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A Possible Reform of the EU Has Risks for Bulgaria

Published on , , Sofia, Twitter: @AdelinaMarini
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In the EU's older part, one of the main points on the public agenda is the future of the Union. Where to from now on? With whom? How? Treaty changes are being discussed and even leaving the Union. However, this is not a leading topic in the Community's newest part, as in some countries it is not even being discussed at all. Bulgaria, for instance, is entirely consumed by its still unsevered connection with the past and the only topic related to the EU is the level of absorption of EU funds the European taxpayer pays to help the economic catch-up of the new member states. Bulgaria is suffering of a mini Ukrainian syndrome of division of the population of pro-European and pro-Russian, in spite of the fact that the country has been a member of the European Union for 7 years now. Eurozone membership or even in Schengen is completely frozen for an unknown period of time and for reasons that have nothing to do with the public opinion.

And although Bulgaria allegedly had national consensus a decade ago that the right path is that toward European integration, the question today about the country's future has never been more open. The country, where more than half a year anti-government protests have been taken place, although significantly weakened, more and more speed are gaining anti-EU political formations and speech. That speech is being silently passed by by the rulers who, in words, confirm Bulgaria's European membership, but their actions show an alienation from the European system of values. The country is practically suffering from complete apathy about what is going on in the Union of which it is an equal part. This apathy was especially vivid in euinside's unsuccessful attempts to get the opinion of representatives of the government about the currently discussed Treaty changes. The working schedule of the chairwoman of the European affairs committee in Bulgaria's parliament, Ms Denitsa Karadzhova, did not allow such a conversation even on the phone, while Kristian Vigenin, the minister of foreign and EU affairs, did not respond to the invitation at all.

With pleasure and a lot of sadness responded to the invitation Ms Meglena Kuneva, Bulgaria's first EU commissioner. The person who took part in the Convent on the European constitution. In her capacity as a minister of European affairs in Sergey Stanishev's government (2005-2009), she closed the country's accession negotiations. Currently, she is a leader of one of the newest political parties in the country - Bulgaria of the Citizens - which is part of the Reformist Block - a coalition of centre-right parties whose main goal is Bulgaria's European future and implementation of the reforms that have been promised for decades, but never actually done. euinside also talked on the issue with Ivailo Kalfin, a member of the European Parliament, who was a deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs when Bulgaria joined the EU. He is one of the few Bulgarian politicians who are very active on EU stage.  Domestically, he recently split from the ruling Coalition for Bulgaria of PES leader Sergey Stanishev to join the movement of former President Georgi Parvanov. Always willing to discuss European issues is also Dimitar Bechev, chief of the Sofia office of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

Bulgaria behaves as a country that is still in an accession regime

All three interlocutors of euinside were unanimous that a possible opening of the EU treaty for changes hides significant risks for Bulgaria. According to Ms Kuneva, who, indeed, spoke with much passion on the issue and was obvious she misses her time in Brussels, in Bulgaria Europe's future is not discussed at all. "And the other big issue, if we keep that direction of the thought - a federal Europe or with element of federatively or rather a common market? What do we need? What did we discuss in Bulgaria? We rely entirely on what we will be told from the outside". One of the things that strike her the most is that no analyses are made in Bulgaria and the country needs a national analysis on should we go for more integration, which means also setting a deadline for eurozone accession.

Meglena Kuneva is not afraid of the opening of the treaties itself because she is convinced that the Lisbon treaty is a compromise. Currently, the bigger part of the member states share a common currency, practically there is a common market, there is an economic and monetary union, the banking union is also under construction, which means that all the elements for single functioning are available that are typical for the national or federal states. What is not there, though, is adequate governance. "And here somewhere is hidden the challenge that the current treaties cannot respond to", Meglena Kuneva believes. That is why, she is convinced that the initially developed European constitution, rejected at referenda in France and The Netherlands, was the right solution. The rejected draft provided a much more comprehensive response to the current issues. The biggest of which, she says, is that at the moment there is no "strong and fascinating vision about the way forward for Europe".

Dimitar Bechev, from the ECFR, is of the opinion that if it comes to opening of the EU treaty for a reform, that will be for only cosmetic changes because experience shows that a treaty revision takes at least a decade and there are many points where it can be blocked. If something were to be achieved, that would be a "visual retreat to the benefit of extremist parties and the political attitudes in society", he said and added that the Bulgarians will be harmed, but not by limitation of rights, but by fuelling an isolationist atmosphere or, to put it differently, by reaffirming the second class of European membership. The biggest risk for Mr Bechev, however, is the institutionalising of the system of many circles in the EU. If the euro area were to separate as a compact European core, it will have a budget of its own, which will raise the issue of a parliamentary body to adopt it and monitor its implementation. This means that a genuine union will be established within the EU and all the others will be second class members, the analyst explained. He recommended Bulgaria to do its utmost to avoid such an option. "Of course, let integration deepen, but this should happen at a level of 28, not at the level of 18".

Ivailo Kalfin, MEP from the group of Socialists and Democrats, shares the opinion that treaty change means a long and complicated procedure with unexpected end. "I believe that all wishes to open the treaties, mainly related to the institutional recovery of the euro area and its institutions, hides a really big risk, including for the British pretences and other pretences as well, which means that such an opening of the treaties will be very risky". Among the risks the MEP outlined are reducing the effect of some parts of the European legislation related to the protection of external borders, migration policy and social rights. The biggest risk is the reform to end with a loose EU. In any case, though, if it comes to a reform, it should be done via a convent so that all interested parties can take part. Mr Kalfin is convinced that treaty change is not necessary because the current legislation allows for strengthening of the institutions, including in the euro area.

Bulgaria should adopt the euro

The reform of the EU, demanded by Germany, is aimed at deepening of the integration in the euro area. This puts high on the agenda the issue whether it is not high time Bulgaria to decide when it will adopt the single currency. Quite a controversy, for that matter, given that the country is obliged to join the euro area in its accession agreement, but no specific dates were set back then. That is why, many of the new member states took advantage of that bug to postpone as much as possible their accession for until the time the crisis in the single currency area is gone. An exception are Latvia and Lithuania, as the former adopted the euro as of January 1st this year and the latter is willing to do it next year. And if we assume that the two countries are too small to make a difference, then Poland's position should be taken into account. Recently, in an interview, Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said the eurozone is on its way to become a "genuine EU" which is why Poland should join. However, he did not set any deadlines and some sort of a hesitation whether this is the right possible decision could still be felt.

But it is a fact that there is a realisation in Poland of the risk the biggest new member state, that has succeeded to line up among the key factors in European politics, to remain isolated from the most important processes. And if that is a threat to Poland, we can imagine what the situation with Bulgaria is. Meglena Kuneva believes that soon all the new member states will adopt the euro. Bulgaria, however, cannot fulfil the criteria. In 2007, the country was in much better shaoe than now. The former chief negotiator of Bulgaria with the EU rejected with resentment the thesis that the eurozone is not the most attractive place at the moment. "This is like the saying that the grape is too sour", she said. The economic and monetary union (EMU) established a stabilisation mechanism, a banking union is under construction which Bulgaria has no access to. "God forbid something happened, but what then? The question is why to insure ourselves. Because when you get insured, you insure your own produce. You, in fact, participate in a common fund. I think, Bulgaria needs good governance. Such good governance I can't see coming from the inside", Ms Kuneva concluded.

It is to the interest of Bulgaria to be part of the euro area, says Dimitar Bechev, "at least because of factors like convergence of interest rates". Because of the Bulgarian national currency being pegged to the euro, practically Bulgaria is a member of the eurozone, but without rights. In the long term, because of the political value and economic impact, euro area membership is even more important than joining the Schengen, the analyst believes. If there are troubles in the euro area, they affect us directly even now because of the currency board. If we join, however, this will give us additional guarantees and will be a signal for the foreign investors because it would mean confidence in Bulgaria. Mr Bechev entirely rejected the possibility Bulgaria's joining the euro to bring any negative consequences. Regarding the fears that membership could take additional dose of sovereignty away, he rejected them saying that it is now that the country has no sovereignty because it has no monetary policy of its own.

If Bulgaria joined the EMU, that would mean that there will be Bulgarian participation in the governance of the ECB and the new financial institutions. Sofia will have a direct impact on political decisions. At the moment, Bulgaria has no sovereignty at all, he said and added that the country is facing two choices. "One is to get rid of the currency board and move on toward a system of floating exchange rate with all the risks that brings. The other, a more serious one that could bring some dose of sovereignty, is joining the euro area and receiving the corresponding set of rules".

For his part, Ivailo Kalfin divided the question in two parts. From an economic perspective, he said, Bulgaria should join the euro whenever the economy is converged as much as possible with the economies in the EMU. This would mean, though, a period of more intensive and outpacing development which, for its part, means a much longer perspective because Bulgaria is too far from approximation with the EMU economies. But from a political perspective, Bulgaria could lose a lot of it stayed in the EU's periphery and that is why, politically, it is better the country to be part of the eurozone, is the opinion of the former foreign minister.

Bulgaria - a victim of domestic politics

Dimitar Bechev, Meglena Kuneva and Ivailo Kalfin were unanimous that Bulgaria is a victim both of its own domestic politics and the internal problems of other member states. According to Ms Kuneva, the big migration pressure does not come from Eastern Europe, but from third countries, which, in most cases, have colonial links with the former centres. "I think that, rather, Eastern Europe can be something like an easy to spell reason than something that is based on facts. The question is that always when an image is created, it is very easy to sell to people who are frustrated that they fail, that they have no link with their own country, theat they have no link with the EU". Regarding the domestic problems, Bulgaria has "disconnected" from the EU. In the past 7 years, Bulgarian politicians have failed to develop a reflex to negotiate as equal because, in order to be able to do that, they should have the strength of their state and that is what is missing, Meglena Kuneva added.

"Strength from the state is drawn only when you speak directly to citizens. Only then you can withstand everything - opposition, hits under the waist, disagreement within your own party. We do not form internal consensus on any issue. Europe has shown until now great solidarity and has been very social. Is this good for a country that still has to catch up? Yes, it is. But this will no longer be! Europe will no longer be such", she concluded.

Dimitar Bechev believes that the debate in some EU members for renegotiation of some of the four fundamental freedoms, namely the free movement of labour, will "set the clock back". This will respond to populist concerns, but in no way will it resolve the problems. "People like Cameron exploit the fears of part of their voters because, even under the currently functioning rules, in fact, you have no automatic access to the social state of other countries". To come to such a debate, however, the lack of a strong Bulgarian policy is to blame on this issue. Dimitar Bechev gave several examples that show that Bulgaria did not react adequately to protect its citizens in other member states from violations of the European legislation.

"I believe the government should unequivocally demonstrate to the Bulgarian citizens that it supports them because this is precisely why it is in power. One third of the Bulgarians at the moment work outside the country. A large share of this one third are in the EU. This is not an abstract issue. It is not an abstract area of foreign policy. There is no problem if we speak hard, seek allies and insist on adherence to the existing regulations in the EU", he recommended. The most tragic fact from this entire discourse, though, remains the domestic one. "We are still solving domestic issues", he explained. Currently, Bulgaria is not behaving as a real player that can protect its own interests, but as a country which is still in an accession regime. "For now I see, that Bulgaria is like some sort of a relative who should not be mentioned, should not be showed in public because we will be ashamed if seen together".

"I believe that the evil genius at the moment in our country is called 'conscious support of uneducation and consciously maintained apathy'. That feeling 'nothing depends on me', destroyed the country", Meglena Kuneva concluded with a slight desperation in her voice. In the mean time, according to a recent Eurobarometer poll, a majority of Bulgarians (60%) are optimistic about the future of the Union. The pessimists are a little more than a quarter. The question is, however, to what extent are they really well informed about the future and do they see themselves as part of it. This can best be checked via referenda. However, here, too, there are huge risks, as Meglena Kuneva explained. According to her, lately everything that can be corrupted is being corrupted in Bulgaria. "And by corruption I don't mean money. Thinking is being corrupted". Nonetheless, she is of the opinion that referenda are the only solution to break the stereotype that "nothing depends on you".

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