Reformulation of the relationship between citizens and political elites needed

1. How does the future of the EU after the Irish ‘No’ look like?

 

The famous reference to the Chinese hieroglyphs depicting the term “crisis” by the notion of “opportunity”, can describe very well the current situation in the EU after the Irish ‘No’. The institutional crisis after the Irish referendum should be interpreted not only as a danger, but also as an opportunity. What the three consecutive referenda (France, Netherlands, Ireland) showed us, is that there is a noticeable lack of adequate communication between political elites and citizens about the actual and future priorities in the development of the Union. The current situation provides an opportunity both for the political elites and the citizens of the member states to reformulate their relations and to start thinking about the “EU project” not only as an elite-driven project but also as something that could be the product of a common effort. In this respect, the decisions of the European Council in December 2008 can be viewed as an attempt aimed at improving communication and at listening to the voices of citizens. The common agreement reached at this meeting concerning issues such as taxation, security and defence, the right to life, education and family, can be taken as an example of the willingness of EU leaders to listen to the demands of the (Irish) citizens. Without doubt, it is regretful that the Discussion about the Constitutional Treaty and the Lisbon Treaty did not receive broad public support in 2003 and 2004 before the referenda took place. The current situation looks more satisfactory. It was a mistake that the discussion before the start of the ratification procedures was focused mainly on “high level politics” and more attention was paid to such issues as the composition of the European Commission and the European Parliament, the redistribution of votes within the Council of the European Union and the appointment of a High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy rather than on problems of everyday life such as security, health care and education. During the ratification discussions, these questions overshadowed the institutional characteristics of the proposed treaties, a fact that indicates their significant importance for the European citizens.

In Bulgaria, the situation with the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty was quite different. There was no public discussion and it did not receive significant media coverage. Even the political attention to this treaty was minimal with some sporadic reactions of Bulgarian MEPs. Thus, the treaty was presented as something with little impact on Bulgarian politics and limited influence on the everyday life of Bulgarian citizens. Bulgaria was one of the first EU member states that ratified the treaty by parliamentary vote without long debates. In this conjuncture, it was natural to expect that the decision of the European Council on the Lisbon Treaty would not receive any media coverage and would not be discussed publicly. The only issue that was given attention by the media were the expressed positions of the leaders of France and Luxemburg, Nicolas Sarkozy and Jean-Claude Junker, about the impossibility for the EU to continue its enlargement policy without the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. Thus, the Bulgarian Minister of European Affairs, Gergana Grancharova, stated in her open speech at the ceremony for the presentation of the priorities of the French Presidency in Sofia that the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty has to continue because “it is highly important for us, as an external border of the EU and as a Balkan country, that European enlargement continues”[1].

The upcoming European Parliament (EP) elections in June 2009 unexpectedly turned out to be an important part of the Bulgarian political discourse. The reason is not the EP election itself, but the fact that regular parliamentary elections will be held at the same time or one to two months later. As a result, Bulgarian politicians are intensively involved in discussions about the exact date of the national elections. One of the governing parties NDSV (National Movement for Stability and Progress, member of European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party, ELDR) proposed a formula named “2-in-1” implying that both the EP and the national parliamentary elections are to be held simultaneously. This position was supported by the Bulgarian President and by some small right-wing parties, members of the European People’s Party (EPP), which are afraid that they lack the necessary organizational capabilities for two electoral campaigns one after the other. Bulgarian political parties standing in favour of the “2-in-1” option, worry that their expected low results at the EP elections will have a strong negative impact on voters’ behavior and support and that this will turn into a catastrophe during the general elections later. In this case, if the “2-in-1” proposal is accepted, the EP elections will be completely overshadowed by the national ones since the public and media interest will concentrate overwhelmingly on the latter. The parties which firmly support the European and national elections to be held separately within the time frame of one to two months are the governing parties the Bulgarian Socialist Party, BSP (member of the Party of European Socialists, PES) and the Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms, DPS (member of the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party, ELDR), which can rely on their strong and well organised electoral cores. These parties, famous for the solid and unquestioned support of their voters, are confident in their abilities to mobilize them for two consecutive campaigns, thus achieving better electoral results. If this happens, there is a chance the Bulgarian European Parliament elections in 2009 will focus not only on the current domestic political situation, but also on the more and more disputable relations between Bulgaria and the EU.

Regarding the present-day political situation in Bulgaria, it is not surprising that the discussion about the EP elections is viewed in the perspective of their consequences for the results of the national parliamentary elections. Citizens’ trust in the governing coalition is very low and there are indications for a growing popular discontent. As a result, one more time after the extraordinary 2007 European Parliament elections held in Bulgaria and Romania, the EP elections in 2009 are perceived as second-order, “test-elections”, without particular significance and meaning.

However, the Bulgarian media demonstrates some specific interest in the European elections, most of all, personality-wise. There are speculations about future Bulgarian MEPs, indicating that most of the current MEPs will be candidates for the next EP. According to some media sources, it is possible that the current Bulgarian Commissioner, Meglena Kuneva, heads the electoral list of the National Movement for Stability and Progress (NDSV), having the support of the current Bulgarian Minister of European Affairs Gergana Grancharova. Another issue related to the European Parliament elections, which received media attention, is the salary of Bulgarian MEPs – something that is understandable given the current economic situation in Bulgaria. The most recent news in Bulgaria connected with the upcoming EP elections touch upon an ongoing scandal around the foundation of the pan-European Eurosceptic party “Libertas” where, surprisingly, the independent Bulgarian member of the parliament, Mincho Hristov, is involved as a founding member. In conclusion, the expectations for the 2009 EP elections in Bulgaria are that these will be overshadowed again by explicitly domestic issues and problems without paying much attention to the EU problematic. The turnout results that can be expected are more or less similar to the ones of the 2007 EP elections – around 29 percent.

The European Commission is perceived by most Bulgarian citizens as an institution of high importance, especially regarding EU funding for Bulgarian agriculture and infrastructural development. However, the formation of the new European Commission in 2009 is not a theme of the current Bulgarian public discourse. The only – not yet officiallised – candidate for a future Bulgarian Commissioner is the incumbent European Commissioner for Consumer Protection, Meglena Kuneva. She is one of the few Bulgarian politicians who receive a high level of citizens’ support in the country. In addition to her domestic popularity, she was elected by the on-line journal “European agenda” as Commissioner of the year in 2008. That is why her candidature will not be a surprise for anyone in Bulgaria. Regarding the nomination of a future President of the European Commission, the Bulgarian official position is not yet expressed.

As far as the position of the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy is concerned, both its institutional and personal aspects are not part of the Bulgarian public discourse. Now and again, leading Bulgarian politicians declare support for the development of a strong common EU foreign policy, but this position has not been substantiated by any concrete engagements and steps. The words of Ivailo Kalfin, Bulgarian Minister of Foreign Affairs, in a recent interview for the Bulgarian National Television, could be interpreted along those lines: “Kosovo and Georgia are examples that the European foreign policy, although sometimes achieved with difficulty, is effective. Bulgaria has an interest in a strong Europe.”[2]

2. Transatlantic relations renewed after President Bush: top priorities

 

Intensified cooperation for approaching common challenges

Approaches and top priorities for a re-vitalization of the transatlantic and EU-US relations seem to differ depending on whose perspective we will consider. In the US perspective, Europe is needed as a supporter for recovering global US leadership based on the power of example and inspiration for all people in the world.

It will be up to Europe’s maturity to acknowledge either a position of a junior partner of the US in a global alliance for global good, or try to survive on its own quite insecure domestic and international agenda, while at the same time being squeezed by an emancipated Russia and a frustrated Turkey.

It has to be crystal clear, that any debate about the redefinition of transatlantic relations cannot evade the uneasy questions related to Russia and Turkey. If the US and the EU continue to approach Russia separately, and if within the EU some member states still prefer dealing with Russia on a bilateral basis, then it will be irrelevant to speak about anything transatlantic. If Turkey continues to hang in the abyss with no clear geopolitical future, if the EU stays inhibited with its relatively small problems, then no future for a transatlantic unity could ever be foreseen.

The first and most needed thing to do is intensifying political contacts between the US and the EU in search of framing common discourses. The US and the EU have quite different starting points and frames of reference, but they both have a common challenge – Russia. Whether each will sneak and deal with Russia at sole discretion without compromising with the other will be the key to the ‘transatlantic standing together’ or ‘self-help’ approach.

“Transatlanticism” has been bitterly challenged over the last eight years of the outgoing Bush administration. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will have to live through hard times to restore Europe’s transatlantic enthusiasm, which has considerably degraded not only because of US policies, but also because of the increasing reluctance of some European countries to follow the American lead. So, one of the first cornerstones of a re-animated transatlantic link would be compromising on the issue of leadership – leadership-in-what, leadership-when, leadership-how, leadership-with-whom. On issues related to security and geopolitics, the EU does not have much choice or room for manoeuvre but to accept the US leadership. On other issues related to global governance, policies towards less-developed counties, meeting global challenges, a dual or joint leadership between the EU and the US, is much more feasible.

Certainly, the most difficult focal points for finding compromises between the US and the EU will be Russia, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey.

On the whole, Central European countries are concerned that with the new American President, they might lose the privileged relations they maintained with the Bush administration. The prevailing opinion in Central European countries is that President Obama will concentrate on restoring relations with Western Europe that critically suffered under the neoconservative American establishment. Although some Central European countries were reliable allies to the Bush administration, they might be pushed aside now. The fact that the pro-American Czech Republic took the rotating presidency of the EU at the time of Obama’s inauguration is unlikely to make any change. It is expected that the EU-US agenda will be dominated entirely by the global financial crisis and economic reform efforts. Thus, big West European economies like Great Britain, Germany and France, will be prioritized as partners at the expense of Central European EU members.

The Czech Presidency seems committed to bringing new impetus into the transatlantic agenda since the first EU-US summit with the new US President will be held during its term. It remains to be seen whether Czech enthusiasm will materialize in more concrete results.

As far as Russia is concerned, the new US administration will probably follow President Nicolas Sarkosy’s milder tone instead of the more hard-line position of Poland and the Czech Republic. Here again, the highlight is on the disunity in the EU itself with regard to Russia, even beyond the transatlantic discourse. And when the transatlantic discourse is at stake, we witness at least three visions towards Russia – the American, the West European and the Central European (‘new’ Europe, most eloquently represented by Poland and the Czech Republic). Whether there will ever be a crossing point or merger of these visions, is a matter of strategic importance for the future of the transatlantic community.

The other critical point of divergence – Turkey – will be the next test-case for the transatlantic future. Unlike Central Europe, anti-Americanism in Turkey grew stronger, just as Euro-scepticism. Both the US and the EU damaged, or at least aggravated, their relations with Turkey. How they will get out of this situation is also a matter of priority for transatlantic partners.

Perspectives from Bulgaria

The Bulgarian public is fully aware that the country has no ‘special place’ on the US strategic agenda. Where the country could possibly fit in, besides NATO, is within a general revitalization of the EU-US transatlantic relationship, which gives Bulgaria the only opportunity for direct access to discussing or expressing positions on such strategic issues as the future of international presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, negotiations with Iran or energy security.

Bulgaria is especially interested in how the process of integration of the Western Balkans will continue and what type of engagement the transatlantic partners (US and EU) will maintain in the Black Sea region.

On bilateral level, the recent US-Bulgarian agenda is framed by the outstanding issue of whether and when Bulgaria will enter the US visa-free travel programme, and other more technical issues such as the entry into force of the bilateral agreement for avoiding double taxation. On more critical issues, Bulgaria is likely to continue keeping a low profile in transatlantic relations. Unlike the political establishments in Poland and the Czech Republic, governments in Bulgaria in recent years tried to avoid and attempted to stay away from any bilateral approach to the US that might inflict an increase in the regular rate of disapproval the EU maintains towards Bulgaria. Even the signing of the agreement for joint military facilities between Bulgaria and the US is rather an exception to confirm that rule.

Another reason for the governing circles in Bulgaria to refrain from a direct and straightforward engagement with the US is the ‘conventional wisdom’ or instrumental common sense deriving from a psychological complex from the past that ‘there is nothing good in annoying Russia’. Unfortunately, this type of servitude mentality and also alleged business links with Russia grounded the argument that Bulgaria may turn into Russia’s “Trojan horse” in the EU.

Political circles in Bulgaria seem quite unlikely to go for any direct transatlantic engagement. What is most likely, is that Bulgaria will leave West European EU member states and the US to bridge the transatlantic gap on their own. Bulgaria will surely not be an ardent advocate of transatlantic relations.

If we compare the trends of approval for US leadership in global affairs, the Bulgarian public opinion stands somewhere in the middle, compared to some other EU countries. This maintains a certain level of transatlantic vigour in the country, but this enthusiasm is not impressive at all. It exists only within small expert communities, rather than among the general public. The transatlantic inertia and the pro-American sentiment in Bulgarian society from the 1990s are on the downside. Opinion surveys in 2007 in Bulgaria showed a somewhat declining trend of approval of US leadership.

3. Financial crisis and challenges of global governance: the EU response

 

Strong focus on Eurozone leaves new members worried

Many experts focused their attention on the repercussions of Brussels’ decision to block EU funds allocated to Bulgaria on the country’s economy. It had lost 220 million Euros in pre-accession funds, whereas another 500 million Euros were frozen. They pointed out that, unfortunately for Bulgaria, those coincided with the unfolding global financial crisis. Thus, the cash cut-off could never be compensated, especially in the context of the crisis-ridden world economy,[3] which aggravates the impact of all of these developments. Especially in such a difficult period, when the most serious sectors in Bulgaria were affected and many people were losing their jobs. Other Bulgarians were being thrown out of companies across Europe – for example in Spain or the UK, and had to return to Bulgaria.[4] However, the possibilities to create new jobs were reduced by the firm line of Brussels.

In the observed period, the European search for answers to the global financial crisis was increasingly moving into the focus of media attention. A watchful eye was kept on the quest of the French Presidency for concrete decisions and measures to cope with the crisis, especially on the summit in mid-October in Brussels. It took place immediately after the meeting of the Eurogroup with the objective to extend the healing plan, drawn by the 15 Eurozone countries for the recovery of confidence in the banking system, to all member states. It implies the re-capitalization of financial institutions under difficulties, state guarantees for inter-banking loans and improved deposit protection schemes. Bulgarian journalists also accentuated the complaints of the new EU member states that the plan did not offer any aide to countries outside the Eurozone.[5] New member states advocated European solidarity because they rely hugely on foreign capital. They expressed their worries that the 15 Eurozone members will apply the doctrine of competition and soften up the Stability and Growth Pact for their benefit alone.

Bulgarian officials highlighted that, in accord with the French efforts, the country committed itself to the need of discussing and agreeing on European level coordinated activities to maintain the stability of the financial system and to limit the mistrust among economic agents in Europe. Tsvetan Manchev, Bulgarian National Bank’s Deputy Governor, took the view that even a prospective discussion of the flexibility of the current Stability and Growth Pact rules will seriously damage the fragile confidence.[6] He also outlined the importance of the participation of the European leaders in the international dialogue about the future of the global financial architecture.[7]

Are Brussels’ decisions adequate to the situation? Are the anti-crisis measures Europe is undertaking sufficient for coping with the crisis? To what extent can European citizens rely on their own institutions to protect them from the raging financial crisis? Which are the most endangered, and which are the best-protected countries? Similar questions dominated the Bulgarian media landscape. According to the experts, Europe is quite unprepared for this crisis, because there are not many possibilities for maneuvering. The measures could stop the melting down and the collapse of the financial system but they cannot annihilate old mistakes and problems, related to the fact that the EU is not yet the most competitive and dynamic economy. With a view to the situation, besides protecting the system from a catastrophe, Europeans should also give it the chance to develop.[8]

Another hot topic was connected with the prospects of expansion of the Eurozone, in order to protect the countries of “small” currencies from the influence of the financial storm. On the one hand, the states, which were opponents of the Euro, began to gravitate toward the adoption. On the other hand, because it will be more difficult to enter the Eurozone for countries that wish to do so. Analysts also claimed that thanks to the crisis, the supremacy of politicians over the influential personalities from the financial sphere was resumed because they are the only persons that are institutionally entrusted to approach the problems. In the European context, if they prefer to go their separate ways and to give different responses to the crisis, then all will certainly sink together. In such a negative scenario, the multiform aspects of the crisis could even undo already achieved agreements for unity.

 

 

[1] Speech of Bulgarian Minister of European Affairs Gergana Grancharova at the Conference presenting French Presidency priorities, Sofia, 23 June 2008, available at: www.mfa.bg (last access: 20 January 2009).
[2] Interview of Bulgarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivailo Kalfin for the Bulgarian National Television (BNT); BNT1; “Denjat zapochva” program (“The Day Starts”), 10 October 2008, available at: www.mfa.bg (last access:20January 2009).
[3] See Radio Bulgaria: Bulgarian MPs comment on cancelled financing from EU funds, 28 November 2008, available at: http://www.bnr.bg (last access: 6 January 2009).
[4] See Radio Bulgaria: EC criticism resonates strongly across Bulgaria’s political divides, 3 December 2008, available at: http://www.bnr.bg (last access: 6 January 2009).
[5] See Standart News: A plan to save 15 or 27, 16 October 2008, available at: http://www.standartnews.com (last access: 6 January 2009).
[6] Bulgarian National Bank: Tsvetan Manchev: Rule-based versus discretionary policy responses to the recent financial crisis, 8 December 2008, available at: http://www.bnb.bg (last access: 6 January 2009).
[7] Bulgarian National Bank: Tsvetan Manchev: The financial crisis and the initial EU, 25 November 2008, available at: http://www.bnb.bg (last access: 6 January 2009).
[8] Radio Bulgaria: The European answer to the world financial crisis, 4 December 2008, available at: http://www.bnr.bg (last access: 6 January 2009).