Bulgarian EU Presidency: Pointless to pursue portrayal of a Potemkin village

As many – including Bulgarians – who grew up in the communist bloc would remember, there was a Soviet animated cartoon series from the 1970s to the 1980s called Leopold the Cat. Кот Леопольд, if you must. His catchphrase was, “kids, let’s all get along”. In the run-up to Bulgaria’s EU Presidency, some seem to hold out the same faint, futile hope.

Rossen Plevneliev, who was Bulgaria’s President from 2012 to 2017 and who is a honorable man known for his consistently constructive public messages, issued an appeal on October 23 for everyone to “unite, so that we can show the best of Bulgaria during this Presidency”.

Plevneliev, who serves on a top advisory board on the Bulgarian 2018 EU Presidency, called on Bulgarians to have more self-confidence and called on politicians to show unity.

“We have no reason to have as low a confidence as we do, our country is wonderful, we have achieved a lot, we have managed a successful process and I know that we will be able to cope organisationally. We will cope politically,” he said.

Plevneliev added the realistic note that the expectations of many people in Bulgaria that the EU Presidency would solve some national problems would “have to be dispelled from now on”. “We are not expected to delve into national issues, but to contribute to a common European future.”

Amid the hurly-burly of Bulgarian daily politics, that theatre played out in the National Assembly with all the gentle subtlety of a Titus Andronicus revival in the age of the BBC’s production Gunpowder, there have been murmurings of a quest for national consensus, a form of armed truce, perhaps.

Looking on how the business of Bulgarian politics is done, with viciousness, discrediting campaigns and insults, consensus – консенсус – remains only a word in the dictionary, and hardly in the lexicon or practice of politicians.

Even the opposition leader in Parliament has been criticised by some of her internal party opponents of being too monotonously aggressive, to no strategic gain. Bulgarian Socialist Party leader Kornelia Ninova has been told by her critics that constantly pointing to the sins of the coalition government does not necessarily result in greater support for the BSP. Ninova is hardly the only one to play the blame game. The Prime Minister himself, Boiko Borissov, has raised it to an art form. Everyone else has their arsenal of mud, too.

A clumsy attempt in the President’s office, apparently to pursue consensus – that word again – to merge or compromise on rival pieces of legislation on a new anti-corruption body came to nothing. But why would such an attempt succeed? Why should Borissov’s government accept a word from the BSP version of the proposed legislation, and why should the opposition BSP in turn back down? And why would Borissov’s GERB allow President Roumen Radev a note on his CV saying that he had brought the parties together? Hardly the kind of benefit one would wish to hand to a political rival to store up for the next presidential elections.

Not unlike other countries, Bulgarian politics is a rough game, a rolling verbal street fight, that lurches from one scandal – real or manufactured – to the next. Every few days, the Bulgarian-language media, a Greek chorus seized by endemic and endless hysteria, proclaims the latest “-gate” scandal. Everyone has an opinion, expresses it vehemently, and the following week, it is all forgotten. There is no reason to believe the first half of 2018 will be any different.

The Presidency of the EU is a major political process, a responsibility of historic significance, possibly a matter of prestige. It is not a matter of two spouses smiling with strained falsity to conceal the antagonisms in their relationship, at least until those nice people from Europe who have come to dinner have gone out the door.

To say the least, the 2018 Bulgarian Presidency of the EU may have its awkward moments. It is customary in January for the European Commission to release its Co-operation and Verification Mechanism reports, on how Bulgaria and Romania are doing in coming up to EU standards in justice and home affairs. All these years after 2007 have seen Bulgaria get a “must try harder” report card. There is little reason to expect that January 2018 will be any different.

In the course of the EU Presidency, Bulgaria will have to achieve much more in the way of specifics about what it means when it says that the Western Balkans will be a priority in its policies. How this transforms into specific steps, or achievements, remains somewhat elusive.

The EU Presidency will also, of course, be within the timeframe of the continuing saga of the Brexit negotiations. As the holder of the Presidency, Bulgaria may be expected to play some brokerage role. Or much more likely, not at all. That process surely will continue via the Barnier channel.

These are just some of the issues that the country will face in the first half of 2018, to say nothing of the principle of Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” that may arise to confront the EU as a whole in the first half of next year.

As the Cabinet minister in charge of the EU Presidency, Lilyana Pavlova, put it, the Presidency is about much more than the venue. Pavlova apparently was expressing some annoyance at local media concern about whether the principal venue, the National Palace of Culture in Sofia, will be ready on time. One takes her point, as well as being mildly satisfied that something is being done at last about that ghastly depressing monolith. Pavlova says that it will be ready by Christmas. Whether Bulgaria was ready for the EU Presidency – in every sense, not just the venue – will be clear by next Christmas.

But one must agree with former President Plevneliev. Cynicism and low expectations within Bulgaria about the Presidency seem born in an inferiority complex, in the self-perception that this country somehow is just not up to scratch compared with the rest of the class, the other 27 members.

Perhaps Bulgaria’s EU Presidency will not be a scintillating success – again, only perhaps – but I will go out on a limb to say that it will not be a failure. Bulgaria’s EU partners will not let it fail, for failure would be a failure for the bloc as a whole (read, the 27 member states not scheduled to head for the exit), not just for Bulgaria.

And if Bulgaria continues with its fractious, frequently infantile, politics, if it has serious issues outstanding, if someone screws up the translations on the signs in NDK, what of it?

Let us consider a few entries in the hallowed list of EU Presidencies that have gone before – speaking of domestic controversies, major problems and questions of uncertainty.

Belgium held the rotating presidency of the EU in the second half of 2010. Without detailing exhaustively the twists and turns of Belgian domestic politics at the time, this was when a caretaker government had just come into office, one that would remain – to set a record for longetivity – until December 2011.

Cyprus held the Presidency in the second half of 2012. Its tenure began just after it had formally requested a bailout as the banking crisis came to a head. Speaking of unresolved issues, this time also meant that the rotating presidency was held by an EU member state of which a significant part, geographically and politically, was and is under illegal rule in violation of international law.

Ireland had the Presidency in the first half of 2013, at a time that its bailout arrangement with the Troika was heading to its close. Speaking of troikas, there was Greece, EU Presidency holder from January to June 2014, at a time it was hitting record unemployment, was amid the trauma of a succession of austerity measures, when the parliament in Athens had, in May 2014, only just approved a highly controversial package of reforms.

These are just a few examples, without singling out countries unfairly because others have their domestic troubles too, that being the title-holder does not mean that any EU member state need go into Potemkin village mode. (Though one Bulgarian friend of the current writer, looking on Sofia’s newly and hastily renovated pavements and roads, said: “I wish we could host the EU Presidency every year”).

Sometimes, and Bulgaria will not be exempt from this, the very fact of the EU Presidency itself is the subject of controversy. This was the case in 2016 during the Slovakian EU Presidency, when there were allegations in connection with public procurement procedures connected to the Presidency. Robert Fico, the prime minister noted for his track record of tensions with the media, did not take kindly to questions about the allegations. Specifically, Fico termed those journalists who asked him about them “dirty, anti-Slovak prostitutes”.

In the first half of 2018, Bulgaria will host the highest levels of EU delegations. It will show them about, transport them from airport to venue, put them up in fine hotels, chair ministerial meetings, introduce the guests to rakiya and generally be everything from chairman to mine host to principal butler. The country will come under scrutiny in person from the most senior politicians from other EU countries to the world-weary, cynical, critical and intelligent media who cover the affairs of the EU.

No flimsy facade of a Potemkin village, whether political or in paving, will fool them. Nor should anyone be trying.

(Main photo: the National Palace of Culture in Sofia, currently being renovated to prepare for its role as the main venue for the 2018 Bulgarian EU Presidency events: ndk.bg)



Clive Leviev-Sawyer

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015), and co-author of the book Bulgarian Jews: Living History (The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria 'Shalom', 2018). He is also the author of Power: A Political Novel, available via amazon.com, and, on the lighter side, Whiskers And Other Short Tales of Cats (2021), also available via Amazon. He has translated books and numerous texts from Bulgarian into English.