Visit of Boyko Borissov, Bulgarian Prime Minister, to the EC. Photo copyright by European Union, 2017

Bulgaria’s EU Presidency: Normalizing Nationalism?

Some of the Bulgarian politicians who will preside over European meetings in Brussels in the first half of 2018 are nationalists. Is the EU to be blamed for letting them play a role on the European stage? Will the Bulgarian liberal-conservative majority be able to tame its patriotic coalition partner?

After many years of economic and migratory crises, things seem to be turning around for the European Union. Economic growth in the Eurozone is outpacing Britain and the United States, unemployment has fallen to the lowest levels since 2009, and illegal migration flows appear to have reached controllable proportions. The populist wave, which led to Brexit and President Donald Trump, has, for the most part, not led to major political upheaval in continental Europe. In his State of the Union speech of September, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker could plead for Europeans to “catch the wind in our sails” and keep the good momentum going.

However, if the EU’s existential crisis seems to have been overcome, the bloc has significantly lost in cohesion in terms of its values. In a word: nationalists are coming to town. This is markedly evident in one of Europe’s lesser-known powers: Bulgaria, where anti-migrant and pro-Russian nationalists now rule in a coalition government with mainstream conservatives since May of this year. In the year 2000, other EU countries imposed economic sanctions on Austria for daring to have a government including the nationalist Freedom Party (FPÖ). Not only has Bulgaria not suffered any comparable stigma or sanctions, but as the country will hold the EU’s rotating Council presidency in the first half of 2018, Bulgarian nationalist politicians will preside over meetings of European ministers in Brussels. As such, the nationalist ministers – who will preside notably over the meetings dealing with the environment and Europe’s formidable single market – will enjoy all the recognition and pomp of full diplomatic protocol. This shows how far Europe’s values and ideological cohesion have drifted in less than two decades.

Europe shifts to the right

The new Bulgarian government is unlikely to face much trouble from Brussels, because the country’s shift is symptomatic of a wider trend in European politics. In both east and west, traditional liberal-internationalist elites have been increasingly destabilized, notably because of bungled management of the economic and migratory crises. In France, the nationalist Marine Le Pen made it to the second round of the presidential elections and in Germany the anti-Islam Alternative for Germany party (AFD) broke into the Bundestag with over 12% of the vote. In Eastern Europe, Brussels has been largely powerless in the face of populist and anti-immigration governments and politicians in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Thus, Bulgaria – though a small country dependent on EU funds – is likely to find many allies who would help them veto any liberal pressure from Brussels.

Bulgaria, the EU’s poorest member state, has nonetheless enjoyed a substantial economic recovery, with GDP growing over 3% in the last two years (3.6% 2015, 3.4% 2016). The migratory crisis, however, has proven beneficial to the nationalists. As the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s 2017 Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) report on Bulgaria note: “The European refugee crisis of the last several years, of which Bulgaria has experienced a small part, has demonstrated two things. First, xenophobia and xenophobic parties are on the rise. Second, government policies in accommodating and integrating refugees have generally failed, while civic organizations have proven to be very active and, in fact, indispensable to helping address refugees’ basic needs.”

Bulgaria seems to fulfill the prominent stereotype of the “wild” Balkan: Vigilantes have patrolled the country’s borders and countryside looking for migrants coming, and have sometimes caught them. The nationalist alliance United Patriots have demanded that migrants be halted at Bulgaria’s borders through violence if necessary. They have criticized the impoverished Roma population and rejected any settlement of Middle-Eastern refugees in the country. The nationalists have also profited from similar nationalist passions on neighboring Turkey: Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist government went so far as to interfere in Bulgaria’s recent parliamentary elections by telling the Turkish minority in Bulgaria (about 9% of the population) how to vote. Such foreign meddling naturally provided a boost to nationalist sentiment in Bulgaria.

Predominantly Pro-European

Bulgaria’s nationalists are, however, generally not expected to rock the boat excessively, but rather stick to a moderate line under the mainstream conservative prime minister, Boyko Borissov. In fact, Bulgaria remains by-and-large a pro-EU country, having only joined the bloc in 2007. Bulgarians are eager to join the Schengen Area, which allows free movement without passport controls with most of Western Europe, and the country is a great beneficiary of EU funds, representing a whopping 4.1% of GDP. The EU paid 1.96 billion euros to Bulgaria in 2016, or €275 per person, the equivalent of a month’s wage for many workers.

Nor is Bulgaria likely to lead a particularly cohesive bloc when it presides the EU Council for the first half of next year. The Eastern European populists may be united in their opposition to migrants, but in other respects their positions vary. Bulgaria and Romania are eager to support the EU so as to not be excluded from new structures, while Poland and Hungary have taken to Brussels-bashing, all the while quietly pocketing EU subsidies. In any case, despite a legal victory at the European Court of Justice (ECJ), the European Commission has backed down from its scheme for mandatory resettlement of 120,000 refugees across the EU as too controversial. The biggest bone of contention between Brussels and the Eastern European populists has thus been removed.

The populists are also divided on Russia, with Poland being markedly anti-Russian, while the rest being generally open to closer ties with Moscow. Bulgaria’s new government and Council presidency will thus put more against the EU’s current economic sanctions against Russia, imposed after Moscow’s invasion and annexation of Crimea.

Advocating for further integration

Bulgaria is likely to support the further integration of Western Balkans with the EU, including eventual membership, as a way of increasing stability. Neighboring Macedonia, a country with close cultural-linguistic ties to Bulgaria, may even start negotiations to join the bloc next year. For the most part, however, non-EU countries’ development in the region has been rather grim. In Serbia, more people oppose than support the prospect of EU membership. In Bosnia, Western nation-building efforts have in over two decades still failed to overcome corruption, economic underdevelopment and massive ethnic divisions.

Bulgaria is perhaps symptomatic of another Western trend of recent years: stagnation and decline. Despite economic growth from a low base, the country has failed to improve in most of Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI). Since 2014, there has been some improvement in labor market flexibility and jobs, and little other change. Educational, health, environmental, and many other policy areas have seen little or no improvement. The Bulgarian population has been collapsing at a massive rate: from almost 9 million people in 1988 to just 7.1 million today. Given the country’s low wages and poor public services, fertility is very low and emigration to the West in search of jobs very high. As the upcoming country report of Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) 2018 (to be published in February 2018) notes: “Bulgaria has addressed some of the other strategic issues but does not seem to have any viable strategy how to handle the demographic challenge.” The population is projected to shrink to a mere 5.5 million by 2060.

Following Western trends

The Bulgarian political scene has in contrast become increasingly lively. As in other countries, the two-party system has grown increasingly fragmented, with old movements dying and new ones emerging with great speed. A citizen’s referendum almost passed this year which would have made massive changes in the Bulgarian political system, including a virtual elimination of party subsidies and a majoritarian electoral system.

The trends in Bulgaria are thus quite representative of the Western civilization as a whole: economic recovery, demographic stagnation and decline, political instability in the face of new democratic politics. The rise of populism however does not necessarily pose an existential threat to the EU, however, the new Bulgarian government seems to be part of a novel trend in European politics: the rise of governments that are both moderately nationalist and EU-compatible.


Frank Beauchamp is an EU affairs writer. He regularly contributes to the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s BTI Blog and SGI News.

Photo copyright by European Union, 2017

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