Support for EU and NATO enlargement, building bridges to Western Balkans top priority
The year 2008 was for Bulgaria the time when citizens were sobering out from the euphoria of the EU entry and their great expectations in relation to membership. Public attitudes to the benefits from joining the bloc affected positions on future EU enlargements. According to sociological surveys, Bulgarians associate EU membership with higher living standards, rule of law and security, free movement and a common cultural area. Their visions on the expansion of the EU should be traced along those lines. The dominant concept is based on giving prominence to the active and successful advancement of preparation for the accession of potential candidates. It is related to the experience of Bulgaria in meeting the requirements of the EU. Research polls revealed that support for the EU entry remains rather high. However, citizens are more optimistic about the long-term benefits of the membership (75 percent of the respondents). By contrast, 60 percent of Bulgarians share the opinion that joining the EU had negative consequences for Bulgaria.
Views on EU widening fell under the influence of difficulties in communication between Sofia and Brussels. Assessing the success of the Fifth Enlargement through the progress of Bulgaria and Romania was a widely covered topic in Bulgarian media. The main question that attracted media interest was: Could the hardships for Bulgaria be interpreted as a failure of the Eastern enlargement wave, thus putting an end to further EU expansion?
Relations between Bulgaria and the EU did not always go smoothly – a recent sign of that were the European Commission’s reports on progress in the sphere of Justice and Home Affairs. As criticism from Brussels addressed to Sofia and Bucharest intensified, several journalists stressed that the opponents of the Union’s further enlargement obtained more powerful arguments. Experts pointed out that the failure of the European Commission to influence problematic countries would mean the end of EU enlargement. According to political analyst Ivan Krastev, that is the reason why the newly acceded states are carefully observed from two highly different kinds of interests. On the one hand, people who two years ago, said that Bulgaria and Romania were not ready, wanted to show to the Commission that a political compromise had been made and that such a compromise must no longer be fixed because the Union is starting to have problems with the digestion of new members. On the other hand, countries like for example Sweden believe that the integration of the Western Balkans into the EU is of purely strategic interest to the community and therefore insist on the European Commission to be especially strict. Otherwise they would never be able to convince anyone that Serbia would be able to become member of the EU.
A set of articles provided analogous comments upon the impact of Bulgaria and Romania’s integration problems on the further enlargement process. They indicated that the Union could not operate normally and could not display clearly the advantages of expansion unless its rules are duly observed across the bloc. Taking her stand on the debated subject, the Bulgarian Minister of European Affairs Gergana Grancharova underlined that any commotion inside the EU represents a challenge to its policies, but the more effective and better functioning the Union, the more audible the voice of those saying that EU enlargement should not stop. She declared that Bulgaria had now greater responsibility as a state that belongs to a region standing closest to the prospect of EU accession, and this should double the ambition and motivation of the country for reforming spheres, where it has failed to reach European standards as yet.
Ireland’s negative vote in the referendum on the Lisbon Treaty was widely articulated in the media as another obstacle for accepting new EU members. In the case of a possible failure of the ratification process, the EU will witness a freeze of further enlargement, while, on the contrary, the entry into force of the Reform Treaty will open the way for accession of new countries, many experts pointed out.
Bulgaria has always been a strong supporter of the European perspective on the Balkan region. Bulgarian media emphasized that the country is a key factor for the integration of the Western Balkans. Bulgaria is among the EU member states that can benefit the most from this region’s fast preparation for EU accession. As a part of the EU and a neighbour to Western Balkan countries Bulgaria has to play an active role, especially by sharing experience. Many analysts focused their attention on the impact of the financial crisis on the region. They appealed to the European institutions to take the necessary measures in order to guarantee the smooth process of stabilization and association to the EU of the Western Balkans. Overseeing the final phase of EU membership talks with Croatia, experts do not envisage its accession to be possible earlier than 2010.
During the second half of 2008, Bulgaria cooperated actively with the French Presidency to build bridges between the countries in the region. The two partners organized the “First regional meeting of cross-border cooperation, sustainable development, territories and decentralized cooperation in the Balkans”. This conference gave French regional authorities the opportunity to meet their counterparts from South-Eastern Europe. The event aimed to encourage the emergence of bilateral and regional cooperation projects on topics of relevance for regional authorities: environmental protection, cross-border cooperation, training of local elected representatives, sustainable development, European funding, heritage preservation and social action.
Another aspect of Bulgaria’s firm support for the countries in the region can be clearly outlined in supporting their Euro-Atlantic integration. The National Assembly ratified the protocols for the accession of Albania and Croatia to the NATO on 23 October 2008. Bulgaria was among the first to approve the documents. Journalists were also interested in the complaint filed by Macedonia before the International Court of Justice in The Hague against Greece with the accusation of obstructing the country’s NATO entry bid. The veto, which Athens imposed on NATO’s invitation to the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) for membership in the alliance, is considered to be a serious hindrance to the negotiation process in finding a solution for the argument between Skopje and Athens over the name of Macedonia. Bulgaria’s position essentially is not to internationalize the problem but to seek a bilateral solution. The country also supports the ambition of Macedonia to become an integral part of the Atlantic family.
Bulgaria is faced with high expectations nurtured by the launch of the Eastern Partnership initiative during the Czech Presidency of the EU targeted at Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. According to Foreign Minister, Ivailo Kalfin, Bulgaria has an important role to play, not only as an Eastern EU country, but also because of having the expert capacity, the know-how, contacts and ideas for the development of that region. He took the view that this new EU initiative should be based on bilateral dialogue of the EU with each of those countries. This will allow Bulgaria to actively join European foreign policy making for the sake of closer ties with those states.
On 26 November 2008, the Bulgarian Minister of Foreign Affairs took part in a discussion on the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) and the Russian policy vis-à-vis the “Near Abroad”. He stressed that with the ironing out of the major controversies with respect to the Southern dimension of the ENP – with the formation of the Union for the Mediterranean – the natural geographic interest of Bulgaria is to find the right balance by focusing on the Eastern dimension of the ENP. The building of relations of confidence between the EU and the countries in that region is extremely important. Minister of Foreign Affairs Kalfin, pointed out that currently there is no balance between the policy of the EU (and of the West as a whole), on the one hand, and Russia, on the other. The balance ought to be found in dialogue with Russia: first in the field of security, but also in all other relevant spheres, whereby it is most important to conduct this dialogue with very concrete frameworks, values and criteria. In the words of Minister Kalfin, this means above all a very strong unity, not merely common positions within the EU, which exist, but unanimity on the development of relations with the neighbours to the East, and with Russia.
Bulgarian media described in detail different aspects of the Georgia crisis, laying emphasis on its significance and repercussions on international politics. Many commentators gave a positive estimate of the mediation of the EU in the settlement of the Russian-Georgian conflict, accentuating that the events proved that the Union can conduct successful common policy in a crisis situation. They stressed that European leaders have learned the lessons of the Balkan wars and after years of hesitation and delays, have decided to get involved. At the same time, experts warned that taking the lead in finding an immediate ceasefire solution is not sufficient. The EU is faced with the necessity of long-term engagement in the South Caucasus.
Bulgarian media discussed also the country’s commitment to Georgia. Some ideas on resolving the crisis, especially the proposal for sending a special EU representative to Georgia were appreciated. Bulgaria sent humanitarian aid, medicines, as well as financial assistance to the distressed population and decided to participate in the civilian observer mission. On its part, Georgia accepted the Bulgarian offer to coordinate shipments of aid at Bourgas seaport.
The consequences of the military conflict in Georgia on energy security were also discussed in the media. This small war was interpreted as the beginning of a new era. Experts stressed emphatically that a new strategic framework emerges gradually in the European, Russian, and Central Asian energy sectors. They took the view that the Georgia crisis ushered in a new pattern of global energy economy and security. Moreover, the overall strategic posture throughout Eurasia has already been affected by the Georgia crisis and its political, military and economic aftermath.
The Russian air strikes near the pipelines in Georgia delivered a clear message to the EU, that the US is incapable of securing the “alternate source” pipelines against regional threats. The US administration decided not to intervene and to provide military support because its efforts were concentrated on the crisis of the American economy and on the presidential elections. Consequently, the EU leadership resolved that Russian domination of Europe’s energy sources and transportation, despite its political price, is preferable to vulnerability to disruptions wrought by irrational and unpredictable local forces.
Several analysts noticed that doubt has been cast as to the reliability of Georgia as a major transit country to bring oil and gas supplies to Europe. After the military conflict with Russia, Georgia is not considered anymore to be a safe transit energy route. In this context, the Nabucco pipeline project, which aims to bypass Russia and reduce European dependence on Gazprom, is perceived as a victim of the developments. European leaders surprisingly took the stance that Nabucco could be integrated with other pipelines, namely, the Blue Stream from Russia. The transformation of Nabucco into an integral component of the Russian-dominated web of pipelines is the most explicit example of the dramatic transformation of the EU energy transportation and security doctrine in the aftermath of the Georgia crisis. According to experts, the attractiveness of the South Stream project raises in these new strategic-economic realities.
Bulgarian media pointed out that all these developments make Sofia a major energy hub for Southern and Central Europe. A sign for that role of the country could be found in the forthcoming energy summit in Plovdiv scheduled for April 2009.
 See Radio Bulgaria: Sofia and Brussels in 2008 – upbeat, but sobered, 29 December 2008, available at: http://www.bnr.bg (last access: 6 January 2009).
 See Radio Bulgaria: Bulgarians upbeat, but sobered after two years of EU membership, 12 December 2008, available at: http://www.bnr.bg (last access: 6 January 2009).
 See Radio Bulgaria: Bulgaria after the EC report, 30 July 2008, available at: http://www.bnr.bg (last access: 6 January 2009).
 See Radio Bulgaria: Success of EU Fifth Enlargement through prism of Bulgaria and Romania’s progress in 1 1/2 year of membership, 5 August 2008, available at: http://www.bnr.bg (last access: 6 January 2009).
 See Balkanite.net: Under the aegis of the French Embassy in Bulgaria, 4 July 2008, available at: http://www.balkanite.net (last access: 6 January 2009).
 See Bulgarian National Assembly: National Assembly Ratifies the Protocols for Albania and Croatia Accession to the NATO, 23 October 2008, available at: http://www.parliament.bg (last access: 6 January 2009).
 See Radio Bulgaria: Macedonia-Greece NATO row goes to the Hague, 21 November 2008, available at: http://www.bnr.bg (last access: 6 January 2009).
 Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs: We are at an important stage in the formulation of the goals of the European policy vis-à-vis the neighbours to the East, 26 November 2008, available at: http://www.mfa.bg/ (last access: 6 January 2009).
 Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs: At a meeting with Minister Kalfin, the Dutch European Affairs Minister Frans Timmermans praised Bulgaria for its leadership in the ideas on resolving the Georgian crisis, 9 September 2008, available at: http://www.mfa.bg (last access: 6 January 2009).
 Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Minister Kalfin reiterated in Brussels Bulgaria’s commitment to Georgia, 15 September 2008, available at: http://www.mfa.bg (last access: 6 January 2009).
 Standart News: Post-Georgian Reality, 7 October 2008, available at: http://www.standartnews.com (last access: 6 January 2009).