“I am glad that people show a lot of support for the European Union and care about the issues Europe faces. Awareness has also improved thanks to the Presidency.” This was the statement of an Estonian sociologist at the end of the Estonian Presidency of the Council of the EU.
As the Bulgarian Presidency enters its first days, we in Sofia seek a similar outcome in six months’ time, hoping that the presidency will hasten the long-awaited de-provincialization of Bulgaria’s European policy.
The presidency of the Council is undoubtedly a chance for Europe to learn something about Bulgaria, beyond the cliché of it being the poorest and most corrupt member state. A study by the European Council on Foreign Relations on the ability and willingness of member states to co-operate with each other has shown that Bulgaria is the least sought-after partner, and the least responsive to inquiries about common positions from other member states.
This raises the question: How will Bulgaria act as president – as a unifier in the name of European consent, or as a passive observer to the deepening fault lines across the union? The country’s reputation now depends on this.
Sofia now has six months to turn this reputation around and show themselves to be responsive to the needs of their own electorate as well as those across Europe. What will be the main issues Bulgaria will seek to address in this context?
Task 1: Unity in the face of populists and Russia
If 2017 was a year of hope after the calamities of 2016, in 2018 those hopes will either be realized or be dashed. The economic upsurge ongoing across most of Europe is promising, but the danger is not far away. Populists won recently in Austria and the Czech Republic, and this year they will have another major opportunity in Italy. In Germany, which has yet to form a government, about a fifth of the Bundestag consists of far-left and far-right MPs.
Numerous investigations have shed light on Russia’s efforts to foment division across the EU: from its financial support for Marine Le Pen, through its media amplification of the Catalan crisis, to its social media operation in support of Brexit. But none of these problems were made in Moscow; the Kremlin merely amplified existing dissatisfaction with the EU.
Against this background, preserving European unity is a difficult but key task for the Bulgarian Presidency, especially since the Commission started Article 7 procedures against Poland. It will be complicated further still when the Franco-German engine (hopefully) gets going in the spring, with smaller countries likely to seek balance against this powerful tandem. Bulgaria can claim neutrality, but that alone will not be enough.
Task 2: More European security
The territorial losses of Islamic State in the past year are good news, but the continuing decay of a number of countries in the Middle East is a fact, and European concerns about terrorism are not unjustified. To remain open and democratic, European communities will require a much higher degree of protection from the authorities – especially given the hesitant position of the United States.
PESCO, the defense co-operation mechanism, is yet to be filled with content. Certainly, none of the 17 suggested projects for joint action in medical care in military operations, logistics or crisis response has been initiated by Bulgaria. If, however, it wants to contribute to European defense and security, as a rotating president, Sofia will have the chance to organize the consultative formats of the 25 PESCO member states. If European defense does not move forward in the first six months of its existence, this will question all the otherwise good intentions.
Task 3: Common solutions on migration
Migration is still the number one concern for many European countries, which is why it will continue driving political decisions in 2018. If the predictions of increased flows along the Balkan route turn out to be true, reaching an agreement among all member states will become the first priority of the EU and of the rotating presidency.
The German government needs EU cooperation to show Germans that they are not alone in dealing with the challenge, while Italy needs the same to prove that it has not been abandoned by Europe on this issue. But Poland and Hungary, having accepted almost no refugees from the Middle East thus far, will continue to block any relocation system.
Against this background, Bulgaria will have the struggle to find agreement. One avenue for cooperation is likely to be a combination of tougher border management and a scheme for the quicker return of immigrants whose asylum applications have been denied.
Task 4: Put the Western Balkans back on the EU agenda
This seems an easy task, given the scheduled Western Balkans Summit on 17 May in Sofia. But the ambition to move Bulgaria’s neighboring countries closer to membership will struggle to progress in 2018. That is why the summit must show concrete results outside the expansion process.
Lowering EU roaming charges for the Western Balkan countries, and the completion of Corridor No. 8 (connecting the Black Sea with the Albanian Adriatic coast) is modest but concrete goals. However, if the Bulgarian Presidency is really ambitious in this area, it will have to find a way to include the Western Balkans in the discussions on other important topics, such as European defense and migration.
But even if it does not succeed in the ambition for strategic thinking in its European policy, the EU Presidency will naturally help Bulgaria on its path to de-provincialisation. More and more Bulgarian politicians and officials will learn how the EU functions, why it is necessary to have a position, and with whom to co-operate in order to realize it. The Europeanisation of Bulgaria will be taken one step further, whether we want it or not.
This article first appeared in ECFR. Click here to go to the original.