At the end of June Sofia completed its half-year stint at the helm of the Council of the European Union (e.g. the meetings of government ministers of the 28 member states). After a decade of EU membership, for Bulgaria this was the first significant challenge - and opportunity - to show that it is becoming a normal European country capable of not only pursuing its own interests but also pushing forward the European agenda.
Sofia did not have it easy - because of Brexit she had to rush through the preparations for the Presidency and start six months earlier than originally scheduled. It was also a difficult political moment both domestically and for the EU. Bulgaria went through a government crisis and early elections in 2017 and the German coalition-building efforts at the beginning of this year rendered decision-making extremely difficult. Add the multitude of divisive European dossiers that Bulgaria had to push through, like the overhaul of migration regulations in the EU, the intrinsically difficult priority of the Bulgarian Presidency - to help the quarrelsome countries of the Western Balkans (Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo) move closer to EU, the lack of EU-level policy experience in the Bulgarian public administration and politicians, the tarnished international image of "the EU's poorest and most corrupt member state" and the fact that Sofia's Presidency went without major glitches would actually look like quite a success!
KQ turned to several Bulgarian diplomats and European policy experts to ask them what Bulgaria's scoresheet is. Overall, all of them agree that the greatest success of the Presidency is the absence of any major failure and the capability of the country's administration to move on with the EU policy agenda without major blunders. In addition, most agree that Sofia's push to focus the attention of Europe to the Western Balkans is a feat worth mentioning, even though it yielded mixed results. The experts gave more nuanced answers when asked how Sofia advanced the European reform agenda in the four priority areas it had to oversee in the past six months - the digital copyright and provision of audiovisual media services dossier; the new renewable energy targets; the posted workers directive and the Dublin Regulation overhaul.
Great expectаtions face harsh reality
"Bulgaria's first turn at the helm of the Council of the EU was always going to be about avoiding mismanagement and, potentially, institutional chaos rather than about leaving a deep political and policy legacy", says Vladimir Shopov, foreign affairs advisor and consultant at Sophia Analytica. He thinks that Bulgaria's limited political capital and untested capacity to run things smoothly as president of the Council of the EU structured the expectations of the country's EU partners. The opposite happened in Sofia - the government's overdose on rhetoric about the importance of the Presidency sought to contain emerging divisions in the ruling coalition and to demote national politics in order to deflect criticism along various lines.
"Slowly, however, the presidency team managed to reduce the initial long list of priorities to essentially one, the Western Balkans, and this had a positive impact on the process. Gradually, expectations also began to be contained somewhat," Shopov says.
In addition to the expectations - both domestic and external, Sofia had to cope with a complicated international state of affairs, according to Lybomir Kyuchukov, a former career diplomat and director of Sofia-based NGO Economics and International Relations Institute. Says Kyuchukov: "Europe hoped for a positive Bulgarian Presidency in difficult conditions, including the Brexit negotiations and the talks on the Multiannual Financial Framework (the seven-year EU budget framework), the difficulties in forming the new German government, the launching of an infringement procedure against Poland and the Catalan issues." According to him, Sofia mostly managed to refute the sceptics. "There were no new conflict lines being drawn, there was a working environment. No political breakthroughs were achieved, but this rather reflects the overarching state of the Union itself," concludes Kyuchukov, a former ambassador to the UK.
Marin Lessenski, director of European Affairs program at Open Society Institute - Sofia says that it was the high initial level of scepticism that contrasts with the overall lack of a big failure. "If you read articles about the Presidency published prior to its start, there was a lot of anxiety about the general context in the country that we are too familiar with - deficiencies in catching-up with the rest of EU in economic and social terms, corruption and independence the of judiciary, media freedom. The other reason for concern was that the country was a first-time holder of the Presidency, with political instability having hindered preparations for a couple of years", Lessenski says.
Defying these low expectations, Sofia actually proved one very important thing: despite its bad publicity and image, Bulgaria is slowly becoming a normal EU member state and is not just an EU funds leech. "The first big positive for Bulgaria from the Presidency was that the country left the impression it could act as an honest broker on big controversial portfolios, without trying to push forward its own issues and interests. This was the feeling before the Presidency started - back then, there was a misunderstanding that advancing national agenda is the purpose but luckily Bulgarian officials realized this can't happen", Vessela Tcherneva, Sofia director of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) told KQ.
Lessenski says: "The Bulgarian public seems to have approved of the Presidency, as it witnessed its national authorities making European policies and not just being the recipient orders from a faraway Brussels administration. In that sense, the image of EU membership may have benefited, as it certainly took heavy beating recently even in traditionally pro-EU Bulgaria."
Western Balkans calling
After the initial slogans about "Consensus, Cohesion, Competitiveness and Culture" were all but forgotten by Sofia's EU Presidency team, a single priority remained, recognized both internationally and domestically - pushing forward the Euroatlantic prospects of the six Western Balkan states. How did Sofia fare in this respect?
"Bulgaria invested its limited political capital in two issues: the Western Balkans and the dialogue with Turkey, managed to organize high-level meetings on both but got little in tangible terms and commitments. The Western Balkans priority could be considered reasonably well-institutionalized now with upcoming Presidencies committed to its continuation. On both, Bulgaria had to act within very tight and explicit terms of engagement," opines Vladimir Shopov.
For Vessela Tcherneva the very fact that Europe's eyes turned to the region is a success by itself. "Let's be frank, nobody really wanted to talk about the region in Europe and the Bulgarian Presidency, together with the Commission, succeeded in making it a topic. By the end of this year we may see some movement on the Western Balkans. We see movement on Macedonia, we will hopefully see a move on Albania. All of this needed a framework, a political space where it could take place. And the absence of the EU for a very long time created a negative trend," Tcherneva says, adding that no matter how little the contribution of the Bulgarian Presidency to this process may seem, it is still important.
Lyubomir Kyuchukov agrees with this conclusion, but only partially. "The Western Balkans were placed higher on the European agenda, yet the Sofia Declaration was a step back for the EU, as compared to the Thessaloniki Agenda from 2003 and the February Strategy of the European Commission. The reason is that the two key elements of the previous documents - mentioning the expansion of the EU and the membership perspective for the Western Balkans, were missing from the Sofia Declaration," he says.
A mixed bag of Brussels affairs
While the progress on resolving the dispute over Macedonia's name and the green(ish) light Albania's EU bid got from Germany in June are important, the core of the Presidency of the Council of the EU has always been much more about what happens in Brussels with regard to the EU policy dossiers. In terms of success and failure from the viewpoint of the EU, the yardstick for the presidency would be whether Bulgaria tried in good faith and succeeded in finding a decision.
One of the most controversial EU reforms that had to be carried out by the Bulgarian Presidency was that of the Dublin Regulation that deals with the asylum claims made in Europe. Bulgaria, after several other presiding countries, proposed its own version of the policy, but to no avail - opposition on behalf of Italy and Hungary eliminated the possibility for consensus at the June EU Council .
But experts seem to excuse Sofia for the failure: Mr Lesenski says that the Dublin reform is currently among the most explosive problems in the EU along with other asylum issues. "There are disputes about the Dublin reform not only among the member states, but there are severe tensions within the countries and their major political players. The Dublin Regulation is also a very complex matter, so it would have been almost a miracle to have passed the reform," he told KQ.
According to Mr Kyuchukov, the reform of the Dublin Agreement will continue to be hindered by the "diametrically opposite" positions of the EU periphery countries and the other EU member states that want to close off the entire Asylum package of reforms. He hopes that a consensus can be reached as soon as possible and not under the pressure of a new migration crisis.
There were, however, successful cases of pushing a reform forward, ultimately at the cost of some of Bulgaria's own interests and even EU-wide controversy.
One of these was the increase of renewable energy targets, which is not generally in Bulgaria's favor, as it would increase electricity costs, a thorny social issue. "In regard to energy policy, the EU reached an agreement on a new renewable energy target of 32% by 2030, which is 5% higher than the maximum agreed in 2014. This has been the direction of the policy recently despite some objections and reaching a consensus is a success," Marin Lessenski says.
On copyright reform, the EU member states' governments reached a consensus and approved the proposed package with some changes. "This counts as a success but many of the measures are under heavy criticism for potentially endangering citizens' freedoms. There is a push to stop the copyright law in the European Parliament and alter its most criticized parts dubbed by their critics "censorship machines", Lessenski adds.
But the thorniest issue for Bulgaria was the Mobility Package, which will restrict the possibility of East European long-haulage companies to compete in the West European markets. Bulgaria's transportation companies are one of the biggest players. Bulgaria's own government opposed some of the provisions, following protests of local companies in the sector backed by Bulgarian MEPs. "Ironically, the Bulgarian government, in its capacity of holder of the EU presidency, had to oversee the adoption of the Mobility Package, while opposing and trying to renegotiate part of its provisions as a national government. We may not have seen the end of it as the European Parliament is still introducing changes in provisions already agreed by the governments of the member states", Mr Lessenski concludes.
Mr Kyuchukov says that Bulgaria spent a lot of political energy on this topic but failed to muster the support of all East European states, thus making the outcome unfavourable for itself.
Ms Tcherneva believes that the Mobility Package failure would be an important lesson for Sofia. "You cannot focus on one topic exclusively and expect that the top brass deal with it exclusively, while the lower levels of the administration don't pay attention. So, what happened with the Posted Workers directive and Bulgarian drivers was that, they were exempted from the directive, but then they were included in a different legislation that had caught the attention of the Bulgarian authorities only at a very late stage," she said, summarizing the outcome. "And I think this is a lesson for the government: an impact on European issues can only be made by continuous, consistent attention on expert level, where coalitions are build, interests are identified and only by exception the highest political level of the country gets involved," she adds.
For Mr Shopov the most significant achievements of the Bulgarian Presidency in terms of adoption of policy and legislative acts are the following: the removal of geo-blocking in e-commerce, agreement on the posted workers directive, on funding of European political parties and foundations, on recycling and on CO2 emissions. "Importantly, there were no major logistical hiccups and the management of the various processes in Brussels went reasonably smooth. Various tensions between the relevant ministries and ministers persisted but did not translate into major problems affecting the overall running of the Presidency," he concludes.
Ms Tcherneva adss that Bugaria was taught another important lesson during the time of its first EU presidency - in order to be successful, you need to be consistent.
"The government did not realize you can't separate your European face and European role from your domestic ones. You cannot have huge advancement on the Dublin process if you are not talking about refugee integration yourself. Talking only about border and security does not fix the big problem, which is relocation, resettlement and integration," she opines.
The same applies for the Western Balkans - Tcherneva thinks that advocating the EU integration of the Balkan Six is not convincing enough when the West European states share the same concerns about them which they continue to share about Bulgaria ten years after it joined the EU. "It did sound slightly peculiar when the Bulgarian government was saying: "Let's take them in", because in the Dutch or the French mind this sounds like: yes, we take them in, but things don't necessarily get better afterwards - so why do we need more Bulgarians and Romanians and Hungarians in the EU?"
Bulgaria has not achieved a breakthrough on its aspirations to enter the Eurozone and EU's borderless Schengen area - one of the not so secret hopes of the government in the first half of 2018. Some Bulgarian ministers believed that if Sofia makes a good impression as President of the Council of the EU, this will help it overcome the opposition of some member states and the European Central Bank (see more on p. 44). But as it turned out, impressions, even the good ones, are not enough.