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Comment: Bulgaria Ignores EU Crisis

Bulgarian politicians shield public from implications of European constitution collapse.
By Milena Borden

As Bulgarians head for the polls on June 25 the country’s politicians are seemingly bent on ignoring the EU enlargement crisis in their midst.

Since the French and the Dutch referenda, it has become clear that the proposed EU constitution will not be adopted by member states, forcing the issue back to the drawing board.

But while this turmoil has clear implications for Bulgaria, which is scheduled to join in 2007, Bulgaria's leaders have so far turned a blind eye to the furore.

The prime minister, Simeon Saxe-Coburgothski, and the foreign minister, Solomon Passy, who backed the now doomed-looking European constitution, see nothing to be gained from answering tricky questions on Europe's future.

And on the eve of the election, other politicians are also avoiding debate about the crisis in Europe with most continuing to rely on a diet of stale rhetoric about Euro-Atlantic integration, telling voters that the project is well taken care of by politicians in Sofia and Brussels.

Issues such as how to balance national interests with those of Brussels and how to respond to unfavourable trends in EU policy on accession and enlargement have yet to be properly addressed.

Part of the problem is that after four years in government, the National Movement Simeon II, NMSII, is running out of steam. According to recent polls, its support has declined from 46 per cent in 2001 to between 15 and 25 per cent today.

Although it completed negotiations with the EU and signed its accession treaty in April, many voters feel it has not defended Bulgaria's interests in Europe. They also complain it has managed a "top-down" integration process that has not sufficiently involved or informed citizens.

The former communist Bulgarian Socialist Party, BSP, has tried to persuade the public it can do better than the NMSII in defending the national interest in Europe. One election promise is to renegotiate the closure of the nuclear power station at Kozlodui, a condition of EU membership.

Though with polls showing wildly fluctuating levels of support, ranging anywhere from six to 36 per cent, whether the BSP will get that chance remains unclear. But many believe a party with an ideological heritage like the BSP's cannot take Bulgaria into Europe.

Ivan Mladenov, an academic and media commentator, says a BSP-led Bulgaria might damage the country's reputation. "The party has no international credibility because it has not reformed itself," he said.

"It will reinstate people from the previous government that led to the economic collapse in 1996. They will then indulge in internal fighting and fail to get vital EU funding."

The BSP insists that this is not the case. It points out that after eight years in opposition, its language on European integration is far more assertive and constructive. The party says it wants to speed up the integration process and prevent any delays in obtaining EU membership.

The centre-right opposition group United Democratic Forces, UDF, also insists successful EU enlargement is its foreign policy priority. But with support for the party crumbling, the UDF may be reduced to the role of minor coalition partner after the election. This gives its statements a hollow ring, as if they have been adopted to comply with EU policy rather than reflecting real commitment.

Some commentators look to newer parties to handle European issues in Bulgaria more vigorously.

One such party is the Democrats for Strong Bulgaria, DSB, whose popularity is rising and seems likely to cross the four per cent threshold needed to enter parliament. The DSB insists Bulgaria's communist legacy is still a grave obstacle to Europe, as is the penetration by anti-reformist, ex-secret servicemen into the top echelons of government.

Its European policy was shaped by Ivan Kostov, the former prime minister who opened accession negotiations in 1998. Kostov says Bulgaria is still not prepared for the EU and must accept responsibility for its slow improvement.

"It all depends on us. We must reform," he said. "If we are to become a European country, we have to have strong leaders, economy, culture, politics and rule of law."

If the present NMSII government survives, perhaps in a new coalition, it is likely to continue its policy of hiding behind the EU, leaving it to Brussels to impose potentially unpopular reforms.

A left-wing government, on the other hand, may find it hard to shed the practice of dealing with Brussels according to party-political interests – for example, delaying vital reforms dealing with the judiciary and corruption, as these would affect party supporters in high places. It is widely believed, for example, that the pressure to renegotiate the closure of Kozlodui comes from lobby groups within the Socialist party and does not reflect any serious assessment of Bulgaria's economic interests.

Whichever party wins the vote will need to be more open in the future about the challenges facing the European project both at home and in Brussels. Without a more honest debate on the problems lying ahead, there is a danger that disillusioned Bulgarians could relapse into isolationism and Euroscepticism.

Milena Borden is a lecturer on EU enlargement at the University of Reading.

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