Bulgaria's forthcoming presidency of the Council of the EU is likely to run more or less smoothly. The general public will barely notice what goes on in component working groups and councils. If glitches do occur, only a small number of eurocrats will take notice. Worries that Sofia could fail at the job might be exaggerated. Look at Malta, for example. The tiny island nation handled the presidency well during the first half of 2017, even though its government, faced with allegations of corruption, was forced to resign.
Nevertheless, a number of factors could spoil Bulgaria's turn at the presidency and transform it into a mirror-image of the Bulgaria's domestic politics and governmental dysfunctionality. The presidency will inevitably focus media attention on Bulgaria's darker sides. The brazen display of corruption and organized crime going unpunished, or the brutal language frequently used by Bulgarian politicians won't be overlooked by European and international media and regarded as simply local quirks. But there are three specific threats.
1. The PM's language.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov has made a career using language more often than not lacking in sophistication, dignity, or even common courtesy. He plays fast and loose with facts, however, his bombastic and so-called direct style has won Mr. Borissov substantial support among Bulgarian voters tired of the supposed double talk and aloofness of establishment politicians. In Bulgaria's more recent general election, in March 2017, the GERB party, led by Mr. Borissov, won 32% of the vote. In the 15 years since Mr. Borissov entered politics, Bulgarians have became so much accustomed to his boisterous uttering's that they rarely take notice of his more outrageous or even false statements. For example he recently accused the opposition parties of harboring drug-traffickers among its ranks and then refused to publicly apologize.
Mr. Borissov's tough bluster could create problems for Bulgaria in Brussels. Journalists covering the Brussels bubble expect "a funny presidency," as one Austrian reporter put it.
Mr. Borissov often speaks incoherently or brings up issues only he is interested in, or veers into lengthy verbiage displaying a poor grasp of EU policies. During a visit to the European Commission in November he asked the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, to tell him who Europe's enemy is. Borissov's statement raised not a few eyebrows, since it is not Mr. Juncker's job to deal with defense and security issues, these being in the realm of NATO.
Mr. Borissov, then voiced wonder at why Europe's armies are deployed in Western Europe rather than where the threats are, i.e. in Eastern Europe. As it turned out, Mr. Borissov was referring to the establishment of the EU's new defense organization, PECSO. However, PESCO's business is defense procurement cooperation, not defense per se or strategic deployments.
Mr. Borissov's enthusiasm to be in the spotlight and habit of not consulting with his advisors before speaking lead to lead to unintentional self-parody. Recently, he commented that: "the Balkans may replace [in the EU] the UK, which is now exiting. Incredible nature, from the Mediterranean all the way to the Black Sea, mountains, rivers, natural riches, hard-working nations, beautiful people." But make no mistake, if with the right script, Borissov has the right script, can be an effective communicator. He can boil a complex policy issue down to worldly wisdom, unlike some more pretentious members of Europe's political elite.
Some observers in Brussels fear that Mr. Borissov could promote an ultranationalist agenda. In truth, however, Mr. Borissov might be a populist, but he is not an ultra-nationalist. It could even be that his style of communication might serve as a means to win the hearts and minds of those who otherwise would prefer the plain talk of the Europea's far-right populists. Mr. Borissov only needs discrete translators with the judgment to know what to translate and what to leave obscured in Borissov's native Bulgarian.
2. Oligarchy trying to gain ground.
There is a pervasive assumption within Bulgaria that the country's EU presidency will lead Brussels to turn a blind eye to almost every transgression in Sofia. Jean-Claude Juncker's recent appeal to EU member states to accept Bulgaria into the frontier-free Schengen area has been seen as a loosening of the EU's reins on Sofia, as has his declaration that Bulgaria has fulfilled requirements for joining the Eurozone and, even more important, his push to end the EU monitoring of Bulgaria's judicial system. At the same time, Mr. Borissov's government appears afraid to confront any issue - or oligarch - that might make it look unstable. Such fear of confrontation on the part of the government delivers to the murky, behind-the-curtains, nexus of political and business figures functioning within Bulgaria opportunities to expand their territories.
There are signs that this is indeed happening.
This past November, Bulgaria's Commission for the Forfeiture of Illegal Assets (CFIA) launched a probe that could lead to the freezing of assets of Ivo Prokopiev, a businessman and the publisher of Capital and Dnevnik newspapers (and of this magazine as well). CFIA used as pretext an investigation of alleged wrongdoing on the part of one of Mr. Prokopiev's companies. The indictment was so frivolous that the court returned it to the prosecutor's office, stating in its resolution that there is " ambiguity as to the extent of the damage caused to the state, how it was formed, by whom it was caused." Mr. Prokopiev has denied any wrongdoing but the decision of the court did not stop the CFIA, the chairperson of who is himself under investigation by prosecutors on separate charges.
A possible explanation for the CFIA's probe is that Capital and Dnevnik have both expressed strong doubts about the resolve of Bulgarian Prosecutor General Sotir Tsatsarov to earnestly fight high-level corruption. The two newspapers have pointed to his practice of indicting only opposition politicians or politicians who have fallen from the grace of the ruling party. So far, such indictments lead to convictions only in a few minor cases. Mr. Tsatsarov conducted several investigations into Boyko Borissov in 2013 when he was active in the opposition but dropped them almost immediately after Mr. Borissov's election victory in 2014.
But more importantly, Mr. Tsatsarov is angry at questions about his strange proclivity to take action in moments crucial for Delyan Peevski, a member of parliament from the Movement for Rights and Freedom party and alleged mastermind of Bulgaria's behind-the-scene establishment.
The role of the Prosecutor General was crucial in a voting fraud scandal that helped Bulgarian Socialist Party win the parliamentary elections in 2013 and subsequently appoint Mr. Peevski to head the country's State National Security Agency (DANS). The appointment triggered mass street protests in Sofia which ultimately blocked Mr. Peevski from taking office.
Later, Mr. Tsatsarov again appeared to support Peevski's attack on his former business partner, Tsvetan Vassilev, owner of Corporate Commercial Bank (Corpbank). Corbank was already siphoned out by companies related to Mr. Vassilev and Mr. Peevski, but the attack spearheaded by outlets, part of Mr. Peevski media empire, accelerated its collapse in 2014. In the end, Bulgarian taxpayers had to cover Corpbank's liabilities towards its depositors, equivalent to 6% of Bulgarian GDP at the time, while companies with alleged ties to Mr. Peevski jumped on the opportunity to seize the bank's equities in a number of companies.
Capital was the only newspaper in Bulgaria at the time to ring the alarm about the massive fraud at CCB and the rise of Mr. Peevski to media mogul and alleged puppeteer of Bulgaria's judicial system. The newspaper is now under threat of shut down. There is no doubt that in such a event, the European Commission and some member state will react, no matter the Bulgarian presidency of the Council of the EU.
3. The ugly face of ultra-nationalism.
The presidency of the Council of the EU will give Bulgarian ultra-nationalists an opportunity to take center stage in Brussels. The United Patriots (UP), a hodgepodge alliance of three parties, is the junior partner of Mr. Borissov's GERB party in the current coalition government. UP leaders have used racist rhetoric, spread anti-immigrant fear-mongering and have labeled climate change a fiction. Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov, who is leader of one of the parties comprising the UP and a chairperson of the National Council for Co-operation on Ethnic and Integration Issues, was convicted for hate-speech at the end of October. All three parties within the UP appear to tolerate sympathizers who wear or display Nazi symbols. "The fact that Mr. Simeonov can be deputy prime minister of an EU country is a cruel and sickening joke," Soraya Post, a Swedish member of the European Parliament, said in an interview with Brussels-based Politico.
Bulgarian government ministers from UP will chair three EU Councils. The Environmental Council will be chaired by Neno Dimov who believes that climate change is a fiction driven by unnamed economic interests. Economy minister Emil Karanikolov, who is likely to lead meetings of the Economic and Financial Affairs Council is not known by extremist views but for his decisions, while being CEO of the Privatization Agency and now as a minister which at the end benefit Delyan Peevski. Defense minister Krassimir Karakachanov will chair some of the meetings of the Foreign Affairs Council, has espoused= that refugees should to be held in camps. In November, Mr. Karakachanov met with Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban and publicly sided with the latter's anti-refugee views.
UP ministers, however, are well aware of the need to keep their mouths shut in Brussels. Prime Minister Boyko Borissov has much invested in the Bulgaria's turn at the presidency and does not want to be embarrassed. Mr. Borissov may be unable to replace the UP as GERB's partner in Bulgaria's governing coalition but he can easily restrict freedom of UP ministers to manage their respective portofolios. UP also fear the possible EU backlash. They know very well where Bulgaria's money comes from; EU funds represented 50% of all public investments in Bulgaria in 2015 and, in all likelihood, UP politicians do not want to constrict this massive flow by pressing their views too hard in Brussels. But, with UP, one never knows for sure.