December 4, 2012 9:49 pm

Governance: Policy makers carry the fight to escape from Europe’s shadows

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the Bulgarian parliament building in Sofia©Getty

Focal point: the Bulgarian parliament building in Sofia

Almost six years after Bulgaria’s entry into the EU, an occasional cloud of disappointment drifts over Sofia as Bulgarians contemplate the gap between the promised advantages of membership and the concrete gains made. The mood is reciprocated in some EU capitals, especially in western Europe, where it is common to hear the view that Bulgaria was granted admission too soon and that its progress towards EU standards of governance continues to falter.

“It was expected that things would get better and better, but I never guessed when we joined in 2007 that the country would have such a slow take-off,” says Meglena Kuneva, who negotiated Bulgaria’s EU membership and was its first commissioner in Brussels.

Next to Nato membership, a place in the EU was an essential requirement for Bulgaria after its geopolitical vulnerability was exposed by the collapse of communism in eastern Europe in 1989 and wars in neighbouring Yugoslavia. In 2007 EU membership quickly proved its worth when Bulgaria’s new European partners secured the release of five Bulgarian nurses sentenced to death in Libya on groundless charges of deliberately infecting children with HIV.

With its vital interest in Balkan stability, Bulgaria keenly supports the EU’s regional expansion to include three of its five neighbours that remain outside the bloc: Serbia, the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia and Turkey. Yet the first two are unlikely to join the EU before the end of this decade, and Turkey may never be allowed in. Relations with Macedonia are getting frostier because of disputes over that state’s treatment of its Bulgarian minority. All this leaves Bulgaria with a sense that it is ploughing a lonely furrow in a corner of Europe that is relatively neglected and, on account of Greece’s debt crisis, rife with economic uncertainty.

Bulgaria is nevertheless aware of its EU responsibilities. In its public finances it is one of the bloc’s most disciplined member-states. Unlike the UK and Czech Republic, Bulgaria did not refuse to sign this year’s “fiscal compact” treaty, a cornerstone of future European economic governance.

After much hard work Bulgaria has also met all the technical demands imposed by the EU as a condition of joining the bloc’s border-free Schengen travel regime. Bulgaria is active in the EU’s fight against drug trafficking and illegal immigration. Yet, like Romania, Bulgaria is being kept out of Schengen because of Dutch, German and Finnish opposition. A compromise under which passport-free travel would be permitted through Bulgarian airports and sea ports is not yet within reach.

The northern European argument is that Bulgaria’s inability to stamp out corruption, crack down on organised crime and reform its judicial system justifies the nation’s continued exclusion from Schengen.

The origins of these failings lie in the political, economic and legal chaos that accompanied Bulgaria’s emergence from communism in the 1990s. Even Boyko Borisov, the centre-right premier who came to power in 2009 vowing to root out corruption, has found it hard to satisfy his EU partners that his government is making enough progress.

“Few important organised crime cases have resulted in sentences, and there have been several acquittals in important cases where evidence in the public domain raised expectations of convictions,” the European Commission said in a report last July.

Out of 33 contract killings monitored by the Commission since 2006, only four court cases had started, it said. Moreover, Commission officials regularly received complaints from Bulgarian citizens and foreign investors about judicial inaction and alleged collusion with organised crime at a local level. Sergei Stanishev, leader of the socialist opposition and a former prime minister, said the EU report “lifted a curtain hiding a dark reality”.

For his part, Mr Borisov says he accepts the need for the EU to issue regular reports on Bulgaria’s performance. But in a FT interview in Sofia he adds: “If by December next year we’ve done our homework right, there’ll be no more need for such reports.”

The EU authorities also express impatience with Bulgaria for its inability to make full use of the generous regional aid funds and other programmes on offer since 2007. Bulgarian officials say, however, that the absorption of EU funds is improving rapidly.

According to Professor Venelin Tsachevsky, a leading authority on EU-Bulgarian relations, Bulgaria in its first five years of membership managed to use only 30 per cent, or €3.9bn, of the total financial resources available to it through the EU. Yet, during this period, Bulgaria made a financial contribution to the EU that amounted to about €1.9bn.

As a result, the net financial benefit to Bulgaria from EU membership between 2007 and 2011 turned out to be €400m a year – useful, but not transformational.

Bulgaria is, understandably, anxious to increase its aid levels in the EU’s next seven-year budget cycle.

But, in an article for Finland’s Turku School of Economics, Mr Tsachevsky wrote: “Bulgaria’s demand for a greater allocation from the 2014-20 EU budget will gain support in the EU on condition that its government steps up the utilisation rate, curbs the corruption and misuse of funds and improves the effectiveness in absorbing the EU resources.”

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