Bulgaria

1. Euroscepticism and European Parliament elections

Domestic perspective on European Parliament elections

The elec­toral cam­paign for the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment (EP) elec­tions in Bul­gar­ia was main­ly focused on domes­tic polit­i­cal affairs and Euro­pean top­ics were either bare­ly touched upon or were used to pur­sue pop­ulist goals. An addi­tion­al rea­son for that was the inter­nal polit­i­cal uncer­tain­ty that start­ed in Feb­ru­ary 2013 when the gov­ern­ment of Boyko Borissov saw itself forced to resign because of wide­spread demon­stra­tions in the coun­try. There­fore, there were no con­struc­tive debates on impor­tant Euro­pean top­ics nei­ther between the lead­ers of the main polit­i­cal par­ties, nor between the lead­ing can­di­dates run­ning for the EP. Instead, main par­ties pre­ferred to address their core groups of vot­ers whom they pre­dom­i­nant­ly count­ed on for sup­port.

The only excep­tions were the lead­ing can­di­dates from the new­ly formed cen­tre-right Reformist Bloc and ABV – a mild­ly nation­al­ist move­ment, seced­ed from the Bul­gar­i­an Social­ist Par­ty (BSP) in the months before the elec­tions – respec­tive­ly Megle­na Kune­va and Ivai­lo Kalfin. Main­ly because of their back­ground (Kune­va was Min­is­ter of Euro­pean Affairs in 2002–2006 and Euro­pean Com­mis­sion­er for Con­sumer Pro­tec­tion between 2007 and 2010; Ivai­lo Kalfin was appoint­ed Min­is­ter of For­eign Affairs between 2005 and 2009 and then elect­ed Mem­ber of the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment in 2009–2014), they tried to pro­voke a real debate on top­ics of impor­tance for the coun­try and the EU, though with­out achiev­ing any con­crete results.

Nev­er­the­less, EU-relat­ed top­ics were not absolute­ly miss­ing – BSP called for a more social Europe while Borissov’s Cit­i­zens for Euro­pean Devel­op­ment of Bul­gar­ia (GERB) warned of a new freeze of Euro­pean funds for Bul­gar­ia as was the case dur­ing the gov­er­nance of the BSP-led col­la­tion between 2005 and 2009. Rela­tions with Rus­sia and reac­tions to the cri­sis in Ukraine also gained atten­tion since the Bul­gar­i­an response to these top­ics was seen by oppo­si­tion par­ties as a test in front of the coun­try to make a choice between Europe and Rus­sia.

The EU-wide fron­trun­ners’ role in the Bul­gar­i­an elec­toral cam­paign remained lim­it­ed to their per­son­al par­tic­i­pa­tion at the offi­cial open­ing cer­e­monies of the elec­toral cam­paigns of GERB and BSP. The media atten­tion on the state­ments of Jean-Claude Junck­er and Mar­tin Schulz seemed not to influ­ence vot­ers to the expect­ed extent.

Pro-European majority and Eurosceptic margins

Accord­ing to a recent Euro­barom­e­ter pub­lic opin­ion sur­vey, Bul­gar­ia is one of the mem­ber-states with rel­a­tive­ly high lev­els of trust in the Euro­pean insti­tu­tions reflect­ing pro-Euro­pean moods among the Bul­gar­i­an soci­ety. One of the rea­sons for this is the fact that in gen­er­al, Bul­gar­i­ans do not trust their nation­al insti­tu­tions and they believe that the Euro­pean ones are work­ing much more effec­tive­ly. Unlike the com­mon Euro­pean pic­ture of strength­en­ing euroscep­tic views and an upward trend of anti-EU par­ties, euroscep­ti­cism in Bul­gar­ia is still not strong­ly expressed despite the efforts of some nation­al­ist par­ties to use it in the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment elec­toral cam­paign in 2014.

Euroscep­tic mes­sages were observed main­ly in the cam­paign of the extrem­ist and ultra-nation­al­ist par­ty Ata­ka, which start­ed its elec­toral cam­paign in Moscow and declared its sup­port for the Russ­ian posi­tions dur­ing the cri­sis in Ukraine. As a mat­ter of fact, the whole cam­paign of the nation­al­ist par­ty relied on anti-EU mes­sages and pro-Russ­ian posi­tions aim­ing at attract­ing the Rus­sophile con­stituen­cy in Bul­gar­ia. As it turned out lat­er, this euroscep­tic behav­iour brought just the oppo­site result and the par­ty failed to have even a sin­gle MEP elect­ed in con­trast to the two seats it obtained dur­ing the pre­vi­ous EP elec­tions.

Thus, even though some euroscep­tic mes­sages emerged dur­ing the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment elec­toral cam­paign, the pro-Euro­pean trend con­tin­ues to be dom­i­nant in Bul­gar­ia.

A clear winner and the rise of ‘soft euroscepticism’

The 2014 Euro­pean elec­tions turnout in Bul­gar­ia (35.15 per­cent) was below the 2009 fig­ures (37.5 per­cent) and sig­nif­i­cant­ly low­ers than the turnout in the last nation­al elec­tions held in May 2013 (51.3 per­cent). These fig­ures could be explained with the declin­ing social ener­gy after almost one year of anti- gov­ern­ment protests and the per­cep­tions that the EP could not change people’s every­day life.

Beyond any doubt, it is the Borissov’s GERB (part of the EPP) that was the win­ner in the elec­tions by obtain­ing 30.4 per­cent and receiv­ing six seats in the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment (five MEPs in 2009–2014). The coali­tion in pow­er suf­fered a con­sid­er­able defeat – BSP (part of the Pro­gres­sive Alliance of Social­ists and Democ­rats) received four seats (no change in num­ber in com­par­i­son to the 2009 EP elec­tions, though, with less sup­port), while its coali­tion part­ner, the Move­ment of Rights and Free­doms (DPS) increased its num­ber of MEPs by one to reach four rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

Two oth­er polit­i­cal play­ers that did not par­tic­i­pate in the pre­vi­ous EP elec­tions reg­is­tered a more favourable result. The Reformist Bloc received 6.45 per­cent of the people’s sup­port and will be rep­re­sent­ed by one MEP, whilst sur­pris­ing­ly enough; the new­ly formed soft euroscep­tic and pop­ulist par­ty, Bul­gar­ia with­out Cen­sor­ship (BWC) reg­is­tered a break­through with 10.66 per­cent of the votes and will send two rep­re­sen­ta­tives to the EP. Its cam­paign was held under the slo­gan “Bul­gar­ia deserves bet­ter” and argued that the Bul­gar­i­an EU mem­ber­ship has not lived up to the people’s expec­ta­tion and blamed Brus­sels, along with domes­tic elites, for this fail­ure.

Even­tu­al­ly, the out­come from the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment elec­tions was con­sid­ered a non-con­fi­dence vote and a rea­son for ear­ly elec­tions to be held by the end of 2014 accord­ing to the pre­lim­i­nary talks polit­i­cal par­ties had in the weeks after the elec­tions.

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2. The EU’s Neighbourhood

Striking a balance between the EU and Russia

“Always with Ger­many, nev­er against Rus­sia”. The basic prin­ci­ple of the Bul­gar­i­an for­eign pol­i­cy under Tsar Boris III in the first years of the World War II seems to be still valid nowa­days, though mod­i­fied to “Nev­er against Rus­sia, nev­er against the Euro­pean Union”. This lit­er­al­ly explains the approach the social­ist-led coali­tion applies in its rela­tions to Rus­sia and the Euro­pean Union as a fol­low-up on the Crimea cri­sis and in the field of ener­gy.

The bal­ance game the Bul­gar­i­an gov­ern­ment tries to play is not only because of the rel­a­tive­ly good per­cep­tion Rus­sia enjoys in Bul­gar­ia in con­trast to oth­er for­mer com­mu­nist coun­tries. This image is to a large extent due to Russia’s role in the lib­er­a­tion of Bul­gar­ia and restora­tion of the Bul­gar­i­an state­hood in the late 19th cen­tu­ry. How­ev­er, the government’s dou­ble-talk stems from the strong Rus­sia sym­pa­thy the con­stituents of the social­ist par­ty tra­di­tion­al­ly express, on the one hand, and the country’s com­mit­ment to EU posi­tions on the oth­er. This was clear­ly shown in the reac­tions dur­ing the events in Ukraine when vot­ers of the social­ist par­ty, whose leader Sergei Stan­i­shev chairs the Par­ty of Euro­pean Social­ists (PES), were rather dis­ap­point­ed with the country’s offi­cial state­ments and demand­ed a more Rus­sia-friend­ly posi­tion in the debate on impos­ing EU sanc­tions on Rus­sia. In fact, sur­veys from the first half of 2014 reflect­ed a divid­ed pub­lic opin­ion on Rus­sia and the EU’s response to the Crimean cri­sis.

Bul­gar­i­an rela­tions with Rus­sia are also dom­i­nat­ed by the ener­gy top­ic. The coun­try is depen­dent on Russ­ian imports for 90 per­cent of its gas sup­plies; oper­ates a Russ­ian-type nuclear pow­er plant; and has anoth­er nuclear plant in the pipeline (ini­tial­ly start­ed with Russ­ian com­pa­nies but with­out def­i­nite plans for the con­tin­u­a­tion of its con­struc­tion). Addi­tion­al­ly, Bul­gar­ia was amongst the EU mem­bers crit­i­cized by the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion for sign­ing a bilat­er­al agree­ment with Rus­sia as part of the South Stream project. This is why Bul­gar­ia was con­sid­ered one of the top “slack­ers” in the EU with­in the “Rela­tions with Rus­sia on Ener­gy Issues” com­po­nent of the 2014 Euro­pean For­eign Pol­i­cy Score­card, issued by the Euro­pean Coun­cil on For­eign Rela­tions.

Rela­tions to Rus­sia in the above-men­tioned fields are expect­ed to increas­ing­ly dom­i­nate the debates in the coun­try also in regard to the ear­ly elec­tions sched­uled for the begin­ning of 2014’s last quar­ter. A dif­fer­ent pol­i­cy direc­tion, which is more assertive against Rus­sia, can only be expect­ed if the new gov­ern­ment has a sta­ble major­i­ty in par­lia­ment and the will to tack­le the sen­si­tive polit­i­cal issues.

Support to the Eastern Partnership and missed opportunities

Along with the Bul­gar­i­an and Roman­ian acces­sion in 2007, the Black Sea region gained addi­tion­al atten­tion also due to its imme­di­ate geo­graph­i­cal prox­im­i­ty to the EU. In this regard, the wider Black Sea region emerged as a (new) pos­si­bil­i­ty for active Bul­gar­i­an for­eign pol­i­cy engage­ment. How­ev­er, pre­oc­cu­pied with inter­nal issues and strug­gling to find a sus­tain­able exter­nal focus between the West­ern Balka­ns and the Mid­dle East, Black Sea coun­tries seemed not to be a high pri­or­i­ty for sev­er­al con­sec­u­tive gov­ern­ments.

Unlike oth­er new mem­ber states, Bul­gar­ia missed the oppor­tu­ni­ty for a more proac­tive approach towards the EU’s East­ern Part­ner­ship (EaP). The coun­try reit­er­at­ed many times its offi­cial posi­tion that the three key EaP coun­tries, Ukraine, Moldo­va and Geor­gia, need long-term Euro­pean prospects but could do more to sup­port the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion in deflect­ing Russ­ian pres­sure from East­ern Part­ner­ship coun­tries. Civ­il soci­ety, non-gov­ern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions and busi­ness also failed to take full advan­tage of the shared his­to­ry and new coop­er­a­tion oppor­tu­ni­ties.

Largely supportive of Turkey’s EU bid

As one of the new­com­ers in the EU, Bul­gar­ia declares firm sup­port for all coun­tries with an EU acces­sion per­spec­tive and Turkey is not an excep­tion. All Bul­gar­i­an gov­ern­ments since 2007 and major polit­i­cal par­ties con­firmed this pol­i­cy line in accor­dance with the good-neigh­bourly rela­tions both coun­tries main­tain and Turkey’s sup­port for Bulgaria’s NATO acces­sion more than decade ago.

How­ev­er, since Bulgaria’s rela­tions to Turkey are a sen­si­tive ques­tion for the broad­er pub­lic, main­ly due to his­tor­i­cal and geo­graph­ic rea­sons as well as deeply-root­ed prej­u­dices, every now and then small nation­al­ist par­ties ques­tion Turkey’s EU acces­sion. A failed attempt to hold a ref­er­en­dum on Turkey’s EU mem­ber­ship in 2010 and only spo­radic sur­veys on the pub­lic sup­port for the country’s pos­si­ble Euro­pean future show that the gen­er­al pub­lic is aware that this top­ic is cur­rent­ly not on the EU’s agen­da.

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3. Power relations in the EU

In favour of German leadership and austerity

In gen­er­al, Ger­many is pos­i­tive­ly per­ceived by most Bul­gar­i­ans which auto­mat­i­cal­ly leads to a sup­port­ive eval­u­a­tion of its role in the Euro­pean Union. Since the Euro Cri­sis there have not been any con­sid­er­able dis­cus­sions on Germany’s role in the EU due to the fact that Bul­gar­ia is not a Euro­zone mem­ber and has not been direct­ly affect­ed by the “aus­ter­i­ty vs. growth” debate in the EU. In fact, the country’s cur­ren­cy is con­nect­ed to the euro accord­ing to the Cur­ren­cy Board reg­u­la­tions adopt­ed in 1997. One of the most obvi­ous impli­ca­tions is the fixed exchange rate between Bul­gar­i­a’s cur­ren­cy and an ‘anchor’ cur­ren­cy, ini­tial­ly the Deutsche Mark and after­wards the Euro. Thus, with a cur­ren­cy pegged to the sin­gle Euro­pean cur­ren­cy, Bul­gar­ia can­not par­tic­i­pate in the deci­sion-mak­ing process in the Euro Zone and is there­fore rather a pas­sive recip­i­ent of Euro Area deci­sions.

Since Germany’s posi­tions on the broad­er EU agen­da are fol­lowed with sig­nif­i­cant atten­tion, every now and then high-lev­el Bul­gar­i­an politi­cians express their opin­ion on Ger­many and its role in the EU. In late Jan­u­ary 2012, the then new­ly elect­ed Bul­gar­i­an Pres­i­dent, Rosen Plevneliev, in an inter­view for “Finan­cial Times Deutsch­land” sup­port­ed the idea for Ger­many to have a lead­ing role in Europe and for a hard­er line in con­trol­ling pub­lic spend­ing. In his state­ment, Plevneliev voiced his firm con­vic­tion that Ger­man poli­cies will lead to a stronger Europe and stressed that the Ger­man views on fis­cal sta­bil­i­ty must become a top pri­or­i­ty in Europe although aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures should not hin­der eco­nom­ic growth. In oth­er words, pub­lic resources must be used for invest­ment. Boyko Borissov, Bulgaria’s Prime Min­is­ter in 2009–2013, con­firmed his sup­port for Merkel-led Ger­many sev­er­al times dur­ing his term of office and reit­er­at­ed it lat­er as leader of the GERB, the biggest polit­i­cal par­ty in the coun­try (in oppo­si­tion since May 2013). Rea­sons for his unwa­ver­ing sup­port are, on the one hand, the good rela­tions with the Chris­t­ian Demo­c­ra­t­ic Union/ Chris­t­ian Social Union in Bavaria also with­in the Euro­pean People’s Par­ty and, on the oth­er hand, shared visions for imple­ment­ing a strict fis­cal pol­i­cy in EU mem­ber states.

Consistent fiscal discipline and its payoffs

Being out­side the Euro­zone, the “aus­ter­i­ty vs. growth” debate in Bul­gar­ia adopts a domes­tic rather than Euro­pean per­spec­tive. It emerges usu­al­ly dur­ing elec­tion cam­paigns as was, for instance, the case dur­ing the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment elec­tion cam­paign. Nev­er­the­less, the debate does not reflect a real com­pe­ti­tion between oppos­ing visions and even­tu­al­ly remains at pop­ulist lev­el aim­ing main­ly at addi­tion­al vot­ing sup­port. In fact, a strict fis­cal pol­i­cy was active­ly pur­sued by four con­sec­u­tive Bul­gar­i­an gov­ern­ments con­sist­ing of dif­fer­ent coali­tions includ­ing all major par­ties in the peri­od between 1998 and 2013.

In the last ten years (2004–2013), Bul­gar­i­a’s aver­age bud­get deficit was ‑0.4. In 2013 alone, it reached ‑1.5 per­cent of GDP in 2013. Sim­i­lar­ly, the gen­er­al gov­ern­ment gross debt totalled approx­i­mate­ly 20 per­cent over the observed ten-year peri­od and 18.9 per­cent of the coun­try’s GDP in 2013, thus plac­ing Bul­gar­ia after Esto­nia (10 per­cent) and before Lux­em­burg (23.1 per­cent). Thus, this south-east­ern Euro­pean coun­try suc­ceed­ed to be among the fron­trun­ners in the Union when it comes to the shape of gov­ern­ment finance sta­tis­tics.

It was the strict fis­cal pol­i­cy of the GERB-led gov­ern­ment between 2009 and 2013, which increas­ing­ly faced crit­i­cism from var­i­ous social groups and fis­cal stim­uli sup­port­ers. How­ev­er, the coun­try does not have many options to loosen the grip of this type of fis­cal pol­i­cy. First­ly, the Cur­ren­cy Board arrange­ments pre­vent Bul­gar­i­an gov­ern­ments from imple­ment­ing a mon­e­tary pol­i­cy accord­ing to their own con­sid­er­a­tions and also sug­gest an ortho­dox approach to pub­lic finance. Sec­ond­ly, not being a mem­ber of the Euro­zone, Bul­gar­ia can­not count on any finan­cial res­cue plans. This is why – unlike for coun­tries in the Euro area – an EU bail-out has nev­er been an option for Bul­gar­ia.

As a mat­ter of fact, in con­trast to oth­er EU mem­ber states, no pure aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures have been applied in Bul­gar­ia since the out­break of the cri­sis. Social trans­fers and pub­lic sec­tor salaries can­not even be com­pared with those of the oth­er worst-per­form­ing EU coun­tries, but they have not been reduced because of bud­getary cuts. On the con­trary, despite the mod­er­ate increase in pen­sions and in pub­lic sec­tor salaries in the last few years, their pur­chas­ing pow­er even increased. What is more, the start­ing posi­tion of Bul­gar­ia dur­ing the out­break of the cri­sis did not allow the coun­try to request finan­cial assis­tance from the IMF, con­trary to a num­ber of oth­er coun­tries in Cen­tral and South East­ern Europe.

The UK – a partner in enlargement and the trio Presidency

The top­ic of the Unit­ed Kingdom’s with­draw­al from the Euro­pean Union led one of the main week­lies in Bul­gar­ia to pro­voke a debate on the top­ic in 2013. Accord­ing to the polls most of the Bul­gar­i­ans vot­ed in favour of the UK stay­ing with­in the EU. The pub­lic image of the UK in the coun­try suf­fered con­sid­er­ably since then as a con­se­quence of the exag­ger­at­ed issue on the expect­ed immi­grant wave from Bul­gar­ia and Roma­nia after the open­ing of the UK labour mar­ket on Jan­u­ary 1, 2014.

In polit­i­cal terms, a British EU exit might affect the future of the EU enlarge­ment pol­i­cy since the UK is one of its few remain­ing sup­port­ers and this coin­cides with the Bul­gar­i­an inter­ests and pol­i­cy towards its non-EU neigh­bours. Anoth­er impor­tant issue for the coun­try, which depends on the results from the pos­si­ble ref­er­en­dum in 2017, is the upcom­ing trio Pres­i­den­cy of the Coun­cil of the Euro­pean Union togeth­er with the Unit­ed King­dom and Esto­nia. It will be the first time for Bul­gar­ia to take over the rotat­ing pres­i­den­cy in the sec­ond half of 2018 and a pos­si­ble UK exit might sig­nif­i­cant­ly affect the prepara­to­ry work for the joint pres­i­den­cy.

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This sur­vey was con­duct­ed on the basis of a ques­tion­naire that has been elab­o­rat­ed in March 2014. Most of the reports were deliv­ered in June 2014. This issue and all pre­vi­ous issues are avail­able on the EU-28 Watch web­site: www.eu-28watch.org.

The EU-28 Watch No. 10 receives sig­nif­i­cant fund­ing from the Otto Wolff-Foun­da­tion, Cologne, in the frame­work of the ‘Dia­log Europa der Otto Wolff-Stiftung’, and finan­cial sup­port from the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion. The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion is not respon­si­ble for any use that may be made of the infor­ma­tion con­tained there­in.