View from Sofia: Geography lessons

When Europe was dealing with the financial crisis, a dividing line presented itself in the EU between the rich rule-based centre and the poor unruly periphery. Back then it was in Bulgaria’s best interest not to disassociate itself from the periphery. Belonging to the club of Central European member states was a privilege, and Bulgaria was set on doing what it took to be decoupled from the South.

Three years later the geography of the EU has changed and the V4 countries do not conjure a positive image. Being marked by a strong nationalist surge, these countries are responsible for a large portion of the negative coverage that has arisen in dealing with the refugee crisis in Europe. By being in support of, and in some cases actually closing their borders, they have become (together with Austria) the key opponent to Germany’s policy of open borders. Where Merkel calls for a common European response, V4 leaders advocate for a national solution to the crisis.

Bulgaria has wavered in its support for Merkel. Most recently it has swung in the direction of Austria and the V4. Austria’s minister of the interior visited Sofia after the EU-Turkey summit and toured the borders with Turkey. He promised Bulgaria all the help it needs to protect the border it shares with Turkey. Moreover, the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs arrived in Sofia earlier this year, followed by Prime Minister Orbán. Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov paid a visit in return before the Council meeting in February this year.

In principle, the closure of borders may become less contentious when the EU-Turkey readmission agreement based on the “one for one” rule comes into force. The agreement will create a legal route for migrants which, in combination with other measures, should contribute towards reducing the number of asylum seekers who cross the EU border illegally, often at the cost of their lives. However, until this plan is implemented and the illegal networks of traffickers are dismantled, there is always the danger of migration flows being re-routed. With the closing of the Western Balkans route, there are three other options – to pass from Greece through Albania to the EU, to go back through south Italy and finally, to go from Turkey through the Black Sea to Bulgaria. When Prime Minister Boiko Borissov asked for the creation of a so called “hot spot” in Bulgaria several months ago, many were puzzled as the number of asylum seekers in Bulgaria had been small. Many judged that he was advocating for one of these centres “for the money”. His position however was likely based on anticipation that the closure of existing channels might force refugees to seek an alternative route passing through Bulgaria.

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Louisa Slavkova of the European Council on Foreign Relations

As programmes and national offices coordinators, Louisa co-ordinates the activities of ECFR’s programmes and national offices. She also regularly contributes to energy-related topics at ECFR. As part of her research interests she is looking at EU’s foreign policy towards its neighbours to the East and South. Louisa is also a founding member of Sofia Platform, a democracy promotion organisation active in EU’s Eastern and Southern neighbourhoods. Between 2011 and 2013 she served as an advisor to Bulgarian foreign minister Nikolai Mladenov and to caretaker environment minister Julian Popov. She is co-editor of the recent book “Unrewarding crossroads? The Black Sea Region amidst the European Union and Russia”. Louisa has an MA in political science and history from the University of Cologne in Germany.