Bulgaria Prime Minister Boyko Borissov is a firm believer in the art of the deal. If only EU leaders would just talk with the likes of Russia or Turkey! There is always a way to cobble together a compromise on even the thorniest of issues. So long as the respective sides sit at the table, tone down their rhetoric a notch or two, and focus on common interests.
The massing of 10,000 refugees and migrants on Turkey's border with Greece put the Bulgarian prime minister to the test. Rushing to Ankara on 2 March for a tête-à-tête with President Erdogan ("my friend Tayypie"), he proposed to host a three-way summit with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. The offer seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
Mr Borissov stressed his solidarity with Turkey's predicament as home to more than 3.6 million war-displaced Syrians. But he also used the occasion to chastise the EU for promises it allegedly failed to keep. Rather than acting as a go-between, Bulgaria appeared to be doing Ankara's bidding.
Mr Borissov's overtures to the Turkish president make perfect sense in light of Bulgarian domestic politics. The prime minister is trying to fend off yet another bout of public hysteria over the arrival of asylum seekers as in 2014-15. It would chip away at his ratings, benefiting the nationalistic-leaning Bulgarian Socialist Party and the far-right United Patriots, nominally still in coalition with his governing GERB party. The consolation prize from the ill-fated Ankara trip, on the eve of the national holiday celebrating the 1878 liberation from the Ottomans, was Mr Erdogan's implicit promise that no Afghans, Syrians etc. would be heading to the border with Bulgaria. "So to speak, I came, we shook hands, we are sticking to our commitments and keeping in touch," as Mr Borissov put it, true to his trademark folksy ways.
He might have a point. Although the Greek-Turkish border along the Evros/Maritsa/Meric river has witnessed near battle scenes with police tear-gassing and pushing back migrants, things have been quiet at Turkey's frontier with Bulgaria. But the reasons why asylum seekers are reluctant to seek entry into the EU through Bulgarian territory are likely more complex than Sofia being in Mr Erdogan's good books. Harsh treatment at the hands of the Bulgarian border police and the expectation that their chances of making it to Western Europe are better through Greece is probably at least as important motivations. But what ultimately counts with Mr Borissov, as - let's be frank - any politician worldwide - is public perceptions. He has done his share to keep the nation safe.
The bigger game
Much depends on developments far beyond Brussels' control. Mr Erdogan has single-handedly manufactured a crisis to exert pressure on the EU. He wants support from big European states in Idlib: e.g. in the form of financial contributions for a safety zone in parts of the rebel-held enclave and joint pressure on Vladimir Putin to abide by the deal he struck with the Turkish president in Moscow on 5 March. Long-term, Erdogan is after a renewal of the 2016 refugee agreement with the EU.
Four years ago, the EU pledged to disburse some €6 billion in exchange for Turkey's commitment to keep borders closed and accept asylum seekers back from Greece. Ankara now wants at least as much. The Turkish president is also pushing for an upfront payment into the Turkish budget, brushing aside Brussels' rules. No more tranches, contracts with state agencies, report back to the European Commission, or any other strings attached. And if Turkey gets its way, the money could well be diverted into areas under Turkish control in Syria to pay for infrastructure and housing projects. These would doubtless be carried out by firms handpicked by the presidential palace in Ankara. No wonder that EU leaders and officials are not thrilled about the prospect of writing a blank cheque of sorts.
Mr Erdogan's visit to Brussels on 9 March is just the beginning of prolonged bargaining. His additional demand that the EU should lift visas for Turkish citizens suggests that the conversation is anything but smooth. On the positive side, Germany supports the establishment of a safe zone in Idlib and is now showing a willingness to accept, together with other EU countries, refugee children from the Greek islands. EU Foreign and Security Policy Josep Borell advocate granting Turkey additional funding to deal with refugees.
A country like Bulgaria, a net recipient of EU subsidies, does not have a great say in the matter at hand. What Mr Borissov could do is urge his colleagues to broker terms with the Turkish president. This was precisely his mission at the EU-Turkey summit he hosted in Varna in March 2018, during the Bulgarian presidency of the EU Council. Yet back than the 2016 deal was still in force and the issue revolved around the green-lighting of the second tranche under the so-called Facility for Refugees in Turkey.
The situation now is different. Mr Erdogan's scorched-earth tactics, compounded by the web of disputes with Greece over other issues such as territorial waters, do not augur well for a speedy compromise. Greeks have dug in. Others in the EU have voiced support. Last week, the European Commission head Ursula van der Leyen visited the border town of Orestiada accompanied by the presidents of the European Council and the European Parliament, as well as Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković. Van der Leyen insists Turkish authorities should move the migrants away from the Greek border as the precondition to a substantive discussion. Turkey won't give ground easily either. If it decides to ramp up the pressure, Bulgaria could well prove to be collateral damage.
Not to be used
Bulgaria traditionally prefers engagement over confrontation with Turkey. Episodes such as the expulsion of a Turkish diplomat in February 2016 are rare. Being friends with your large neighbour, which is also an important trading partner with links to a sizeable minority, is a sensible policy. Bulgaria has a huge stake in a better relationship between EU and Turkey too, irrespective of Mr Erdogan's authoritarian populist rule.
But Borissov has gone much further than any other predecessor in building personal ties with the Turkish president. The benefits of such a policy are questionable. It is one thing to insist that Ankara has a point and it deserves help with regard to Syrian refugees. Europe has largely chosen to ignore the devastating war next to its border - and is now paying the price. It is quite another matter to be sucked into a bid to strongarm the EU. If the Bulgarian prime minister goes on lobbying for a renewed refugee pact he should do so in Brussels rather than Ankara.