The commemorative coin and souvenir ties have run off the production lines, the main venue is prepared, and the priorities have been announced, while Bulgaria’s Cabinet ministers endlessly repeat the mantra that the country is ready for its Presidency of the EU.
The main question now, to which the answer will be known only at the close of the six-month Presidency, is whether the first morning of July will find the skeptics or the optimists justified in their outlook.
Assessing the outcome will be a matter of examining both the performance of the country and of the EU as a whole over these six months, matters that are at the same time separate but also inextricably linked by virtue of the Presidency.
Ahead of January 1 2018, Bulgaria’s critics are emphasising the country’s serious shortcomings, in the fight against corruption and organised crime, and that it is the least wealthy member of the club that it is about to chair.
Far from everyone is persuaded that the anti-corruption law approved by Bulgaria’s National Assembly earlier in December will be genuinely effective, or for that matter not a vehicle for partisan political abuse. President Radev has said that he will veto it, putting the legislature on the path for the customary ritual of, in turn, overriding his veto.
Other critics have seized on the recent action by the asset forfeiture body to move against a media company, among other properties of a prominent business person, as alleged evidence of a government crackdown against some media ahead of the Presidency.
These are issues that come on top of the long-standing blemishes on the image of Bulgaria. The fact that the country continues to be barred from membership of the EU’s Schengen zone because of reservations among some other member states about continued lack of progress against graft and organised crime. And the fact that it continues to be subject to the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, put in place in 2007 for Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU, to bring them up to the bloc’s standards in justice and home affairs.
But, as has been pointed out before, Bulgaria would hardly be the first EU country to be facing serious national domestic issues while holding the bloc’s Presidency. Nor is it realistic or appropriate, much as some might clumsily try to do, to temporarily transform Bulgaria into some kind of outsize EU-model Potemkin village.
As to the formal priorities of the Bulgarian 2018 EU Presidency, the country has set itself the aim of the bloc making progress in respect to the Western Balkans, the future of Europe and young people, security and stability, and the digital economy.
Of these, it is possible, given the steps already taken by the Bulgarian government, that progress might be seen regarding the lowering of roaming charges between EU countries and those of the Western Balkans. This has something more than symbolic meaning, while there can hardly be much more than such steps, on the communications and infrastructure front. It is well-known that the current European Commission’s policy is not to see further expansion of EU membership during its term, so it remains to be seen whether there even will be any milestones in accession negotiations dates.
The second stated priority is a rather nebulous one, likely in any case to be drowned out in the noise of currently unforeseen issues of the day, while the third is hardly an innovative priority. Against the background of the terrorist attacks in Europe in recent years, and the prolonged wrestling over the refugee and illegal migration crisis, security and stability are hardly far from the minds of leaders of the EU.
By its own description, Bulgaria, in the chair of the EU Presidency, will be a “mediator and leader” though it is probably at most likely to be more of a mediator than a leader, and even then, on issues such as Brexit negotiations, its role as facilitator is unlikely to be much more than providing a venue and furniture.
A major challenge for Bulgaria, in the role of broker for these coming six months, will be helping to keep on track talks towards the EU’s financial framework from 2020 onwards. In this, it will have much assistance, to put that gently, from Brussels and will be part of an ongoing process involving others in leadership roles in the bloc.
Fortunately for the Bulgarian government, there is no real challenge to its stability before July 1. The no-confidence motion scheduled for mid-January will be little more than a domestic political melodrama, of scant concern to anyone outside the customarily fractious air of the National Assembly in Sofia.
For Bulgaria, the road ahead for six months could be the high one, of brokering deals on some of the priority issues, and beyond that time period, perhaps getting some reward such as progress towards Schengen membership. That besides, any positive media coverage of the country’s tourist attractions may give that industry a boost beyond June 30. The low road would be failure on the part of Bulgaria’s politicians to cope with the challenging brokerage role they would face, and worse, statements or actions that count as serious faux pas. Six months from now, when the destination is reached, Bulgaria and the EU will know which road they were on.
(Photos: Bulgarian EU Presidency website)