Progressive Leadership in EU2018BG: Unpacking the Bulgarian EU Presidency in the Context of Enlargement


Taking the helm of the Council of the European Union (EU) presidency on January 1st, the Bulgarian government spelled out four priorities for its six month term: the future of Europe and young people; improving relations with the Western Balkans; the completion of a competitive and fair Digital Single Market; and security and stability[1]. To quote the Bulgarian EU Affairs Minister, Lilyana Pavlova, the key message is: “We want to be a Balkan presidency.”[2]

For candidate countries such as Serbia and Montenegro, this signals a revitalisation of their accession negotiations during a time of enlargement fatigue. For the EU, it is a departure from the official 18-month Programme of the Council for the Estonian/Bulgarian/Austrian rotation taking place July 2017 – December 2018[3]. Meanwhile, for Bulgaria, as a relatively new member, it is a unique selling point in carving its place in the EU policymaking at a time when the legitimacy of its government is in question over corruption issues. Certainly, no country is better placed to embrace the further integration of the Western Balkans. For instance, Bulgaria is geographically, politically, and culturally closer to the region than the Western EU states, yet carries no post-Yugoslav baggage like Croatia and Slovenia do. While the grand statements and strategies must be taken with a pinch of salt, hope for candidates Serbia and Montenegro lies in Commissioner Johannes Hahn and Jean Claude Junker hinting at possible 2025 accession to the EU. The Bulgarian presidency has the potential to be an important turning point in this process and make these possibilities into probabilities.

In Focus: Digitalisation and Transport

The Bulgarian program outlines a proposal for “the step-by-step adoption of the EU Roaming Rules by the Western Balkan countries as well, through gradual reduction of the charges and increasing the broadband internet access opportunities, an important initiative for digital connectivity.”[4] Alongside this, Bulgaria is expected in more concrete terms to reveal a proposal for dropping roaming charges in the candidate countries. Currently, the roaming charges an EU citizen incurs in Western Balkan countries are equal to those in South Africa or the United States. This is a significant reflection of the lack of connectivity between the EU and its neighbours, for even while the no-roaming charges policy did not come into effect until June 15th 2017, the charges travellers used to encounter across the Union were still over four times smaller than those in the Western Balkans.

Building on the idea of connectivity, Bulgaria has also signalled that it will focus on key infrastructure: “Another focus area will be on keeping cooperation processes in the Western Balkans region, where one of the main objectives is developing and connecting transport infrastructure as a driving force for growth and job creation.”[5] Given that Montenegro has already opened Chapter 14 (“Transport Policy”)[6] and that Serbia is at a “good level of preparation”[7] in regards to it, the Bulgarian efforts have the potential to speed up this component of negotiation. Moreover, it aims to improve both countries’ progress on Chapter 21 (Trans-European Networks)[8] as the programme further states Bulgaria’s main task is that of “oversee[ing] the successful continuation and closure of the negotiation process towards the reform of the regulatory framework for electronic communication. In the area of digital connectivity, the Bulgarian Presidency will create possibilities to speed up the integration of the Western Balkans in the EU digital policies.”[9] Undoubtedly, the focus on digitalisation is progressive in that it recognizes the role that the digital world plays in economic integration. However, it is also progressive in attempting to realize the potential of Western Balkan nations on the digital front.

Regional Challenges

Meanwhile, Bulgaria is in a unique position in the integration of the Western Balkans, specifically when it comes to the significant hurdle that corruption and organized crime still constitute to accession. Namely, whilst both Serbia and Montenegro have opened Chapter 24 (“Justice, Freedom and Security”)[10] they are still ranked 64th and 72nd on Transparency International’s Corruption Index[11] which suggests that closing these chapters is a long way away. Bulgaria’s unique position is that despite being an EU member state, it still faces corruption and organized crime issues itself – in TI’s Corruption’s Perceptions Index, it’s ranked 75th[12] making it not only the most corrupt country in the EU, but also more corrupt than its neighbours. Older members are not short of scepticism towards the Bulgarian government, such as recently noted by Dutch PM Mark Rutte who is sceptical about both Bulgaria and Romania joining the Schengen Zone, as well as current candidate countries being overly encouraged towards accession[13]. Consequently, the Bulgarian manifesto in relation to the Balkans promises to: “encourage their European perspective, including through enhancing security, stability, democratic foundations and the rule of law.”[14] Of course, the statement itself is vague and the task at hand nothing short of Herculean. However, given the difficulties that Bulgaria itself faces in relation to stomping out corruption and fighting organized crime (notable in its recent struggle to pass an anti-corruption bill)[15], it is, from the EU perspective, by far the best placed to help its neighbours tackle the same issues.

The focus on improving the rule of law in the Western Balkans is reflective of the hard facts of transnational organized crime and corruption networks: spread across the Balkans they form networks that the region must tackle together, not separately. Arguably the Balkan societies will continue in failing to tackle their drug and bribery problems through piecemeal isolated policies, and they must instead be comprehensive with cross-border security coordinated. Hence, the Bulgarian pledge to “work on enhancing cooperation with the countries of the Western Balkans in fighting serious and organized crime, terrorism, and border control.”[16] This is simultaneous to multiple newspapers publishing commentaries on the ‘cloud of corruption’ that hangs over the Bulgarian presidency of the EU Council.[17]

In more specific policy terms, Bulgaria and Romania have for over 10 years been monitored under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM)[18] designed by Brussels “as a transitional measure” to assist the two countries in their shortcomings within judicial reform, corruption and (for Bulgaria) organized crime. Whilst anti-corruption activists worry the momentum of the CVM has waned, it is clear that because of their similar domestic environment, the Western Balkan candidates must eventually be subject to a similar mechanism. Not only are the Western Balkans the key to improving the CVM in neighbouring Bulgaria and Romania, but learning from their experience is key to constructing an appropriate CVM for Serbia and Montenegro should they meet Juncker’s provisional timeline of a 2025 accession.

Murder in Kosovo

Important to remember that during these developments the Balkans have been shaken by the assassination of Oliver Ivanovic, long-time leader of the Serb community in Kosovo mere weeks ago. Having happened on the very day that a round of negotiations on stabilizing ties between Serbia and Kosovo in Brussels was due to take place, the assassination has sparked a first cross border cooperation between Belgrade and Pristina on sharing forensic evidence to find the culprit. Both governments, and the EU Commissioner Federica Mogherini have condemned the murder, but more importantly are collaborating on this level for the first time since Kosovo’s declaration of independence 10 years ago. Labeled as ‘outrageous’ by the Serbian government and its friends in the media, the idea is, as Prof. Joseph argues, that the assassination could be an opportunity for Kosovo and Serbia to show Brussels that they can work together. Moreover, it can be an opportunity towards improving border security, whereby for the past 10 years criminals have often used the unresolved Serbian/Kosovan border as a means of escaping justice.[19] Certainly, Chapter 35 (“Relations with Kosovo”) will be the most difficult for Serbia to close and as such this cooperation is key to moving ahead with negotiations – and the Serbian strongman Aleksandar Vučić’s immediate visit to Kosovo following the assassination signals Serbian commitment to making the most out of a tragedy.[20]

The Role of Russia

Finally, this focus on corruption is also reminiscent of a recent Op-Ed by Deputy Director of ECFR, Vessela Tcherneva, who coincidentally was a member of former Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nickolay Mladenov’s political cabinet until 2013. Her commentary, What Europe Can Do For The Western Balkans, is a blunt critique of Europe’s policy of ‘stabilocracy’ in the Western Balkans[21]. Namely, Tcherneva accuses the EU of exchanging stability for authoritarian kleptocracy in the Western Balkans and that by turning a blind eye to strongmen, the Union is not doing enough to bring the region closer. Certainly, whilst the fears of ethnic violence and instability in former Yugoslavia are justifiable since it was the setting for Europe’s bloodiest conflict since WWII, it is high time that the EU calls out corrupt strongmen on what they are. In not doing so, it may not be alienating the leadership as governments of the Balkans seem to be in consensus on their common European paths, but it is certainly alienating its populations[22]. In a region so vulnerable and often lodged between East and West, as exemplified by Dmitri Bechev’s recent book, Rival Power: Russia in Southeast Europe, this is dangerous politics.

When taking into account international developments and that Bulgaria will be followed by a far-right Austrian government, its policies in the coming months are even more important as Sofia’s political elite is aware it must put into motion irreversible changes. Moreover, taking into account that Bulgarian membership in the EU and NATO is largely at odds with the private links and energy interests that Russian oligarchs hold in the region[23], it is immensely important that Bulgaria’s lagging behind in corruption and economic development do not lead to marginalisation in the EU. This is also reflected in the government’s promise to “work on developing the inter-grid connectivity of the Western Balkans, in order to guarantee the security of the region’s energy supply,” as it is ultimately a means of gaining independence from Moscow.

Winning Hearts and Minds

Moreover, not only are the Balkans proving to be once again a playground between Russia and the West, but China and Japan have both increased their engagement with the region.[24] Prime Minister Abe Shinzo visited only Serbia in addition to five EU states, signalling its strategic importance. Of course Japanese interest in Serbia is partly explainable by competition with Beijing for influence due the growing relationship between Serbia and China in the past decade. Namely, the Chinese have introduced significant financial investments in both Serbia and the rest of the Western Balkans as part of their One Belt One Road (OBOR) project. In John Mearsheimer’s neorealist terms, these developments signal that the Balkans are finding themselves at a crossroads between great powers. For now, partnerships that Western Balkans government may have with European neighbors, and those with Russia or China are certainly not mutually exclusive, but the prospect of entering the single market means that this multi-vectorism will not be viable long-term. Even more importantly in the short term, during a time in which Europe is so fragile to right-wing populism and anti-Western rhetoric, perceptions matter and popular opinion matters. The enlargement fatigue has meant that domestic perceptions of enlargement are mixed both in and outside of Europe, and as such the Bulgarian presidency will play the key role in changing those perceptions in their attempt to set the Balkans on an irreversible path towards the EU.

The new strategy for enlargement of the European Union is due to be presented in February.[25] The governments of the Western Balkans will be listening, but even more importantly so will the people of the Western Balkans. It’s time to make a good impression.


[1]  “Priorities”. 2018. EU 2018 BG.

[2] “Bulgaria Wants To Use EU Presidency For Western Balkans Expansion”. 2018. The Financial Times.

[3] “Taking forward the Strategic Agenda: 18-month Programme of the Council”, Council of the European Union. 2017; The programme only mentions the Western Balkans twice, but does signal EU Enlargement as one of the foreign policy priorities.

[4] “Programme of the Republic of Bulgaria for the Presidency of the Council of the European Union” 2018. Republic of Bulgaria, 10.

[5] “Programme of the Republic of Bulgaria for the Presidency of the Council of the European Union” 2018. Republic of Bulgaria, 33.

[6] Montenegro 2016 Report: Communication on EU Enlargement Policy, The European Commission. 2016

[7] Serbia 2016 Report: Communication on EU Enlargement Policy, The European Commission.

[8] “Chapters Of The Acquis”. 2018. European Neighbourhood Policy And Enlargement Negotiations.

[9] “Programme of the Republic of Bulgaria for the Presidency of the Council of the European Union” 2018. Republic of Bulgaria, 33.

[10] “Chapters Of The Acquis”. 2018. European Neighbourhood Policy And Enlargement Negotiations.

[11] Corruptions Perceptions Index 2016, Transparency International, 2016.

[12] Corruptions Perceptions Index 2016, Transparency International, 2016.

[13] “Europe Reacts To European Commission President Juncker’s State Of The European Union Speech”. 2018. Open Europe.

[14] “Programme of the Republic of Bulgaria for the Presidency of the Council of the European Union” 2018. Republic of Bulgaria, 18.

[15] “Bulgaria Anti-Corruption Bill To Go Ahead”. 2018. BBC News.

[16] “Programme of the Republic of Bulgaria for the Presidency of the Council of the European Union” 2018. Republic of Bulgaria, 27.

[17] Jennifer, Rankin. 2018. “Cloud Of Corruption Hangs Over Bulgaria As It Takes Up EU Presidency”. The Guardian.

[18] “Cooperation And Verification Mechanism For Bulgaria And Romania”. 2018. European Commission.

[19] Edward, Joseph. 2018. “An Assassination Could Be Just What Kosovo Needed”. Foreign Policy.

[20] “Bulgaria’s EU Presidency Offers Western Balkans Unique Opportunity”. 2018. EURACTIV.

[21] Vessela Tcherneva, “What Europe Can Do for the Western Balkans”. 2017. European Council on Foreign Relations ;;

[22] Current statistics suggest that support for joining the EU is at little over 50% in Serbia.

[23] Nicolas, Tenzer. 2018. “What To Expect From Bulgaria’s EU Presidency?”. EU Observer.

[24] Liubomir K., Topaloff. 2018. “Japan, China, And The Western Balkans”. The Diplomat.

[25] “Where Does Serbia Stand On Road To EU In 2018”. 2018. B92.

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About the Author 

Millie Radovic is pursuing an MSc in Russian and Eastern European Studies at Oxford University. Her current research focuses on the political economy of NGO financing in the Balkans.

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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