The Bulgarian government wants its presidency to be remembered, first and foremost, for having advanced the cause of western Balkan countries keen to join the EU.
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By contrast, political leaders in France and Germany — supported by Brussels — will be focused during the next six months on constructing a framework for closer integration among the eurozone’s 19 states. This is expected to involve ideas for completing the EU’s banking union and transforming the crisis-fighting European Stability Mechanism into a European Monetary Fund.
While Bulgaria has a clear interest in the outcome of these discussions, its voice will count for little because it is at present outside both the currency union and the banking union. It remains a matter of fundamental national importance to Bulgaria that it should not be ignored or left behind if there is a successful Franco-German push for closer European unity. “One fear of Bulgaria is that a multispeed Europe will leave Bulgaria on the periphery. This is why eurozone membership is so important,” says Daniel Smilov, a director at the Centre for Liberal Strategies think-tank. Boyko Borisov, Bulgaria’s prime minister, prides himself on his warm relationship with Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor.
However, Bulgaria’s fear of being marginalised would grow if neighbours such as Macedonia and Serbia were never to join the EU, and if western powers, Russia, China, Turkey and others were to step up their already intense competition for political, diplomatic and economic influence in the Balkans. These considerations explain why Lilyana Pavlova, the government minister in charge of Bulgaria’s presidency, attaches such importance to a May 17 summit in Sofia at which EU heads of state and government will confer with leaders of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.
On the prospects for this summit, Ms Pavlova is realistic but hopeful. “We are not in a position to give any false expectations. We can work really hard on the western Balkan states’ European perspective, but we can’t work miracles or establish firm dates for accession or for opening and closing chapters [in EU membership talks],” she says. “However, we can build up EU entry as a long-term, irreversible objective and make sure that the EU doesn’t lose momentum on this front.” The Sofia summit will aim to equip each of the six western Balkan states with an individual action plan to achieve EU membership, tailored to reflect their achievements so far and the tasks that lie ahead.
Ms Pavlova sounds especially enthusiastic about recent progress in Macedonia, with which Bulgaria has had a historically fraught relationship. A breakthrough occurred in August when the two countries signed a friendship treaty. The difficulty is that western Balkan warmth towards the EU is not necessarily reciprocated in other parts of Europe. The Netherlands is a prominent case in point. With public opinion sceptical about letting more eastern European countries into the EU, and with the far-right Freedom party snapping at his heels, Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, has made it clear he does not favour early EU enlargement into the western Balkans. What is more, he opposes Bulgarian membership of the Schengen area. “There is still too much concern about border control and corruption,” he said in September.
Mr Rutte’s stance stirs indignation in Ms Pavlova. “We are absolutely unfairly treated, because Bulgaria fulfilled all the existing criteria for Schengen membership six years ago. This is against the principles on which the EU functions, of equal treatment of all countries,” she says. At the height of the European refugee and migrant emergency in 2015-16, Bulgaria won praise for helping to stem irregular arrivals of people and protect the EU’s external borders, she adds.
The European Parliament passed a resolution in June 2011 that recommended the removal of systematic checks at Bulgaria’s borders with neighbouring EU countries. Yet a unanimous vote among EU governments will be needed to usher Bulgaria into the Schengen area. For the moment, such a vote seems some way off. Still, some policymakers in Sofia hope for a compromise whereby EU governments might include Bulgaria’s air and sea entry points into Schengen as a first step towards full membership. Western European concerns about Bulgarian corruption rankle Ms Pavlova.
Its is the first nation to hold the EU’s rotating presidency while under a European Commission monitoring mechanism that assesses its efforts to improve its judicial system and fight corruption. “Sure, a lot needs to be done. Further legislative changes are needed,” she says. “But my personal feeling is that . . . we are not a country very different from others in Europe.”
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