#BGVOTESEU Shows Bulgaria Still Has a Long EU Road Ahead

Features |Author: Angel Petrov | May 20, 2014, Tuesday // 16:20|  views

Participants in the first #BGVOTESEU panel discussion, left to right: Nikolay Vassilev, Ivanka Ivanova, Gergana Passy, Ognyan Zlatev, Vladimir Shopov (details in the text below). Photo by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation

What does Bulgaria look like in the EU? How does it meet all the needs of democratic transformation?

How could the EU vote affect the its citizens' lives, restating Bulgaria's commitment to being part of the European democratic family?

In #BGVOTESEU, the event organized by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) and PanEuropa Bulgaria, experts, politicians and civil society representatives tried to answer these questions. They discussed Bulgaria's European choice, the yet-unacquired benefits of EU membership and the challenges still lying ahead of democratic development.

Daniel Kaddik, the FNF's Project Director for Southeast Europe, kicked off the conference with an appeal that Bulgaria change the way it perceives its EU membership, as it does not imply any automatic steps of progress.

His opening remarks were followed by those of Prof. Ognyan Gerdzhikov, who was Parliament Speaker in the government which saw Bulgaria joining the EU and who outlined Bulgaria's long road to European membership in a rather witty keynote speech and described the country's accession treaty as “the best one Bulgaria has ever signed”.

Seven years of Bulgaria in the EU: a dream still to be accomplished?

In the first part of the conference, bearing the name above and moderated by PanEuropa Bulgaria's President Gergana Passy, the negative aspects of Bulgaria's performance as a EU member were on the agenda, and five prominent experts made their stand clear.

The Director of the Open Society Foundation's Legal Program, Ivanka Ivanova, placed a special emphasis on the Verification and Cooperation Mechanism and its negative aspects for Bulgaria's democratic development.

Due to the way in which the mechanism is functioning, "one cannot say whether [Bulgaria] has had any progress over the last few years," Ivanova argued. She believes the problems as put forward by the mechanism (corruption, organized crime, rule of law) are too broadly defined and this does not allow for concrete measures to be adopted against the issues.

Ivanova added that Bulgaria should be allowed to focus on problems that are rather "small" and "easy to set out". Referring to the OSI program she is currently managing, she cited training in EU law for Bulgarian students as a field where Bulgaria lags far behind despite effort to keep in pace with the EU, as it neither attracts enough young people to receive such training nor can offer any variety of programs for that purpose. Ivanova therefore called for the Mechanism for Cooperation and Verification to be scrapped, as she thinks it could only put a wheel on Bulgaria's road to democratic progress and also to further EU integration.

Ognyan Zlatev, who heads the EU Commission Representation in Bulgaria, offered an "outside" perspective on Bulgaria.

The debate for the EU's role in Bulgaria "is confined to the EU funds - what we received and what we gave. This downplays discussions on Bulgaria's benefits from its accession into the EU," he said and expressed his belief that, combined with the financial crisis, this prompted the huge wave of euroskepticism. Our place as part of the European community, combined with the fact that our Cyrillic alphabet became official for the bloc upon Bulgaria's entering, are rather signs of the good results from the historic perspective. Zlatev urged Bulgaria to show political will in order to maintain the progress marked since 2013's last quarter. This, in his view, should also increase the amount of European funding allocated to Sofia, because a country "receives as much as it manages to defend".

Nikolay Vassilev, former Deputy Prime Minister (2001-2005) and Minister of Public Administration and Administrative Reform (2005-2009), cited the "marathon effect" as one of the main issues of Bulgaria after it joined the EU, meaning the country lost its ambitions and its push for improvement upon joining the bloc. He called for continued austerity policies and increased transparency in EU funds absorption, but also to shift the focus from receiving European money to developing innovation projects.

Vladimir Shopov, Director of the European Strategy and Policy Institute, outlined the illusions which led Bulgaria to losing its way after 2007, such as Bulgaria's belief that the EU would offer automatic transformation and comfort to the country, thus making membership benefits seem "self-evident". With those illusions collapsing, however, rhetoric against Europe gained ground in the country with those who came out as losers of the democratic transition linking their failures to the membership.

Judging by its attitude to the ongoing EU affairs, "Bulgaria is behaving more as a policy taker," Shopov said. He condemned the concentration of media ownership for contributing to an excessive "simplification" of the European debate over the past months. Calling for a change in the way Bulgaria perceives its membership in the EU, he cited the example of Slovakia, which managed to put forward its healthcare problems on the European agenda and managed to attract the funds it needed via a special strategy developed in the field.

Ukraine and sanctions against Russia expectedly became an issue for the participants, although that was not until the question-and-answer session. The brightest remark, however, came from former Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Passy, who suddenly joined the discussion and, after a game of counting hands of the audience, proved that uncertainty over whether to impose measures on Russia derived from not knowing what exactly should be their purpose.

MEP candidates united over EU integration, but divided over Russia

In the second panel of the discussion, Darik Radio host Kiril Valchev posed six short questions to five MEP candidates.

Darik Radio host Kiril Valchev carried out a quick question-and-answer session for five MEP candidates. Photo by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation

The representatives of the Reformist Bloc, the Greens, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), the Christian Democrat Party and the National Movement for Stability and Progress (NDSV) managed to display consensus on a number of these issues. They agreed that European integration should continue with an energy union (proposed by Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk) and a deeper federalization. They also unanimously backed the promotion of EU's role as a world-renowned donor for countries in need.

MEP candidates nevertheless remained divided over Russia's prospective place in the EU (despite confirming that of Turkey when that country "has complied with the criteria). They also clashed over the course Brussels should embark on for a successful economic recovery, with some arguing investment should lead it out of its economic stagnation and others maintaining continuous austerity should be kept in action.

With his rapidly fired questions, which somehow resembled those asked during his live radio show, Valchev proved that Bulgarian politicians were able to answer in a few words, against all expectations.

A farewell

The event was also a farewell reception of Dr Rene Klaff, outgoing Director of the Sofia-based Regional Office Central, East and Southeast Europe, South Caucasus and Central Asia of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation.

The Friedrich Naumann Foundation's Regional Director, Dr Rene Klaff. Photo by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation

“Don't think that the topics we discussed are only a Bulgarian priority. We also have them in Germany,” stressing that criticism of the EU is a European phenomenon.

Klaff added freedom of press and corruption are among the most worrying issues in Bulgaria in the view of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation. Citing the Reporters without Borders and Transparency International's low rankings of Bulgaria, he argued the trend they were outlining was a “catastrophe” and threw doubts on the quality of democracy, transparency and open competition, as well as to the rule of law.

To fix these defects “is a Bulgarian task, not a EU task,” Klaff underscored.

He expressed his confidence that Bulgaria's democratic potential “is not dead, but is developing [and] is hopefully becoming stronger”.

Dr Klaff will be heading to Egyptian capital Cairo to head the FNF's Middle East regional buro.

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Tags: MEP, Rene Klaff, Kiril Valchev, Vladimir Shopov, Nikolay Vasilev, Ognyan Zlatev, Ivanka Ivanova, Ognyan Gerdzhikov, EU, PanEuropa Bulgaria, Gergana Passy, FNF, Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, Gergana Passy, Daniel Kaddik, #BGVOTESEU, FNF


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