Bulgaria’s first seven years in the EU

Posted by Georgi Gotev on 03/01/14

On 1 January Bulgaria has marked its first seven years of EU membership. There is a saying in Bulgarian about the first seven years of a human being: “either you have them or you don’t”. Either during your first seven years you have learned something that will make a man out of you, or you will be a burden to society.

This text is a translation I made myself from my article in Bulgarian published days ago by the bi-monthly magazine L’Europeo. I only added a few hyperlinks and made the text more understandable to non-Bulgarians. If someone decides to re-publish or quote from this text, a written agreement from L’Europeo is required. I can help facilitate this (see my contact details).

Bulgaria’s EU membership was conceived in sin. Tony Blair decided to reward Bulgaria and Romania for their help during the 1999 NATO air strikes against the former Yugoslavia. A huge majority of Bulgarians were against this war, but now it looks that this support mostly contributed to the entry of the two countries into the prestigious clubs of NATO and the EU.

The first decisive episode took place in March 1999. Bulgaria’s Prime Minister at that time Ivan Kostov was lying to his nationals, telling them that Bulgaria had not offered its airspace to NATO. But I was accidentally at NATO and ingenuously asked their spokesman Jamie Shea: Did Bulgaria give you its airspace? “Many thanks to Bulgaria,” said Jamie. We were on CNN, so the next day all Bulgarian newspapers came out with huge titles: “NATO thanked us for the airspace”. There was a lot of internal confusion, but it’s fair to say that Sofia’s gesture was highly appreciated.

Let me open a parenthesis. Britain was indeed the country who most wanted the membership of Bulgaria and Romania. Not because they like us a lot, but because the Brits have always wanted to water down the EU into a loose federation of heterogeneous states, thus torpedoing plans for greater European integration. They may be on track to achieve its goal. But in any case, UK doesn’t ask for more EU expansion.

The second episode was the closure of four units of Kozlodui nuclear power plant, especially the 4th and 5th unit. On 1 October 2002 was incidentally in Brussels and spoke with officials from the European Commission. They were so happy that they greeted me (me, the journalist who defended Kozlodui, for the “courageous decision” of the cabinet of the then Prime Minister Simeon Saxe Cobourg-Gotha to close those two nuclear reactors. The then foreign minister Solomon Passy had signed the decision the night before. I called my colleagues in Sofia, where nobody knew about such a decision.

I wrote all this in the newspaper Sega where I worked then, it became the front page headline. The then President Georgi Parvanov arrived in Brussels the next day, on 2 October, to meet with the then European Commission President Romano Prodi. When he saw me in the lobby of his hotel Parvanov told me – “I saw what you wrote”. He had learned from my newspaper that the blocks are to be closed down. The government had not informed him. An hour later Prodi thanked Parvanov for this “courageous decision” in front of many astonished journalists.

Irony and politics go hand in hand. Parvanov was against the Iraq war, although as President he was commander in chief. And it was him who represented the country at the ceremony of the country’s NATO accession at the November 2002 Prague summit. Parvanov was a defender of the units at Kozloduy, but accepted the thanks for closing them down. But who cares today?

This is how Bulgaria crawled until 2006, when it’s EU accession was hanging in the balance. Olli Rehn, the Enlargement Commissioner at that time, knew perfectly well that neither Bulgaria nor Romania were ready for EU membership in the classic sense. So he thought of some sort of us semi-membership – that the countries would be admitted as members, if they agreed to a “Cooperation and Verification mechanism” (CVM), that is, to monitoring, comparable only to the one to which candidate countries are subjected. This was a unique experiment that Brussels is determined not to repeat.

Bulgaria agreed. Romania tried to resist, but my country screwed them, it put them with a fait accompli. Imagine the humiliation for them if Bulgaria was admitted to the EU and Romania was postponed? Willy-nilly Bucharest swallowed the bitter pill. Bulgarian spineless policy obviously worked. It even made a EU member out of Romania.

Some time elapsed, our integration stalled, a series of scandals unfolded, the so-called SAPARD case, a powerful minister had to be evicted, and in June 2009 a new government led by Boyko Borissov took power. He came to Brussels and said he was at war with the mafia Octopus. Barroso gave him his trust. On credit course, but he gave it.

Borissov was asked then, in 2009, what will be the European priorities of his cabinet. I even helped him, by suggesting in my question “joining the eurozone and the Schengen space?” The answer was, “Absolutely.” When I asked him if the exit from the Cooperation and verification mechanism was a priority as well, he answered “This is very important,” but he did not mean it. He added ” Our objective to join Schengen remains 2011″.

Neither Borissov nor his successor Plamen Oresharsky adopted as a priority the obvious: the need for Bulgaria to get out of CVM, so that the country would finally become a full member and would no longer be summoned by Barroso. The Commission doesn’t use tough language against any member state, except Bulgaria and Romania, because they have accepted it. And because both countries did nothing in the meantime to change the situation.

So Borissov made Schengen his battlefield, unaware that it was a bad choice and that he would fail. In 2009 he said that all that was needed for Bulgaria to join Schengen was “plastering a building”. This sentence made big headlines. But old member states will not allow Bulgaria in Schengen until their business complains of corruption and outrages by Bulgarian courts. By not allowing Bulgaria and Romania to Schengen these countries tells Sofia and Bucharest every day: yes, you’re sitting at our table, but please shut up.

But let me go back to the beginning of the mandate of Borissov. There was a nightmarish period when every time an important EU official set foot in Sofia exploded a bomb. It sure was a heavy blow for Borissov, the “last action hero” in Bulgarian politics. The message of the mafia was – don’t believe this tough guy Borissov: as you can see, crime and even terrorism flourish under his rule…

In the same logic, a series of eavesdropping tapes were leaked to Bulgarian media, with allegation of the President and the Bulgarian EU commissioner being tapped. The Commission didn’t say much. Media indicated scandalous misuse of EU funds. Can a Twitter account be worth €50,000, paid with EU money? In Bulgaria this is possible, and the female public relations aides of Borissov’ agricultural minister could be asked about details.

In one of the leaked tapes the Sofia prosecutor Nikolai Kokinov, a gentleman who resigned since, gives advice to Naydenov how to “fix” these ladies, which can be understood in every way. This of course is only a small tip of a large iceberg of scams and intrigues to the attention of EU officials who are watching Bulgaria.

The Bulgarian diplomacy in this period had only one task – to make sure the CVM report contains at least one sentence which Borissov could proudly quote. The most famous such sentence was that “the [Borissov] government has the political will.” The report basically says implicitly that the Prime Minister is no good, but at least he is trying.

EU summits bored Borissov to death. I have often seen him playing with his cell phone, either because he was annoyed, or because he didn’t have enough words in English for small talk. Once I took a whole series of photos. At a meeting of the European People’s Party , where he was seated next to the then newly elected Prime Minister of Portugal, Pedro Passos Coelho, Borissov was concentrated on his touchscreen and never talked with his new buddy . I have on photo the face of Coelho staring sadly at this unsociable neighbor.

Having said this, Borissov knows how to talk to counterparts from football superpowers. I’m sure he didn’t know that Coelho is from the country of Cristiano Ronaldo. While Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was still Prime Minister of Spain, Borissov used to powerfully tap him on the back, shouting “Messi, Messi”. Indeed, Borisov has secured an image among his EU counterparts of a man capable of great sacrifice, missing football derbies and attending instead boring summits.

During the 28 June 2012 summit, the Euro in Poland and Ukraine was ongoing and Germany played Italy on this very day. Borissov was convinced that the leaders will arrange the program so as to watch the match. But it didn’t happen that way. Probably better, because Borissov’s forecast proved to be wrong and he missed the chance to kiss Merkel, as Germany’s team lost.

Bulgaria indirectly suffered bad press with the disastrous hearing of candidate commissioner Rumiana Jeleva. Her replacement Kristalina Georgieva was an excellent, but alas belated move. Many in the EU got the impression that the Bulgarians were able to do the best and worst. Electing Sergei Stanishev as leader of the Party of European Socialists (PES) was very good news, his choice of Delian Peevski, a controversial media mogul, to be the boss of of the country’s State Agency for National Security (DANS) was very bad news, including for him.

The fall of the Borissov government last January, because of the high electric bills, surprised many in Brussels. The poverty levels in Bulgaria are difficult to be understood. I once had lunch in the Commission’s Berlaymont restaurant, sitting at the same table with a former employee of that institution. Journalists and retired employees have access to this restaurant. We introduced ourselves, discussed incomes. I mentioned that the minimum pension in Bulgaria is 70 euros. The lady did not understand me. You mean seventy euros per day, she asked. The average pension of Commission employees is € 4,300. As I explained that 70 euros was the income of retired people for a full month, the lady didn’t touch her meal further.

Lately Bulgaria has shocked the Commission with the rise of nationalist and extremist formations, amid a wave of refugees that should not be a problem for a normal state. There were a lot wrong moves. Deputy Prime Minister Tsvetlin Iovchev advocated closed refugee centres and of refugee push-backs from the border. Such things are not only unacceptable under European law, but also under international law. The cabinet tried to correct its fire, but the bad impression remained. Unfortunately, latent xenophobia in Bulgaria is widespread, as was the collective madness that had infected the National Assembly over the vote of a moratorium to sell land to foreigners.

In Bulgaria it is fashionable to say – why should WE pay for refugees? But why should the EU be obliged to give Bulgaria billions? Another issue is that Bulgaria is the only country of the fifth EU enlargement where the situation now is not better than before the accession. In Bulgaria, too much pubic wealth gets stolen.

The same profiteering attitude became obvious over the South Stream latest developments. On 4 December, I was the only journalist to report that the Commission said that all bilateral gas pipeline between Russia on the one hand, and Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Greece, Slovenia, Croatia and Austria on the other, violate EU law and should be denounced and renegotiated from scratch.

As it turned out, on 18 August, the Commission had officially informed Bulgaria that South Stream cannot be built unless they be renegotiated, which would take at least two years. But this did not impede the government to stage on 4 November a “first welding” ceremony. Or to drill in the sea near Varna. The question is: who is Bulgaria trying to cheat?

Bulgaria puts its EU membership at risk, as recently wrote in his my blog my distinguished colleague Veselin Zhelev, whom his daily newspaper Trud fired from his post of Brussels correspondent. In Bulgaria, good work is never appreciated. I have nothing to add to his analysis. If nationalism and profiteering prevail, the EU will find a way first first to close the tap, and then show Bulgaria the door. After seven years in the EU, my country so far qualifies for the office dealing with juniors in distress.

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Georgi Gotev is senior editor of EurActiv more.



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