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Bulgaria’s turn to lead the Council of the European Union just ended. How did things go?

- July 5, 2018
The European Union flag flutters on a flagpole in Guyancourt, near Paris. (Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images)

In January, Bulgaria, the poorest and most unequal country in the European Union, assumed the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, the forum where ministers of all 28 E.U. member states meet to adopt laws and coordinate policies.

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While the presidency of the council has seen its role diminish, it still provides incumbent states with opportunities to promote their national interests and achieve decision outcomes close to their preferences. So how did Bulgaria do?

Led by a coalition of the center-right GERB party and the far-right United Patriots, Bulgaria’s E.U. goals were ambitious: to advance the integration of the Western Balkans, renew the country’s bids to join the Schengen area and the euro zone, and to promote security, solidarity and stability across the European Union. Bulgaria also followed up on a topic that had been a focus of the Estonian presidency of the council — the digital economy — reflecting both Bulgaria’s booming tech industry and the fact that the current European commissioner for digital economy and society, Mariya Gabriel, is a Bulgarian politician.

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There was far less international media coverage of what was happening in Bulgarian domestic politics, where recent months saw a growing illiberal consensus and multiple protests against corruption and welfare cuts.

Some progress in E.U. accession for the Western Balkans

As a Balkan country itself, Bulgaria made it a top priority to create a clearer E.U. membership path for its Balkan neighbors — Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. Bulgaria’s good bilateral relations with these countries made possible this strategic focus, motivated by fears of increasing Russian, Chinese and Turkish influence in the region.

The E.U. also acknowledged the importance of Western Balkan cooperation in finding common solutions for migration flows and E.U. security. For many migrants, the shortest transit route to the central European core passes through the Western Balkan countries.

So far, only Serbia and Montenegro have opened negotiations for joining the E.U., and each nudged a few steps closer during the Bulgarian presidency. After the groundbreaking agreement between Macedonia and Greece to change the name of Macedonia to “Republic of Northern Macedonia,” Bulgaria, supported by the German government, used the last days of its presidency to persuade E.U. leaders to open negotiation procedures with Macedonia and Albania as well. The Macedonian foreign minister even promised anyone who supports his country’s E.U. bid would get receive “a fresh package of Macedonian tomatoes by post.”

But the road to E.U. accession for the Western Balkan countries remains uncertain. French President Emmanuel Macron has claimed real reforms are needed first to deepen and strengthen the European Union — before decisions on further enlargement. A desire to export stability might instead lead to importing instability in the union — the last thing the E.U. wants, considering it is already divided on key issues such as migration and the economy.

Bulgaria in the E.U. waiting room

Bulgaria itself continues to struggle against becoming an outsider within a multispeed Europe. Bulgaria has pushed again to join the Schengen area, where 26 countries have abolished passport and other forms of border control along their internal borders. The E.U. Commission had confirmed that Bulgaria fulfills the technical requirements, but skeptics, particularly in Germany and France, claim Bulgaria still needs to resolve its problems with corruption and crime.

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Bulgaria’s bid to join the euro zone has been similarly difficult. While Bulgaria has had a currency board since 1997, its national currency, the “Lev,” is already pegged to the euro and the country has no financial sovereignty. Yet the country loses on the benefits of being part of the single-currency euro zone.

Bulgaria has fulfilled all formal criteria for joining and has presented itself as a “model student.” But the E.U. now wants Bulgaria to strengthen its institutions, achieve economic convergence and join the Banking Union, opening up its banks to external supervision — a topic that is particularly sensitive after a 2014 bank run on Bulgaria’s fourth-largest bank. The latest compromise calls for Bulgaria to launch a joint application for the Banking Union and the ERM-2 mechanism, known also as the Euro Waiting Room.

Bulgaria’s own unrest may reflect broader tensions

In January, as Bulgaria was assuming the Council of the European Union presidency, the streets of the capital were blocked by a number of parallel protests, the largest of them in opposition to a controversial construction project in a natural reserve.

The Bulgarian vice prime minister from the far-right United Patriots party later denounced a German member of the European Parliament, Ska Keller, for participating in the protests and claimed she should be expelled from Bulgaria because of her “Green jihadist views.”

In the first months of the Bulgarian presidency, all major parties in the country rejected the Istanbul Convention, a Council of Europe initiative on preventing violence against women, claiming it to be secret LGBT propaganda.

In early February, a new owner purchased the critical television channel BiT and stopped all its programs overnight in another attack on media freedom in the country.

In June, the Bulgarian presidency ended with massive protests by mothers of disabled children, who settled in tents in front of the Bulgarian parliament with posters and T-shirts saying “The System Kills Us” — a protest against the lack of support for the disabled. The “model student” fiscal indicators of the Bulgarian state have been achieved through harsh austerity policies.

Unlike Hungary and Poland, Bulgaria to date hasn’t been much of a problem child for the E.U. But the rhetoric of stability has normalized the far right — and has created a situation of persistent poverty, corruption and massive emigration of young people.

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Ultimately, however, what’s happening in Bulgaria may not be just Bulgarian politics but instead may reflect a general political shift to the right taking place across the European Union. In fact, both Bulgaria and Austria, which on July 1 took over the E.U. presidency, are currently ruled by coalitions of the center-right and the far-right that support retrenchment of the welfare state and tough stances on migration.

In this sense the Bulgarian presidency of the Council of the European Union (including some aspects of its domestic politics) might be more representative of the European Union than many within Europe would like to believe.

Julia Rone recently defended her PhD at the European University Institute at Florence and is currently a fellow at the Centre for Advanced Internet Studies in Bochum. Her research interests include contentious politics, digital media and the diffusion of ideas. Find her on Twitter @JuliRone.