By Georgi Gotev
As a journalist who has followed all the presidencies of the new EU members since the 2004-2007 enlargement wave, I used to know one thing: Presidencies are good.
The best thing about Presidencies is that, for the first time, the new members get a chance to sit in the driving seat of the EU airplane, and this has a very positive psychological impact on them.
Before assuming such a role, there is very often an us-and-them attitude; the new members don’t really consider the Union as their own club, house or project.
Psychologically speaking, only after a presidency a new member really becomes a full-fledged new member.
Also, the general public in new member states becomes better aware of the functioning of the Union, when ministers from the respective country chair Council meetings and speak more often to the press, including the international media. Even the national press improves and stops confusing the names of the institutions, such as the European Council or the Council of Europe.
I have seen great presidencies of new EU members. The first one was of Slovenia. At that time, the Financial Times described it as “a bicycle towing a jumbo-jet”. But they still succeeded.
I will skip the Czech, Hungarian, Polish, Cypriot, Lithuanian, Slovak, Maltese and Estonian presidencies, because they were more or less in line with what I just described. True, the Czech Presidency was a bit messy. But if one knows the specificities of the Czech character, it was just OK.
Then came the Bulgarian Presidency, in the first half of 2018, six months earlier than originally planned, because the UK skipped its presidency after the Brexit referendum, and others had to fill in. The expectations weren’t great, and the news from Sofia were that the preparations were lagging behind.
But for those who know the Bulgarian character, this was normal. Bulgarians always do things in the last moment, and usually it works. Observers were quick to notice that the Bulgarian Presidency had one clear priority – the Western Balkans. For the rest, Bulgaria left the Commission in the driver’s seat. Actually its president Jean-Claude Juncker thanked Borissov for that, at the final presser on 28 June 2018. In his typical style, he said the Presidency had been successful, because Borissov had listened to him. Journalists had a good laugh, because he had said the obvious.
Actually Juncker assumed that the Romanian Presidency would be the same. This is the mistake that many are doing, by assuming that Bulgaria and Romania are like twins and can be handled in the same way. The two countries are actually very different and do not even know each other well. As a Bulgarian, I have spent seven years in Romania in the period when I was finishing my college and university studies. This experience has helped me better explaining Romania to my Bulgarian readers. Romanian media have also frequently invited me to comment about Bulgaria.
Juncker’s term ends in the autumn of this year and the Romanian Presidency is the time when he hopes to be able to leave his political legacy. It’s not by chance that on his Twitter page, the president of the “Last Chance Commission” has chosen as a banner the Sibiu summit, on 9 May 2019, to illustrate what he hopes to be his big moment.
We will see how things develop by 9 May, two weeks ahead of the European elections. For the time being, the Romanian Presidency is badly tainted by the disastrous home politics. But let’s have a look at the Bulgarian Presidency first.
Juncker’s Commission is politically biased, to say the least, and keeps its eyes closed on the rule of law situation in Bulgaria. This is because Boyko Borissov’s GERB party is affiliated to the powerful European Peoples’ Party EPP). Borissov is leader and founder of GERB (the acronym comes from Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria, the word ‘gerb’ meaning “coat of arms”).
GERB has now a 10-year history of power. It is affiliated to the European Christian-Democrat alliance, although in essence it is a populist force and a one-man-show starring Boyko Borissov. It cannot be denied that Borissov, who lacks sophisticated education, has good political instincts and exceptional communication talents (at least for his home audience). On an international scene, Borissov, who speaks no foreign languages, was for many years feeling uncomfortable. But as years go by, after Merkel and Orbán, he is the leader of a EU country with the longest experience of EU summits.
Borissov’s preferred topic is how to respond to the migration crisis: by securing the EU’s external borders. So he started to like teaching lessons to the other leaders at EU summits, reminding them on every occasion that he was a visionary. This is how by the time the Bulgarian Presidency was about to start, Borissov was ready and willing to take EU central stage.
Borissov also developed a privileged relationship with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who seems to appreciate colleagues who know the receipt how to stick to power. Unlike any other EU country, Borissov extradited to Turkey all alleged Gülenists sought by the regime in Ankara, without any concern about their legal rights. Thus, Borissov hoped to ensure that Turkey would take back any migrant who may succeed to cross the fence he built at the Bulgaria-Turkey border. It is fair to say that Turkey fulfilled its obligations.
During the term of the Bulgarian Presidency, Borissov was comfortable on power, the only destabilizing factor being its junior coalition partner, the so-called United Patriots. But Borissov knew how to satisfy this greedy and corrupt bunch of extremists. With a few exceptions, they posed no major risk to his government during the country’s EU stint.
In a nutshell, the Bulgarian Presidency was Borissov’s Presidency, it was his personal project. He was always center stage, especially at the two summits: with the Western Balkans in Sofia on 17 May 2018 and with Erdoğan in Varna on 26 March 2018. However, after the wars in former Yugoslavia, Bulgarian society has become totally uninterested in international crises, and foreign affairs issues rarely managed to excite anyone in the country.
Borissov used the Presidency for his personal public relations, but he was however completely unable to explain whether the Presidency had been good for Bulgaria. He didn’t obtain any progress on the issues where Bulgaria expects the EU to deliver: lifting the so-called Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), accession to the internal borders-free Schengen space, accession to the waiting room of the eurozone.
More significantly, during the country’s presidency, reforms in Bulgaria were completely halted. In fact, Borissov lacks understanding about structural reform, his only way of deciding being to release funding with the hope of defusing economic and social conflicts.
The promised reform in education ended with a slight increase in teachers’ salaries. There was no prospect of healthcare reform except for the minister to be replaced again. The reform of the judiciary demanded by the EU, the public and business was not even mentioned. The state energy holding has billions of euros of debt, but the government decided to re-launch expensive old energy projects, so that they could use them as an argument in foreign policy relations with Russia, Turkey and the EU.
Borissov doesn’t like strikes or social unrest, but sees himself as the only arbiter. Indeed, he has concentrated all the power, which has led to paralysis of all institutions. Nobody does anything, all are waiting for the prime minister’s instructions. During the Presidency, the Prime Minister was too busy with the international agenda, many domestic problems accumulated, and Borissov’s ratings went down.
If the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) would come first at the European elections, all pundits agree that this would trigger early parliamentary elections, normally due in 2021. According to most recent opinion polls, GERB and BSP and neck-and-neck.
Thus it could turn out that Borissov would pay a heavy price for his absence from domestic politics during the presidency.
A former minister of Borissov, Hristo Ivanov, said about Borissov that he doesn’t understand what reform means. While he was telling the Bulgarian Prime Minister what reforms are needed to modernize the country and put an end to decades of bad governance, Borissov was drawing highways and pipelines on a piece of paper and said – this is my reform.
The Presidency was to some extent useful for the civil society to express its desiderata to the wider audience of the many thousands of visiting officials and guests. On the day of the inauguration of the Bulgarian Presidency in Sofia, on 11 January 2018, billboards in the centre of Sofia were reading “Employees of the ministry of Interior are PAID LESS than their colleagues in the EU. Their basic [monthly] salary is ONLY €340.”
More significantly, protests in defence of the Pirin National Park, as well as against a controversial highway, got international prominence, thanks to the participation of Ska Keller, co-President of the Green/EFA group in the European Parliament. She got even more publicity when she became victim of the most vulgar and misogynist hate speech which we chose not to repeat, by one of the three leaders of the United Patriots, Valeri Simeonov. Keller, who was still in Sofia, called by phone the leaders of the three EU institutions, to alert them of these violent threats. We assume her life was in danger, because after the verbal attacks by their leader, some of the United Patriots’ supporters were capable of physically attacking her.
Later, Simeonov did another major offense, publicly insulting the mothers of children with inabilities, who were protesting for months in front of the Bulgarian Parliament. The outrage was such that Simeonov, who held the post of Deputy Prime Minister, was forced to resign. Civil society became stronger during the Bulgarian Presidency, one may argue.
Last but not least, the Bulgarian Presidency didn’t contribute to the better coverage of the country’s media of European affairs in general. The Bulgarian press is considered the less free in the EU, and Borissov’s government had made big efforts to avoid critical publications. Part of the Presidency budget was spent for media coverage, but in fact this was hush money.
Realising the dire situation, I created the blog BulgarianPresidency.eu. The government didn’t like this journalistic project, as it was not something it was able to control. A lot of bad things were said about this website, including by the minister responsible for the Presidency, who called it “fake news” and “hate speech”. The Bulgarian government even asked the European Council for help to shut down the website, as it is hosted on the .EU domain. Of course, this attempt failed, and the Bulgarian diplomat who made the request was reminded that in the EU, there is something called press freedom.
In this respect, the Romanian situation is even worse. Journalists in the Commission’s pressroom are surprised by the absence of their Romanian colleagues. It appears that Bucharest has decided to avoid critical publications inspired by the Stalin motto: “there is person, there is a problem; there is no person, there is no problem”.
There are reasons for that. Unlike Borissov, who is immune from criticism thanks to his EPP affiliation, the government of Prime Minister Viorica Dăncilă is under fire from the European Commission over the rule of law. The Romanian journalists could only amplify this criticism.
In reality, corruption, mismanagement and disrespect for justice are at the same level in both countries. The biggest difference is that Romania’s political life is vibrant, with new political forces grabbing the attention of society. Also, the European elections will take place during the Romanian Presidency, which will further galvanise the country’s political life.
Unlike Bulgaria, Romanian civil society is strong, tens of thousands of people have been protesting in defence of the achievements in reforming the judiciary, which the social-democrat Dăncilă government seeks to dismantle. In comparison, protests in neighbouring Bulgaria are in the hundreds.
In both countries the President and the Prime Minister are political foes, but in Romania according to constitution Klaus Iohannis plays a big international role and represents the country at EU summits. He is a personal friend of Juncker and was the successful mayor of Sibiu, the city in Transylvania where the 9 May summit will be held. In Bulgaria, Borissov made sure Rumen Radev would play no role at all in the Presidency program.
On the day of the inauguration of the Romanian Presidency in Bucharest, there were two pressers with Juncker – one with Iohannis, and another one with Dăncilă. Clearly, Juncker showed which of the two he preferred.
Romania’s social-democrat government cannot count on the support of the EU Vice President responsible for the Rule of Law. The Dutch social-democrat Frans Timmermans, Spitzenkandidat for the Party of European Socialists, has no mercy for the Dăncilă government. He is not even trying to play the good cop, leaving the role of bad cop to Juncker.
Juncker has promised to lift CVM for Bulgaria and Romania before the end of his term, although in the case of Romania, it is difficult to imagine how such a thing can happen. Regarding Schengen enlargement, Romania is somewhat in a conflict of interest, because it’s up to the Presidency to put the issue on the agenda. In addition, the general climate for such a decision is not good.
Political power play is most certainly going to eclipse the priorities of the Romanian Presidency, which are void of a strong accent, such as the Western Balkans for the Bulgarian Presidency. Romania has a better administrative capacity than Bulgaria and day-to-day work is likely to proceed smoothly.
Brexit will take centre-stage in the European agenda which for the Romanian Presidency is not a bad thing, because it is managed by other players.
It must be mentioned that the way the Romanian authorities are trying to harm the candidacy of Laura Codruța Kövesi for the first-ever European Prosecutor is casting a dark cloud over those in power in Bucharest.
If the EU is an airplane, the country holding the rotating presidency is not exactly the pilot, but rather the co-pilot. But the way the co-pilot behaves can also put the airplane and its passengers at risk.
I started this article by saying that as a journalist who has followed many presidencies I used to know one thing: Presidencies are good.
But after the Bulgarian Presidency and as the Romanian Presidency unfolds, I’m not so sure.
My take is that after all EU members have had a go at the presidency (last to go is Croatia in 2020), it would be wise to change the treaties and get rid of this bureaucratic extravaganza.