Bulgaria will assume the Presidency of the Council of the EU at a very important moment. In January, 2018, negotiations will start on the next multi-annual EU budget (2021-2027). Also in January, the EU-27 (i.e. the EU without the UK) will embark on the second phase of Brexit negotiations.
But who are the people to call in Brussels, when you need to decipher what is going in the upcoming Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU?
Bulgaria is definitely not very well represented in Brussels. The country was a late-comer to the EU, joining in 2007, three years after the bulk of Eastern European members. Although Bulgarian eurocrats might be a few years behind their other European peers in taking up and occupying positions in EU institutions.
Bulgaria's image as the most corrupt country within the EU and the perception that it is a minor-player who has joined a richer persons' club by accident don't help either.
Regardless, there are Bulgarian diplomats, EU officials, and think-tank members who do have a say in European affairs.
Even though Mina Andreeva is not at the top of the EU bureaucratic hierarchy, she is one of the most influential Bulgarians at EU headquarters. Mrs. Andreeva is the deputy spokesperson of the European Commission and has greater access to its president Jean-Claude Juncker than many commissioners do. She began career in the European Commission in 2007 as an intern in the office of then Bulgarian EU Commissioner Meglena Kuneva. Her rise took off in earnest in 2009, when she became one of the spokespeople of Commissioner Viviane Reding. At the time, Mrs. Reding's chief of staff was Martin Selmayr, who has now the same role under Mr. Juncker. Colleagues of Mrs. Andreeva say she is tough, demanding, and possibly the hardest working spokesperson in the European Commission and, in this respect, describe her as more German than Bulgarian. And in fact, she is also a German national and serves as Mr. Juncker's chief spokesperson as regards Germany, a key role given Berlin's influence in EU affairs. Mina Andreeva built her career on her own, without much help from her native Bulgaria, but she maintains good contacts in Sofia.
Mariya Gabriel is the Bulgarian commissioner responsible for the European Commission's digital policies. At age 38, she is the Europe's youngest EU commissioner ever. Mrs. Gabriel is new to her job, but she seems fast learner, an important qualification, because of heavy lobbying by industry and member states, her portfolio of 24 legislative proposals, ranging from copyrights to telecom regulations, is lagging behind. Prior to switching to the Commission, Mrs. Gabriel was a MEP.This experience might enable her to punch above her weight during negotiations between the European Commission, the member states and the European Parliament. However, she needs to learn some flexibility, says Jula Reda, a MEP from the German Pirate Party. According to Mrs. Reda the digital commissioner she still sticks too much the initial Commission's proposals. Among Mrs. Gabriel's other strengths - she is her closeness to top officials in GERB party, the senior partner in the current Bulgarian coalition government. This could help in steering her legislative portfolio during the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU.
Lora Borissova, Mrs. Gabriel's chief of staff is credited with having prepared the commissioner for her smooth hearing in the European Parliament in June 2017. Before moving to Mrs. Gabriel's office, Mrs. Borissova worked at the European External Action Service, the EU's fledgling diplomatic service. Mrs. Borissova is a career official in EU institutions and has worked on policy coordination issues. She holds to key to the commissioner's office and is responsible for Mrs. Gabriel's agenda and meetings.
Mrs. Myahlova chairs the key European Parliamentary Committee on Regional Development which deals with the largest set of items in the EU budget, the structural funds. As chairperson, she will play an important part in the negotiations on the EU's multi-annual financial framework, set to begin. Mrs.Myhailova will also steer the debate on the reform of the EU's cohesion policy, which finances the poorest members of the EU, including Bulgaria. In 2013-2014, in the short-lived government of Plamen Oresharski, which resigned amidst mass anti-corruption protests, Mrs. Mihaylova was an environment minister from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms party (MRF). Her career with the MRF started back in 2002 and was mired with allegations of improprieties, but nothing was substantiated. Most of those allegations probably come from the indictment of her husband Stanislav Koparov for mismanagement at the Sate Reserve agency in the period 2002-2004. Finally Mr. Koparov received a suspended sentence in 2017.
The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, is known for his familiarity with most people but his attitude towards to 'mon amie' Dimiter Tzanchev, sometimes is even more familiar than usual. Somehow, the permanent representative of Bulgaria to the EU appears not to have found favor with Mr. Juncker. Probably because Mr. Tzanchev is one of the few East European ambassadors who is fluent in French (and in Arabic, Hebrew and English) More importantly, he gets along quite well with the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov. The Bulgarian PM listens to Tzanchev's advice although the two cannot be more different as people. Mr. Tzanchev is a good operative, able to immediately understand issues and to focus on important matter. He is one of the few Bulgarian diplomats who is not afraid to talk to journalists. Mr. Tzanchev's role as chair of COREPER (the meeting of the member states' ambassadors to the EU) will be very important during the Bulgarian presidency, particularly in the upcoming second phase of the negotiations for the UK's departure from the EU.
The acting Director-General of Eurostat, the EU's statistical agency, is the highest ranking Bulgarian national in the EU bureaucracy. Prior to her present position, she headed Bulgaria's national statistical office. Due to her decision to include an on-line self-reporting track in the national census in 2011, Mrs. Kotzeva endured flack from Bulgaria's more conservative statisticians; however, her decision appeared well liked in Brussels.
Although until recently Sergei Stanishev, the former Bulgarian PM between 2005 and 2009, was wrapped in obscurity as the leader of the Party of the European Socialists (PES). As one of his former colleagues put it, "the epaulets don't make the general". However, this might change. Mr. Stanishev was thought t to keep the position open for Martin Schulz, who, at the time, was serving as president of the European Parliament. Following Mr. Schulz's decision to return to German politics in 2017, Mr. Stanishev role will probably raise. Even though the post is largely ceremonial and is usually held by retired politicians it opens doors. But Mr. Stanishev has a problem. In order to bring back his socialist party back to power, in 2013 Mr. Stanishev made a pack with the devil: he turned to Bulgarian oligarch Delyan Peevski for support. In return Peevski was appointed head of Bulgaria's State Agency for National Security. The appointment of the man seen as the embodiment of a behind-the-scenes model of governance led to mass protests in the streets of Sofia which forced Peevski to resign and badly tarnished Mr. Stanishev's image.
Ivaylo Kalfin is one of the Bulgarian's hidden assets in Brussels. He is an advisor to the Budget Commissioner Gunther Oettinger Mr. Kalfin served as foreign minister of Bulgaria from 2005 to 2009 and the country's labour and social policy minister from 2014 to2016. He is one of Bulgaria's the few politicians who is prized for his expertise and is approved of across party lines. Even though he is a member of ABV, a small left-wing party which withdrew its support for the previous governing coalition led by GERB in 2016, he still maintains contact with GERB's leader, Bulgarian PM Boyko Borissov. As a MEP (2009-2014) Mr. Kalfin was the European Parliament's chief negotiator for the EU 2014-2020 budget. He is well liked by his former parliamentary colleagues, a number of whom had hoped to see him Commissioner for Budget, a post vacated by Kristalina Georgieva, who resigned in 2016 leaving the position open for a new Bulgarian candidate. Kalfin's party affiliation, however, precluded his being considered for the post.
Bonus tracks:Daniel Gros
The director of one of the most prominent think-tanks in Brussels, the Centre for European Policy Studies, Daniel Gros is not only very well placed in Brussels, where he is regarded as a respected economist, but has good contacts in Bulgaria as well. Grosis married to a Bulgarian. More importantly, he was an advisor to former Bulgarian president Rossen Plevneliev. Mr. Gros is known for his sober analysis of European economies and the eurozone. His syndicated column in Project Syndicate news portal is widely republished and he frequently writes for media outlets including The Financial Times.
Guntram Wolff, the director of another influential Brussels think-tank, Bruegel Wolff knows Bulgaria well, not only because he is to married to Bulgaria. Previously, he worked at the European Commission on the macroeconomics of the euro area and the reform of euro area governance. Mr. Wolff has very good contacts in Brussels. As a respected economist, he frequently writes for The Financial Times and Politico and , from time to time, for our sister publication Capital. Wolff is an underutilized resource for boosting Bulgaria's influence in Brussels and could serve as a potentially valuable asset in Bulgaria's efforts to join the Eurozone.