Frank Beauchamp (Sustainable Governance Indicators)
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 that of 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 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 over, the bloc has significantly lost 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). In the year 2000, other EU countries imposed (temporary) 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 it will hold the EU’s rotating Council presidency in the first half of 2018, Bulgarian nationalist politicians will chair meetings of European ministers. As such, these nationalist ministers 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.
The EU’s poorest member state has nonetheless enjoyed a substantial economic recovery, with GDP growing over 3% in both of 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 notes: “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 in, 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 passions in neighboring Turkey: Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government went so far as to interfere in Bulgaria’s recent parliamentary elections by telling its Turkish minority (about 9% of the population) how to vote. Such foreign meddling naturally provided a boost to nationalist sentiment in Bulgaria.
Bulgaria’s nationalists are, however, generally expected to 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 within 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 as EU Council president. 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 Commission has backed down from its scheme for mandatory resettlement of 120,000 refugees across the EU. 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 are generally open to closer ties with Moscow. Bulgaria’s new government and Council presidency will thus put more pressure over the EU’s current economic sanctions against Russia.
Advocating further integration
Bulgaria is likely to support the further integration of the Western Balkans with the EU, including eventual membership, as a way of increasing stability. Neighboring Macedonia, a country with close cultural-linguistic ties, 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, the country has failed to improve in most Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI). Since 2014, there has been some improvement in labor market flexibility and jobs while 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. As the upcoming country report of Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) 2018 notes: “Bulgaria has addressed some of the other strategic issues but does not seem to have any viable strategy for handling 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 fading away and new ones emerging at great speed. A 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.
Bulgarian trends are thus quite representative of 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: the new Bulgarian government seems to reflect a novel trend in European politics – being both moderately nationalist and EU-compatible.
About Frank Beauchamp
Frank Beauchamp is an EU affairs writer. He regularly contributes to the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s BTI Blog and SGI News.
Plevneliev’s Victory And The Dogs That Didn’t Bark
“Elections don’t change anything,” reads graffiti scrawled across a wall in the center of Sofia. “If elections change[d] something, they would be banned.” In the wake of this month’s presidential and local elections, which culminated in a runoff for the presidency over the weekend, this may seem true. The ruling center-right party, the Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (known by its Bulgarian acronym GERB), stayed in power, winning several important mayoral seats and replacing the unpopular Socialist President Georgi Parvanov with its own candidate, Rosen Plevneliev. But underlying this seemingly anodyne string of events were several threats that did not materialize.
Bulgarian elections generally do not make headlines in Europe, but these were different. The country is the newest and poorest member of the European Union — and one of the most corrupt. Before its acceptance into the union in 2007, Sofia had embarked on a course of fiscal discipline, which many assumed would lead to a rise in radical populist nationalism, diminish Bulgarians’ formerly positive views of the EU, or spell the end of European-style liberalism on Europe’s periphery. These concerns deepened as the global economic crisis forced ever-larger budget cuts, which drove protesters into Sofia’s streets (much like those occupying other European capitals). Observers thus looked to the elections as a stress test.
Politically, meanwhile, Bulgaria is a strange animal. Democracy has survived there for the past two decades not because Bulgarians are happy with the governments they elect but because the system gives them a mechanism for expressing their rightful dissatisfaction. As a result of classic protest voting, most Bulgarian governments have not been reelected since the fall of Communism. And the actual election winners are often unpredictable. Twice in the last 20 years, an extraparliamentary party founded on the eve of the vote won the majority in parliament. As the Bulgarian sociologist Boryana Dimitrova once observed, “The party which will win the next elections is not registered yet.”
Given all these factors, it seemed possible that the Bulgarian electorate, fed up with economic hardship and GERB, would decline to vote (as many predicted), swing hard left against the politics of austerity, move further right toward ethnic nationalism, or drift away from the EU toward Russia. Or, the country would end up a divided mess even less capable of dealing with the economic crisis. Indeed, up until election day many observers believed that an opposition candidate would win and early general elections would be called. They were troubled by the prospect of such instability on the EU’s periphery at the precise moment the union is frantically dealing with the gravest crisis in its history.
The results, however, dashed the direst of predictions. Almost half of all registered voters participated in both rounds of elections — belying the fear that Bulgaria had given up on the electoral process altogether. Plevneliev came out ahead in initial voting and won 52.5 percent of the vote in the runoff, beating Ivailo Kalfin, the Socialist candidate, by five percent. The classically liberal candidate, Meglena Kuneva, who was Bulgaria’s first European consumer affairs commissioner, finished the first round of voting with 14 percent but did not qualify for the runoff. Even so, a significant number of Bulgarians appear to back her policies — giving hope that liberals might one day regain their strength in Bulgarian politics. Radical right-wing parties were among the biggest losers. The leader of the hypernationalist Ataka party, Volen Siderov, who five years ago reached the second round of the presidential elections, got less than four percent of the vote — the worst result in his party’s history. This is good news for Bulgaria and Europe.
For his part, Plevneliev is also a ressauring choice. He is a pragmatic manager who entered politics just two years ago, after a successful career in the construction industry. He speaks fluent German and English and is not tainted by corruption scandals. He is also closer to Brussels than Moscow — a marked contrast to the country’s outgoing president, who was the Kremlin’s closest ally in Bulgarian politics. Plevneliev is reluctant to support Russia’s energy projects in Bulgaria and is also determined to Europeanize public administration. Although the Bulgarian president’s role is largely ceremonial, Plevneliev’s stated ambition of turning the presidential office into a brain trust bodes well.
But beyond Plevneliev, the election’s real winner was current Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, a political maverick who combines Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s baroque political manner with an aptitude for German-style fiscal discipline. Since founding GERB, Borisov has won all the elections he has entered and has managed to turn GERB into the country’s most powerful party since the fall of communism. The party now controls all of the important national government seats and all those in major municipalities.
Theoretically, Plevneliev could act as a counterweight to Borisov — especially on the question of how close Bulgaria should be to Brussels. But Plevneliev does not have his own political support base, which he would need to play this role. Indeed, many observers believe that Plevneliev will initially toe the GERB line and that the party will gradually grow less tolerant of the opposition and media.
So, the recent elections have both their low and high points. They were the worst organized in the country’s recent history, and there are widespread allegations about vote manipulation and buying. The opposition does not contest Plevneliev’s win, but it does plan to go to court over some mayoral contests. No matter the outcome, the chaos and irregularities of the electoral process only deepened the public’s cynicism about politics. During the next election cycle, fewer might vote.
The elections show, moreover, that the European Union has lost some of its luster for Bulgarians. The great hope that the union would help the Bulgarian economy and act as a guarantee against corruption and undemocratic behavior has faded. In the early and middle part of this decade, Bulgarian citizens viewed Brussels as their closest ally against the misdeeds of their democratically elected elites. Today, Bulgarians have started to view Brussels as an ally of those same elites. Rather than pressing for reform or endorsing the public’s demand for change, players in Brussels tend to support either GERB or the Socialist Party, thus endorsing the status quo.
Now the high points: Voters did not usher in a new era of right-wing radicalism, and even if Bulgarians are more ambivalent toward the EU, they realize that there is no credible alternative to it. So all the major parties and candidates at least paid lip service to more effective cooperation with the EU. And at the very least, Plevneliev will not pull Bulgaria any further from the EU — an option that currently tempts many European leaders. Finally, consolidation of almost one-party rule will make it easier for the GERB government to pursue painful reforms in a time of fiscal crisis.
So even if the union is not saved by its periphery, it will not be destroyed by it, either. The elections did not change everything — perhaps not such a bad thing in this case.
Ivan Krastev is Chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies
in Sofia and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.
Tr@nsit online, 2011
This piece first appeared in the Foreign Affairs on October 31, 2011. Copyright © 2011 by the author & Foreign Affairs. No
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