Brexit set to dominate graft-plagued Bulgaria's EU presidency

Unity to be key aim as Brussels also faces mounting tension with Poland and Hungary

The newly minted partially gold coin made to commemorate the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union. Bulgaria will face a challenge in the era of migration and Brexit. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

The newly minted partially gold coin made to commemorate the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union. Bulgaria will face a challenge in the era of migration and Brexit. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

 

The presidency of the European Union moved from the Baltic to the Black Sea on Monday, as Bulgaria took over from Estonia for a six-month stint that is likely to be dominated by Brexit wrangles and growing strain inside the 28-member bloc.

Sofia has declared four priority areas for its first presidency: the future of Europe and its young people; the membership aspirations of Balkan states; security and stability; and developing the digital economy.

In reality, Bulgaria will hope to nudge forward accession prospects for its neighbours and smoothly host hundreds of EU meetings and events, while avoiding embarrassment over rampant corruption, threats to press freedom, and the far-right firebrands in its coalition government.

The Bulgarian presidency’s slogan is “United we stand strong” – a motto from the nation’s coat of arms – and unity will be a key aim as the EU seeks to maintain a common stance on Brexit and to tackle threats to rule of law and democracy emanating from Hungary, Poland and increasingly Romania, too.

Britain’s withdrawal

On a recent visit to Sofia, EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said that during the next six months “we must take four important steps on Brexit, which is why we strongly rely on you to keep up the common European position in the negotiations”.

He said these steps involve drawing up directives for talks on the transition period, preparing a draft treaty on Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, mandating the European Commission to negotiate with London on the transition period and reaching a common position on future relations between the EU and Britain.

“You can count on us. We are here to help,” Bulgarian foreign minister Ekaterina Zaharieva assured Mr Barnier.

With about 100,000 of its citizens currently living and working in Britain, Bulgaria would like Brexit to be as harmonious as possible.

What is more – unlike Warsaw, Budapest or powerful western European capitals – Sofia has no strong national agenda to push, nor any desire to ruffle feathers in Brussels, making it an amenable presidency-holder at this tricky time.

Bulgaria is the poorest member of the EU and, more than a decade after joining, it is still under special supervision from Brussels due to its failure to fight corruption – an issue that has prevented it from joining the Schengen zone of “borderless” travel.

A scandal-free presidency may help improve Bulgaria’s image and bring Schengen access a little closer, but six months of additional scrutiny are also risky for a country whose politicians are plagued by scandal and prone to gaffes.

‘Corruption and collusion’

Last month, Bulgaria’s parliament finally passed a law to set up an anti-corruption unit, but critics condemned it as too weak, open to political manipulation and incapable of tackling top-level graft or protecting whistleblowers.

Reporters Without Borders ranks Bulgaria as the EU’s worst state for press freedom, describing it as “dominated by corruption and collusion between media, politicians, and oligarchs”. It accuses the government of using EU funding to favour certain publications and manipulate coverage.

Rights groups have also castigated populist prime minister Boiko Borisov over his alliance with a coalition of far-right parties called the United Patriots.

One of its leaders, Valeri Simeonov, is also a deputy prime minister, despite being found guilty of using hate speech against Bulgaria’s Roma minority last year when he described them as “ferocious apes” and “street dogs”.

The far right shows just as little tolerance for asylum seekers. And migration issues will remain high on the EU agenda, with Bulgaria eager for a sustainable policy on border security and refugees given its long land frontier with Turkey.

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