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.[1] 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.[2]

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.[3]

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.[4]

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”.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] 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”.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10]

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.[11]

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.

 

 

[1] 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).
[2] 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).
[3] See Radio Bul­gar­ia: Bul­gar­ia after the EC report, 30 July 2008, avail­able at: http://www.bnr.bg (last access: 6 Jan­u­ary 2009).
[4] 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).
[5] 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).
[6] 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).
[7] 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).
[8] 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).
[9] 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).
[10] 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).
[11] Stan­dart News: Post-Geor­gian Real­i­ty, 7 Octo­ber 2008, avail­able at: http://www.standartnews.com (last access: 6 Jan­u­ary 2009).