As you may or may not know, every six months one of the Member States of the European Union assumes the rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union (also known as Council of Ministers). In practice, this means that the current government of the presiding Member State determines the agenda of the aforementioned Council, sets a work program aimed at enhancing the policies of the European Union, and chairs the planned meetings.
Politicians diplomatically say that this is an occasion for each Member State to exercise leadership and to promote policies it is truly committed to. The sad reality, however, is that it has very little significance. When Malta, for example, was presenting the report on its Presidency before the European Parliament in July 2017, only about 30 out of the 751 Members of the European Parliament attended the sitting. The President of the European Commission famously told the European Parliament: “You are ridiculous…If [Malta’s PM] was Ms Merkel or Mr Macron, we would have a full house.”
Indeed, the Presidency matters more if it is in the hands of an influential Member State like France or Germany. For smaller Member States, as emphasized by reputable media, it is just an “extended advertising campaign.” I would also add that it gives analysts a chance to examine the achievements of the Member State and to shed light on its pressing issues.
In January 2018, Bulgaria’s current government will assume the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, so ultimately it seems important to see what Bulgaria has accomplished so far, particularly after its 2007 entry into the European Union, and what its government can offer Europe.
Let’s take a look at some statistics and reports first!
Bulgaria – a country harassed by its incompetent governments
In 2015, a survey by Eurostat discovered that Bulgaria is the unhappiest country in the European Union. Bulgaria can boast of beautiful nature, rich historical heritage, wonderful people and good food. So, why are Bulgarian citizens so unhappy?
It is well-known that Bulgaria is the poorest country in the European Union: it has the lowest GDP per capita in the European Union according to Eurostat. In fact, statistics from the World Bank show that Foreign Direct Investment has been steadily declining since 2007 too (See Figure 1 below). Key reasons for that include the lack of rule of law and the high expropriation risk. It is not surprising that there are four pending cases against Bulgaria before the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes in Washington DC.
Moreover, according to Transparency International’s 2016 Report, Bulgaria not only is the most corrupt country in the European Union, but it is even more corrupt than failed states in Asia and Africa. Corruption is so endemic and deeply rooted in the country that recently Bulgaria’s Minister of Justice Tsetska Tsacheva who surely will be chairing meetings during the Presidency said she thought there was a difference between corruption and crime. Indeed?! You can read her precious thoughts here.
Talking about corruption, Bulgaria’s institutions do not benefit from public approval. According to a recent public opinion poll, for example, public confidence in Bulgaria’s Parliament is 9%, public confidence in Bulgaria’s Prosecution is 6%, and public confidence in Bulgaria’s Judiciary is 8%.
Surely this takes us to the state of Bulgaria’s legal system and the (dis)respect of human rights. The Venice Commission has already referred to the “Soviet model” of Bulgaria’s prosecution which turns it into a source of corruption and blackmail and creates opportunities to use the institution to target political opponents. Bulgaria is one of the only two European Union Member States, which are subjected to the Cooperation and Verification mechanism because of their problems with corruption and lack of judicial independence. In its 2016 report, the European Commission states that “…over the past ten years, overall progress has not been as fast as hoped for and a number of significant challenges remain to be addressed.” The 2017 report is not positive either: Bulgaria has not achieved any of the benchmarks set for it in 2007. Bulgaria is an unfortunate leader in losing most of its cases before the European Court on Human Rights too: the court has repeatedly emphasized that Bulgaria has systemic issues of violating the European Convention on Human Rights.
And to make matters worse, in 2017 Bulgaria’s government enacted scandalous amendments to its Code of Criminal Procedure, which overtly violate Bulgaria’s Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights. The Association of Bulgarian Judges, the Association of Bulgarian Lawyers, and many NGOs protested, but Bulgaria’s government did not show any concern.
Yes, that is the same government, which will preside the Council of the European Union and set its agenda. So, let’s talk about the agenda, shall we?!
Lost in the woods
When the government of a Member State presides the Council of the European Union, it has to state and advertise its priorities beforehand. In July 2017, the Minister responsible for coordinating the Presidency said that Bulgaria’s priorities would be “consensus, competitiveness, and cohesion.” Vague indeed.
By September 2017, the same Minister had a better idea: “We are looking for economic development, a digital single market. EU’s cohesion and strategy for the future. We will organize debates on our priorities. They are united in 5 clusters. The first is security and justice. One of the main priorities is the Western Balkans–not only their European future, but also security and migration…”
At the end of November 2017, Bulgaria’s government finally launched a website dedicated to its Presidency of the Council of the EU: https://eu2018bg.bg/. The priorities, however, did not get much clearer: the site refers to the future of Europe and young people, the digital economy, security and stability, and the Western Balkans.
Economic development? The future of Europe and young people? The statistics on Bulgarian GDP and FDI above “certainly” show that Bulgaria’s government should lead the debate: after all, it contributed to the downfall. Expropriation, no rule of law, and corruption on a massive scale: Bulgarian politicians know how to chase investors away. As a result, according to national statistics, more Bulgarians work abroad than in Bulgaria! It is also not surprising that according to Eurostat, 45.6% of Bulgarian children are at risk of poverty and social exclusion.
Digital Single Market? This is a long story involving a major scandal I do not want to get into. Bulgaria’s initial EU Commissioner resigned half-way through her term, so a new Commissioner was appointed. The first Commissioner was responsible for the Budget, but for some mysterious reason the second Commissioner received a different portfolio: Digital Single Market. But does this mean Bulgaria’s government can lead discussions on the digital economy? Let’s take a look at DESI (The Digital Economy and Society Index), the index which tracks the digital competitiveness of each Member State: Bulgaria is 27th out of 28 Member States of the EU.
Security, justice, stability? With compromised institutions, as evidenced by the statistics above, Bulgarians certainly feel very secure. Bulgaria’s politicians can export the know-how.
The European future of Western Balkans? This is my personal favorite priority! Let’s make a comparison with Serbia, which is neither an EU Member State nor a NATO Member. It has a similar population and similar GDP to Bulgaria based on statistics from the World Bank, which makes comparisons relevant:
- Serbia is less corrupt than Bulgaria according to the Corruption Perception Index by Transparency International.
- Serbia has more FDI than Bulgaria according to data from World Bank (See Figure 2 below).
- According to data from the World Bank, more individuals use the Internet in Serbia than in Bulgaria (See Figure 3 below).
- Bulgaria suffers considerably more from brain drain than Serbia. In fact, as mentioned above, according to national statistics, more Bulgarians work abroad than in Bulgaria!
- According to the Freedom of Press Index of Reporters Without Borders, Serbia is 66th while Bulgaria is 109th.
What can Bulgaria teach Serbia then? Not much!
The Emperor has no clothes
Ultimately, as the Andersen fairy tale goes: “The Emperor has no clothes.” Bulgaria setting the agenda for the EU is a travesty. It is a country with systemic issues in which innocent people suffer on a daily basis. It is a country in desperate need of help by EU institutions. Sadly, however, EU institutions keep turning a blind eye to what is going on. Just like the noblemen in the Andersen tale, they keep carrying the imaginary train of the Emperor. The charades need to stop.
If interested in Bulgaria’s systemic breaches of the Treaty on European Union, you can also read my article “The Rise of Modern European Dictatorships and EU’s Dual Standards on Human Rights” here.
If you are concerned about corruption and the rule of law in Bulgaria, you can read and sign my petition in support of Tzvetan Vassilev’s application under the US Magnitsky Act here.