Bulgaria's New EU Commissioner Jeleva: a Really Crucial 'Assistant' Portfolio

Editorial |Author: Ivan Dikov | November 30, 2009, Monday // 23:48|  views

At the end of last week, Bulgaria’s Foreign Minister, Rumiana Jeleva, was named by EC President Barroso the new EU Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid, and Crisis Prevention.

The portfolio, which is brand-new for the EC, has spurred controversial reactions in Sofia, including a statement by former Prime Minister, and Socialist Party Chair, Sergey Stanishev, that with it Jeleva has effectively been reduced to the rank of “Assistant-Commissioner” rather than a full-fledged one.

Bulgaria’s Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov, himself has first commented that there were “sweeter”, i.e. better portfolios but has also stressed that the new portfolio was more crucial than the one of outgoing Commissioner Meglena Kuneva, Bulgaria’s first ever EU Commissioner, who has been in charge of consumer protection since January 2007.

There are a couple of things that everybody seems to overlook as far as EU Commissioner portfolios and appointments are concerned. First of all, the European Commissioner is the most supranational body of the EU with many of the trappings of an actual government, and as such its members are clearly supposed to act – and do act – as top EU officials rather than as national envoys. Clearly, it matters where a respective Commissioner comes from, and how important their portfolio is, but the whole haggling thing does serve to shift the focus from the “EU” Commissioner to the “Bulgarian” Commissioner, in our case.

Second, as all 27 member states have insisted on having their own Commissioner, the small states being the most vocal ones in insisting on that (though not Bulgaria, which by the way, seems hardly vocal about anything in the EU, for a number of interesting reasons, which are not the topic here), it is only understandable that about half of all Commissioners will have “assistant” portfolios – in the words of Stanishev. But there is simply seems to be no way around this under the current arrangement of 1 member state = 1 Commissioner.

In this sense, there is an important footnote regarding three of the new Commissioner portfolios referring to Jeleva’s International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response, as well as to Development, and Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy, which states: “In close cooperation with the High Representative/Vice-President in accordance with the treaties.”

In other words, the Commissioners responsible for the above portfolios, including Bulgaria’s Jeleva, are sort-of deputies of the High Representative Catherine Ashton as they are in charge of various foreign policy aspects, and are de-facto assistant Commissioners.

(The introduction of Assistant Commissioners might not be such a bad idea after all instead of having a whole crowd of almost 30 Commissioners who are equal at least on paper; but of course, there are those who have already raised hue and cry about “losing their voice” in the Commission, and are sure to do that again.)

The third point here is that Bulgaria should be plenty happy with what it got since, as Jeleva herself put it, though in a different context, “we couldn’t get enlargement (read: something bigger) anyway”.

Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borisov had stated his government had targeted one of the following for energy, regional development, enlargement, or infrastructure. This was, of course, a rather daring initiative since Bulgaria doesn’t really happen to have a distinguished record in any of these fields.

On top of that, (and in addition to being known for corruption and organized crime – something that the Borisov government is yet expected to change), Bulgaria is the ultimate poor in the EU with its ridiculous GDP of 0,3% of the EU total – or about EUR 30-40 B in absolute terms. That is, to look at the simplest indicator.

Basically, the only member states with lower GDP than Bulgaria’s in terms of absolute value are countries with much smaller populations – Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Cyprus, and Malta. And that excludes states such as Slovakia and Slovenia, not to mention Luxembourg, which also have fewer people than Bulgaria, but whose economic output is greater.

So since Bulgaria, despite its size, carries nowhere near the weight of other small/medium-sized EU nations such as Austria, Greece, the Czech Republic, or Belgium, it really had no grounds to demand anything big. The only way this could happen is if its nominee was an absolutely outstanding specialist in some of the fields, and it is hard to recall Jeleva – or any other potential Bulgarian nominee for that matter – winning a Nobel Prize for energy or enlargement.

All in all, Bulgaria should be very happy with its portfolio, and its new Commissioner should really exert all efforts to do a very good job. The portfolio is actually mainly in charge of EU’s humanitarian aid. The “international cooperation” phrase is just inserted to make it more palatable but Jeleva will only be entitled to work on specially designated international cooperation projects.

For one thing, however, Jeleva’s portfolio – in addition to crisis prevention within the EU which is very crucial in itself and gives a chance to build up a good image for Bulgaria – has a lot to do with EU’s work to provide relief for the so called “Less Developed Countries”, or LDCs, formerly known as the Third World. Which means that through Jeleva’s (hopefully) good work, Bulgaria has a clear chance to establish good contacts with many of those states all around the world who – despite all their problems – carry a huge potential.

Then, maybe even more important, comes the fact that Jeleva’s portfolio is part of EU’s beginning love affair with building a proper foreign policy of its own. The Bulgarian Commissioner is supposed to be aiding the High Representative in its efforts to finally build a decent foreign policy face for Europe before the rest of the world.

With little hard power, if any, to prop up any foreign policy initiatives, the EU is set to continue to rely for quite some more time to come on soft power, or “carrots”, and the humanitarian aid/crisis prevention sector is one of its major trump cards in trying to establish itself more firmly in international politics especially as far as dealings with the non-Western world are concerned. Therefore, to put it that way, the success of the forming of a decent common foreign policy of the EU, partly relies on the success of the work of the new Bulgarian Commissioner.

So Jeleva has her hands full. She should really learn from her predecessor, Bulgaria’s first EU Commissioner, Meglena Kuneva, who, according to popular opinion, has taken a relatively unimportant and unfamiliar portfolio – consumer protection – and turned it into a rather big deal through her diligent work. Hopefully, Jeleva, for the reasons described above, will be able to go much further.

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Tags: Rumiana Jeleva, EU Commissioner, EU, Catherine Ashton, High Representative, Boyko Borisov, Sergey Stanishev, European Commission, EC


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