This article first appeared on bulgarianpresidency.eu on 26th January 2018
When European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker spoke at the opening ceremony of the Bulgaria’s new six-month EU Presidency earlier this month, he accentuated the positives by mapping out the country’s future in the eurozone and in Schengen.
The Commission President also described Prime Minister Boyko Borissov as a “personal friend” and a “committee European”, and seemingly believed that Bulgaria’s moment in the sun is going to be nothing but rosy.
If I was an optimist, I would be hoping for the same for our Bulgarian friends. However, serious concerns remain over a number of issues ranging from organised crime to rampant corruption, as well as the influence of the far-right in the country’s coalition government and their xenophobic, homophobic and anti-immigrant rhetoric.
As leaders of the political groups in the European Parliament, we had the opportunity to travel to Sofia recently to meet with the country’s President and to talk to the parliamentarians there about the challenges that lie ahead.
At the end of the trip, I was left with the impression that even though this is one of the smallest EU member states, the government is keen to make an impact during its presidency.
Yet, legitimate questions remain over the influence of ultra-nationalist and well-known fascist cabinet ministers who will be setting the agenda and chairing EU meetings on a regular basis over the next six months on economic and foreign policies to competitiveness and the circular economy.
Whilst Juncker expressed confidence in Prime Minister Borissov, does that extend to his deputy, Valeri Simeonov, who as head of the country’s National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues was convicted of hate speech against Roma people by describing them as ‘ferocious apes’ as recently as October? Simeonov is also known to have made derogatory remarks about Bulgarian ethnic Turks in the past.
And what about the other Deputy PM and Defence Minister Krassimir Karakachanov who, in an interview with Die Welt last summer, called for the use of arms by EU forces and NATO to stop migrants and refugees from coming into Europe? This is the same person who will be presiding over the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council’s meetings until the summer.
Not forgetting also that Environment Minister Neno Dimov – a climate change sceptic and big fan of Donald Trump – will be chairing the Environment Council. This man was head of the Bulgarian chapter of the World League for Freedom and Democracy (WLFD) until 2016 – an organisation previously known as the World Anti-Communist League and was said to harbour Nazi and neo-Nazi associations.
All three men belong to the far-right United Patriots alliance that is currently propping up the Borissov administration, with a fourth – Economy Minister Emil Karanikolov – a member of the Ataka party which is also well-known for its far-right, xenophobic policies dating as far back as 2005. He, too, will be chairing EU discussions which should cause alarm amongst EU governments and citizens.
Given all that, it’s reassuring to hear Prime Minister Borissov reiterate his desire to maintain ‘balance and consensus amongst the EU’ during the presidency.
However, we must all remain vigilant when it comes to his far-right colleagues’ xenophobic and eurosceptic agenda. They must not be allowed to hijack EU platforms to promote their odious brand of hatred and intolerance under the guise of the Council Presidency.
We already have illiberal governments in places like Hungary, Poland and Austria, and the recent invocation of Article 7 against the Polish government hopefully means that the Commission won’t allow member states to slip further into far-right authoritarianism.
Corruption and organised crime present another major challenge. When Bulgaria acceded to the EU, Brussels wanted to make fighting organised crime one of its top priorities. Things have improved with judicial reform and in tackling corruption but 11 years on from accession, there is still some way to go as highlighted by the recent and brutal assassination of the very prominent businessman Peter Hristov in Sofia.
Bulgaria is still ranked as the most corrupt member state in the EU. It was therefore no coincidence that the publicity surrounding the inauguration of this EU Presidency was punctuated by anti-corruption protests in Sofia – so fed up are its citizens about the proliferation of such crimes over the decades.
Corruption and organised crime not only fuel instability and impunity, they deprive the state millions in revenue but also money for social services, housing, education, healthcare, transport and other vital public services.
As we have seen in other member states, this decade-long austerity has resulted in the poorest being the hardest hit. For Bulgaria, which is still the poorest EU member state, the continuous failure to tackle corruption will only exacerbate rather than ease its citizens’ plight and undermine our fight for an EU of solidarity.
On that note, Borissov’s words gave comfort that Bulgaria will be playing its part in pushing for the EU’s allocation and resettlement of refugees policy. Crucially, its geography and historic past could also serve as a useful partner in helping to build bridges with member states from Eastern Europe which have yet to play their part in the allocation process.
Their EU presidency is also an opportunity to see progress made in the cooperation with the Western Balkans. That is the hope that my colleagues and I share at GUE/NGL, in particular those from Greece. As we look ahead, Bulgaria’s landmark friendship pact with Macedonia can also act as a springboard in helping the EU to forge closer ties with Montenegro and Serbia as well as bring peace to the region.
As citizens, we must be vigilant. Over the coming months, the credibility of the Bulgarian government will very much depend on how it performs during this presidency. Corruption, xenophobia and racism cannot be tolerated at any level, least of all at the top of EU institutions.