Imagine you were given 22 thousand euros per month, coupled with the control to shape a vital part of the European economy. You have an expert team of subordinates, all highly motivated and well structured, you have only one boss who can't really fire you and this is the best part - you don't answer to voters or shareholders. In fact, you hardly answer to anyone.
Yes, it's a cushy position, the College of the European Commission - the seat of EU power. There are only 27 seats in it, one for each member-state of the Union, and Bulgaria gets one of them. And that spot is up for grabs once again, since Mariya Gabriel vacated it last month when she returned to Sofia to join the new government.
Now here's the thing.
There have only ever been three people from Bulgaria to hold this position (all three of them women, which is a topic I reserve for some other time to discuss). And take it from someone who followed our EU-membership closely: apart from the very first few years after accession in 2007 every occasion saw strife and scandal.
For instance, Boyko Borissov's first government nominated Rumiana Zheleva who failed so spectacularly at her hearing that she needed to be taken off fast. In came Kristalina Georgieva - then World Bank vice president, to fill the post. And filled it she did, so much so that the next commission chief - Jean Claude Juncker demanded she be nominated again. The BSP-MRF-Ataka government had absolutely no desire to do so, as Socialist leader Sergey Stanishev at that time had a plan for his own future. And yet after a month or so of hand-twisting Junker got what he wanted and Kristalina was back. Only for a few years though because she subsequently joined the IMF.
This unleashed such a ruck over her replacement that Bulgaria was left without a commissioner for nearly 8 months. Through God-knows what Gabriel won it.
So it is very, very surprising that this time around it all goes rather quietly.
The ruling party WCC nominated their third-in-line Daniel Lorer, while their partners from Democratic Bulgaria didn't even care about the position. GERB, the unofficial coalition partner, nominated Iliana Ivanova, a member of the European Court of Auditors and a long-time GERB affiliate. How will they make the choice? They won't.
They will send them both to Ursula von der Leyen and she will pick a candidate.
Rumors have it that WCC decided "the position is not very important", so they didn't really put any effort into it. Of course, the fact that the current commission has only 1 year left makes it rather a mere figurehead post. And yet, it's an absurd way to make decisions.
First, this gives the highest European profile possible to the person holding it, and she/he can then boost their party in the euroelections next year. Second, a year is a long time in politics (as WCC should know) and having a sympathetic ear in Brussels is never a waste. Also, if the person proves capable and willing, he or she can elevate Bulgaria's image abroad at a time when we definitely need a boost.
But the bigger question is: if they decided it's not worth trying why didn't they hand it to GERB? Because, obviously, there is no active coordinating mechanism between the two. So, ok, we'll send this one to Von der Leyen to pick. To whom are we going to send the candidates for the other "more important" positions - like the regulators?
This newsletter is helped by
Martin Dimitrov & Monika Varbanova
1. Politics this week:
Case in point: Borislav Sarafov
The new acting Prosecutor General was elected by the current GERB-MRF lobby in the Supreme Judicial Council and there is nothing anyone can do against it. The WCC-DB coalition screamed foul, yet they were outvoted in Parliament even when the Justice Minister wanted to hold a hearing over this.
Also, they know the game better
What's more, GERB managed to get their own anti-corruption legislation through first reading in parliament, both times with some help from MRF and Vazrazhdane. So it is GERB and MRF that reign supreme in parliament, basically, while WCC-DB holds (barely) the executive branch. Here are more examples from this week alone:
- Borissov's party and MRF are trying to force the appointment of a new head of the Court of Auditors, just days after the Constitutional Court ruled illegal the dismissal of the last regular holder of the office. He was forced out after providing a stream of audits into how GERB government handled public money.
- Borissov's party tried to slide in a change in the law regarding access to information: making it harder for journalists and members of the public to demand information from public institutions
Where are you, Ursula!
WCC leader Kiril Petkov complained on TV that "we should not be used as a fig leaf, while they [GERB] are in the back seat, pushing for important things with other parties. This is not only a warning, but a call that in this way they are introducing a huge risk into the political system." Unfortunately for Petkov, there is no one to complain to, because Boyko Borissov, for his part, pointed out that during the negotiations for the formation of a cabinet, GERB had proposed to sign a coalition agreement, which brings a guaranteed majority, but which WCC had declined.
Ukraine has a new friend: Bulgaria's defense minister
Todor Tagarev showed an unprecedented level of commitment to the cause of Ukrainian defense this week. First of all, he told the Brussels media outlet Politico that Bulgaria is now committed to join the European Defence Agency (EDA) project to jointly supply 1 million 155-mm shells and missiles to Kyiv by March next year, and procure at least as much ammunition for its own needs.
Truth be told, this is not much of a practical change, as Bulgarian companies were always going to supply shells to the Ukrainian army, but under the cautious Presidential administration were doing it off the record.
But on the following day, Mr Tagarev said that the Bulgarian government "will continue to provide valuable practical support to Ukraine for as long as it is needed". In his words, NATO should go beyond the Bucharest decisions and foster relations with Ukraine at a higher strategic level. Mr Tagarev subsequently told Parliament that Bulgaria is preparing a new tranche of military aid for Ukraine. He specified that the military aid will be according to Ukrainian needs and Bulgarian capabilities.
Come to the Black Sea! It's not dangerous, we promise
And speaking of the war, Bulgarian tourism hopes it will not be one of the casualties. While the waters of the Kakhovka dam are spilling into the Black Sea near Odessa, the Bulgarian authorities believe it will not affect the waters near our coast. Read about it here.
Apple to the rescue
The government is negotiating with the iPhone maker, as well as Google, to install mobile phones with an early alert system for natural disasters in Bulgaria. This comes after last week's devastating floods.
Also: Budget! Next week
The Finance ministry is preparing the draft budget with a 3% deficit, says new minister Assen Vasilev. This means fewer capital expenses, more VAT revenue, and a second payment under the Recovery and Resilience Plan. The last part is still under a big question mark, given that Bulgaria needs to adopt a whole range of law changes in order to satisfy the EC demand. There are no tax-changes proposed.
Of the EC median price level is where Bulgaria's prices are at in 2022. This makes us still the cheapest place in the Union.
Place in the world competitiveness index means Bulgaria is also the lowest-placed EU country in the index. One of the big issues is still infrastructure.
3. Business:Charging stations Eldrive
The company will invest 170 million euros in 10 500 charging stations in Bulgaria, Romania, Lithuania and Latvia. 40 mln will be from an EIB loan.
The Bulgarian bio company bought the German Naughty Nuts for 150 thousand euros, and plans to grow it, since the start-up had 2.5 million euros in revenue, but fell short of needed capital for growth.
4. Energy:The gas year
State-owned gas operator Bulgartransgaz reports doubled revenues and profits for 2022. The company registered a profit of 283.4 million levs, a significant rise compared to the 141 million a year earlier. The company's total revenues for 2022 are 1.1 billion, doubling the 2021 numbers.
On the path to a new reactor
Bulgaria made the next step in the construction process of the 7th unit of the Kozloduy NPP last week. The American nuclear giant Westinghouse has announced that it has signed a contract for preliminary engineering for a new reactor at the Bulgarian nuclear power plant. The contract is to research the infrastructure and design a new reactor facility.
5. Watch out for:People: Vassil Terziev
The ex-CEO of one of Bulgaria's most successful IT firms, Telerik, will be the joint nomination of WCC-DB and Save Sofia Union (among other civic organizations) for the mayor of the capital in the upcoming vote in October. Terziev is bringing with him a whole team together with the excellent Team for Sofia crew. They will present it next week.
This appears to be the only consensual name that WCC and Democratic Bulgaria have agreed on so far, and they might play with different mayors in other cities.
Rumors abound again, that this year will see Bulgaria finally enter the borderless space: first in the airports, then on land borders. Yet a word of caution: this has been mooted frequently in the past and yet we're still outside. There might have been a deal finally struck with the Netherlands, but given the shaky foundation of this government and of the "anti-corruption" drive, I'd hold my horses.
The Bulgarian Sofia-based intellectuals and the patriotic community picked yet another fight this week, this time over a controversial flagpole that would aim to be one of the highest in the world (111 meters), and placed high in the mountains (over 1,400 meters in the vicinity of the Rozhen peak in the Rhodopes).
While most people discussed the need for such an exuberant demonstration of the national identity, a Capital weekly investigation found out that there are much more practical concerns linked to the project - a lot of the money came from state-owned companies, institutions and municipalities, the approval of the construction plans is in a legal gray area and the initiator of the project was a controversial businessman with a very bad financial track record.
Patriotism, it turns out, is quite a sell.