United We Stand Strong: Bulgaria at the onset of the rotating EU Presidency

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The Council of the EU met 2018 with Bulgaria at its Presidency.

For the first time since the accession to European Union, in 2007, all Bulgarian institutions, the President, the ruling coalition and the opposition managed to consolidate on the priorities for the brief 6-month mandate. Bulgaria took over from Estonia, a country that swiftly steered across interests into 4 priorities[1]: An open and innovative European economy, A safe and secure Europe, Digital Europe and the free movement of data, and Inclusive and sustainable Europe. Meanwhile, when Bulgaria joined the Troika, the government had just managed to step into office and to redress the National Palace of Culture to host the presidency. Now, the Bulgarian priorities sound more like a shopping list[2], failing to make clear the intention behind the titles: Future of Europe and young people, Western Balkans, Security and stability, and Digital economy.

While the EU dignitaries, MEP and the top of all national institutions solemnly inaugurated the opening event on 11 January, nine demonstrations mobilised tens of thousands along the cold streets of Sofia and the other cities of Bulgaria. This time around, the government decision on partial deregulation of a large part of an environmental Word Heritage site, Pirin Mountain, taken on 28 December, in breach of national and European regulations, ignited the public fury. The decision was published on 29 December, late Friday, the last working day of the year, when no one could protest it.

As in 2013, the protests against the fusion of political and murky economic interests hit the streets.

Citizens from 3 north-western districts of the country, the poorest EU region, signed petition for separation from Bulgaria, to join thereafter neighbouring Romania. There is no separatist sentiment; it is a desperate attempt to attract international attention to the fact that government has no plan for development and alleviation of poverty in the poorest region of the EU. Annually, some 10.000 are leaving just that part of the country for Western Europe, usually abandoning behind families and even young children. Over 46% of the youth are neither studying nor working. Across Danube, Romania has managed to reorganise the public health system, has done significant progress in the tertiary education and has enabled economic growth, securing 30% higher GDP per capita, compared to Bulgaria. Much is due to shift from informal into formal economy.

Extremely centralised political and economic power in Bulgaria is focused on major infrastructure projects, allocated to a limited number of recipient companies and usually associated with corruption. Thus, EU cohesion funds become part of the problem, rather than a solution. Unlike in Romania, where hundreds of politicians are scrutinised and serve sentences on corruption charges, in Bulgaria such deeds are publicly known by every citizen but are not subject to investigation.

Anecdotal evidences of the state of the rule of law are two murder cases from the first days of January. In one, a criminal sentenced 8 years back has been left at large until killing 5 people and committing suicide thereafter. The second is a daylight murder of a businessman in Sofia who eventually was identified as a district leader of a 1990s organised crime group and more recently, as the owner of 100 companies, recipient of majority of the public procurement contracts for all types of works in the same district. He has also been a donor and confidant of the ruling party GERB.

The challenges in the country are tremendous and little suggests that they are properly tabled. Public debate and consultation are not high on the agenda of the President, Parliament and Government – no matter which is the party in power. There is a single website for public policies[3] and for the decade of its existence, just a handful of comments on the thousands of documents testify that it is not serving its purpose. Decisions are usually taken by a single person, and when a coalition is needed, by the leaders of the entities in question.

For a vibrant democracy, freedom of media, liberties as well as independent, and efficient justice system are the foundations. Ten years ago, Bulgaria ranked 34 by the Freedom of Press index. Now, 11 years into the EU membership, it ranks 109. It is estimated that 80% of the media distribution and ownership is in the hands of a single person. Tens of thousands that march on the streets are reported even by the public media as dozens. The critical questions from the hearing of the Prime Minister at the European Parliament were not reported at all. The justice system is under monitoring for the past 11 years and hardly any progress has been recorded since and reports of the Council of Europe and the EU are seldom translated into Bulgarian and hardly mentioned by media. The 2017 Reporters Without Borders analysis says: “The government’s allocation of EU funding to certain media outlets is conducted with a complete lack of transparency, in effect bribing editors to go easy on the government in their political reporting or refrain from covering certain problematic stories altogether.”[4]

Civil liberties are guaranteed but matter little as lack of prospects for citizen initiatives make little use. Without formal and informal civic education, the political culture suffered. As assessed by the Economist Intelligence Index in 2016, it falls in the lower part of the scale.[5]

Population in Bulgaria is aging rapidly, with the highest mortality and lowest birth rates in the EU. 40% of the families without children are at risk of poverty. Public servants from all categories hardly meet ends: utility companies are granted exclusive market positions and charge at invented rates, with prices higher than in most of the EU countries. Some low-level corruption is harnessed by the poverty of civil servants.

National development priorities are limited to EU funded highways and only such, that could be built by a few specific companies. Poverty and extreme poverty, depopulation of large regions of the country, significant problems within the health and education systems, marginalization of the Roma population are yet symptoms of bad management but there is no political party or movement at sight capable of winning the hearts and the minds with well-structured development plans.

Symptomatic for the state of society is the hysteric response to the approval by the government of the Istanbul Convention. The United Patriots, the extreme-right coalition partner of GERB, managed to turn the debate against the convention, instilling fears of introduction sexual education against national culture and traditions. Eventually, two weeks into that nonsense, LGBT rights and the same sex marriage are already seen by a vast majority of less educated people as the main threat to the well-being of the people. Hardly any voice about the xenophobic personality of the vice-PM, reason for deteriorated relations between public and asylum seekers is broadcasted in public media.

Hate-speech dominates the rhetoric of the nationalists when the neighboring countries are referred, and yet, they have been the only politicians discussing the region. Three decades of alignment with Washington, Brussels and Moscow have left little attention to spare on people and states just an hour- or two-drive from the capital Sofia. Against that background, the focus on the dialogue between EU and the Western Balkans is a great positive leap, one that must be followed by a massive political education – in country and across the region – equally confused which way to bow next.

The BREXIT, national elections in a number of EU member states, key decisions on the European Elections due in May 2019, the regulation on the data protection and the Dublin+, are the real key challenges of our community and the common hope is that Bulgaria will be up to the task.

Success of any of the members is success of all. United We Stand Strong could be either a shallow slogan or a motivation to deal with all challenges with rights based approach. As Jaan Rannap, an Estonian children’s writer has it, where the trouble is the greatest, the solution is the closest. And that is the hope in Bulgaria as well as in a number of countries in South Eastern Europe.