Bulgaria takes up EU presidency with pride and a Balkans mission
Union’s poorest state nation to extend possibility of EU accession for six Balkans states
Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borisov. Photograph: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images
Bulgaria launched its first EU presidency with a flourish with speeches and glorious traditional music and dance – a cross between Riverdance, Horslips and Alain Stivell – at a ceremony in the national theatre.
The theatre is named after Ivan Vazov, “the patriarch of Bulgarian literature”, and, playing shamelessly to the warmly approving gallery, European Council president Donald Tusk, a Pole, quoted in Bulgarian from Vazov – “My beloved fatherland, how beautiful you are!” – in lavish tribute to his hosts.
“It is a good thing that one of the priorities of the Bulgarian presidency is the future of the western Balkans,” said Mr Tusk, continuing in a similar vein in the event on Thursday. “Who, if not you – the descendants of Spartacus, the inheritors of the oldest European statehood, you, who never ever lost a flag in any battle – would be better placed to rise to this important and exceptionally difficult task; that is, to renew the European perspective for the whole of the region.”
He had the tone just right. Eleven years after joining the EU it is clear that its poorest member is taking a particular pride in assuming the helm for six months, a job that is not just about being the “honest broker” of agreements between the 28 on a plethora of complex issues. It is also an exercise in national branding in which Bulgaria pitches to its partners that there are no better Europeans. Its presidency slogan, borrowed from the national motto, is “United we stand strong”.
Prime minister Boyko Borisov spent two hours with Brussels-based journalists on Thursday preaching the message. Mr Borisov, on his third term as head of government, leads Gerb (“Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria”) and is a conservative in the European People’s Party, of which Fine Gael is part.
He is currently in coalition with a far-right anti-immigrant party; it is a sign of the times that the next presidency goes to Austria, also led by such a once-anathema coalition.
Mr Borisov recalled the grim old days, he said – the miserable Christmases under communism, when bananas were rationed three to a family. “I remember Prague, Bratislava and Warsaw in communist days,” he said. The dramatic changes and improvements in all of them were all about the EU and what it had done for them, he added, pointedly alluding to other former communist states where Euroscepticism has flourished in recent times.
But there were also hints that the Bulgarians are not entirely at one with “old” Europe. Old sympathies linger – Mr Borisov made clear the presidency was in no hurry to press a motion from member states disciplining Poland over its bending of the rule of law. Nor would he support rule changes to claw back structural funding from wayward states.
And he was adamant about the need to defend the interests of the UK during Brexit. It was a strong ally, notably in Nato, and “this has to stay unchanged”.
But the prime minister made clear that the presidency would fight to preserve cohesion funding – of “paramount importance to Balkans” – in the next budget round.
At the meeting between the presidency and the European Commission on Friday, budget commissioner Günther Oettinger repeated his hope that the next seven-year budget from 2021, which he is currently preparing, would have to be increased by at least 10 per cent to meet the new challenges faced by the union and the loss of the UK contribution. That will not bridge the gap, and Mr Borisov will have a delicate balancing act to perform in cajoling even further concessions from the European Commission and anxious net contributors.
Every presidency brings its own perspectives to the table, and the Bulgarians see stability in the western Balkans as being intimately linked to extending the prospect of eventual EU accession to the six states in the region that remain outside the union.
Serbia and Montenegro are already in the accession process, though talks are stalled, while Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia Herzegovina have yet to be invited. A special summit in May will attempt to accelerate the process.
Bulgaria has its own issues, too. Concerned by the acceleration and inevitability of what is described as “multi-speed” Europe, Sofia has taken a strategic decision, as Ireland did, to leverage its moment in the sun to urgently press for its right to be part of all the union’s multiple inner cores.
The commission strongly supports its long-delayed case to join the Schengen passport-free travel area – “we have the most secure external border in the union,” Mr Borisov insisted. One of his fellow ministers had spoken of “discrimination” in keeping Bulgaria out. And he is determined that they will also sign up to the euro shortly.