenda is pre-determined by the plans of the European Commission and the country holding the Presidency of the Council has a little say. The presiding country usually works with position papers that summarizing the views of the member states thus influencing the thinking of the EU's executive body on the legislative text it will propose. The most important power of the EU's Council Presidency, however, is the ability to influence the legislative process by choosing which legislative dossiers ( EU-speak for laws) to push forward. But compared to the speakers of national parliaments, the Presidency is less effective in setting the agenda.
3. The Presidency's priorities form the EU agenda.
Actually, it's vice versa.
The Presidency of the Council of the EU picks from what is already on the table. It can insert some national nuances, or debate topics, but they would remain a side show. Malta had as a priority maritime governance, and Estonia, e-governance, but little substantial happened on either of them. Bulgaria will have the Western Balkans as its priority. Even though the future accession of Serbia or Macedonia to the EU is likely to be raised during Bulgaria's turn at the Presidency, the issue will not be decided until long after and not in Sofia.
Bulgaria will play a crucial role in Brexit talks.Role - yes; crucial role- no.
This misconception stems from an incorrect understanding of what the Presidency does and what the Brexit process and the negotiations on the UK's departure from the EU entails. The negotiations are conducted by the European Commission, and member states can give guidance and adopt negotiating mandates. Such mandates are adopted by the European Council, which (another confusion) is a different body from the Council of the EU. The former comprises the heads of state and government and has its own president, currently the former Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk. The preparatory work for the European Council is done by special working groups in the Council's administration, not by the Presidency which only has an observer in the group.
The real power of the Presidency is in COREPER - the committee of the member states' ambassadors to the EU. COREPER can be compared to a managerial committee within a big corporation that deals with issues unresolved by low-level managers and take prepares the ground for a CEO to take action on the most important ones. If there are some nitty-gritty details in the negotiations with the UK that can't be ironed out by the European Commission, they will be forwarded to COREPER. The ambassadors will try to resolve those issues, at whatever the costs, behind closed doors so as to prevent the issues from being discussed at a higher level, which would reveal possible contradictions between the member states. If and when such problem arise, the Bulgarian ambassador at COREPER would play an central role, mediating between different interests.
5. The Presidency will clean-up Bulgaria's image.
There is hope within Bulgaria's government that the Presidency of the Council of the EU will somehow improve country's image. The President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, encouraged Bulgaria in the last couple of months on a number of fronts: he urged member states to accept Bulgaria in the EU's frontier-free Schengen area, he said Bulgaria has met requirements for joining the eurozone, and he promised to work hard towards ending the European Commission's the monitoring of Bulgaria's dysfunctional judicial system. Even though Mr. Juncker is probably sincere, such courtesies typically precede each rotation of the Presidency - as the European Commission tries to co-opt each future president so as to pave the way for pushing through its own legislative priorities. Although the Presidency may help alter negative impressions of Bulgaria's bureaucracy, especially the one in Brussels, but it will not remove the weaknesses that spoil Bulgaria's image: corruption, organized crime, ineffective governance, to name just a few. Malta, for example, which headed the Council of the EU in the first half of 2017, plunged into deep political crisis during its Presidency. Today, only several months later, the island nation has become a byword for graft, especially after an investigative journalist who had exposed political corruption was killed in a bomb blast.