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Europe

Bulgaria takes over EU presidency. Is it ready?

media A Bulgarian border checkpoint Sofia Photo Agency

Bulgaria, the European Union's poorest member state, on January 1 took over the bloc's six-month revolving presidency with the ongoing migrant crisis and Brexit among the top items on its agenda. The presidency rotates between different EU member states and gives Bulgaria the opportunity to chair meetings and set agendas, as the bloc grapples with the record influx of migrants, management of its borders, rising populism and Britain's EU divorce.

Taking over from Estonia, Bulgaria will have to manage a June deadline for EU leaders to agree an overhaul of the so-called Dublin Regulation, under which the country where an asylum seeker arrives is responsible for them.

RFI talked to Nikolay Staykov, Director of Investigations with the Sofia-based Anti-Corruption Fund about Bulgaria’s EU presidency.

Jan van der Made: What can we expect from Bulgaria’s EU presidency?

Nikolay Staykov: What can a small and poor peripheral member of the EU bring? Bulgaria only joined 11 years ago. It is time to look back and see what the last ten years have brought in terms of EU membership.

Nikolay Staykov, director of Investigations at the Anti Corruption Fund in Sofia Courtesy Nikolay Staykov

Of course it has been successful years for Bulgaria because of the influx of EU funds. Unfortunately we cannot say that Bulgaria is a success story. Unlike Estonia, which is regarded as an example of electronic government, digital entrepreneurship, and [has] a thriving economy.

Neighbouring Romania has twice the economic growth of Bulgaria, and much more successful in the real fight against corruption, especially high-level corruption.

We can see Bulgaria as a success story in that it is one of the few stable Balkan countries that have not gone through turbulent political and financial crises in the last 20 years.

Jan van der Made: The presidency comes with a lot of responsibilities. Are Bulgaria’s leaders ready for it?

Nikolay Staykov: We are being informed here that everything is ok with the technical preparedness in terms of organisations, building infrastructure for the event etcetera.

But is it the real readiness for the presidency in taking over the responsibility of shaping the policy of the EU in the next six months? I’m not exactly sure.

The presidency of the EU has announced several priorities: young people of Europe, digital economy, growth. These are not the real priorities that Bulgaria should seek.

The real problems that Bulgaria has seen over the last decade is the disparity between the regions and the poorest regions of Europe are officially the poorest ones in Bulgaria as well, especially in North-West Bulgaria. It is the lowest income area in Europe.

So, regional policy is exactly the sensitive issue that Bulgaria should address.

Crime and corruption, rule of law are also major issues, but Bulgaria is so far from a success story at the moment, being constantly criticised for lack of results in the fight against corruption that it is obviously the last country to head this discussion, unlike neighboring Romania.

There are many other subjects that are really important for Bulgaria. Agriculture. We’ve got enough statistics that European funding goes to big farms, changing the landscape resulting in smaller farms having to close down and younger people having no other options than to either move to the cities or to emigrate abroad.

Unfortunately we don’t see that in the discussion and the language that Bulgaria’s European elite is using. The Bulgarian government focuses more on neutral and positive topics like digital economy because they are so much safer in the framework of this EU presidency.

I’m afraid this EU presidency is mainly seen as a chance to show EU support to the official government coalition. I think most of them see it as a six month political Eurovision Song contest in which they will always be the host.

Jan van der Made: How do Bulgarians see the EU?

Nikolay Staykov: Judging from opinion polls, Bulgaria is still among the most enthusiastic among EU member states. Different polls show that between half and two thirds [of the people] have positive attitudes towards the EU. Only a third of Bulgarian citizens would prefer other geopolitical and civilizational alternatives.

In the last years there’s been is a growing popularity of Eurosceptics, and the anti-Euro movement. One [political party campaigning against EU membership] sits in the governing coalition. They want stronger links with Russia. It holds a ministerial seat and we can only see it as an illustration of the complexity and the hypocricy of the Bulgaria political situation.

The general public opinion, in the last years there’s been a small but visible decline and disappointment towards the EU and Bulgaria’s membership in it, mainly because of a lack of results in the two main areas Bulgarian citizens expect quick results: poverty and the fight against corruption. These are the two sensitive areas, that despite economic growth and EU monitoring mechanism, have shown very few results.

Jan van der Made: What does the Bulgarian government do to live up to the EU standards regarding corruption?

Nikolay Staykov: Bulgaria has several anti-corruption bodies. The prosecution being the main anti-corruption body. But they have all proved to be part of the problem. In many cases they are being used as a political tool.

The parliament has approved a new law that would create a new anti-corruption entity that would unify all these five or six non-performing institutions into one single one.

It would get more power for investigation, wire-tapping, using special means of investigation, in a way to increase these results.

But most of the desired effect is to reply to the increasing critics, both internal and external, especially in the fight against high level corruption.

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