Bulgaria in the EU: What are the challenges?

A critical look at the new EU member

, by Teodor Voinikov

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Bulgaria in the EU: What are the challenges?

In the course of the last 17 years Bulgaria underwent a complete political transformation and enjoys steady economic growth, macroeconomic stability and clear geopolitical perspectives. Nevertheless, problems are too many: low salaries, slow reforms in education and health care, bloated administration, red tape, corruption, ineffective judicial system, large and non-integrated Roma minority, growing nationalism, to name the most important.

But beneath the surface lay hidden mechanisms which often give an explanation to the current state of matters. A swift glance over some historical bonds, prejudices, clichés and current tendencies reveal the specifics of a nation in transition and the challenges in front of it.

Euroscepticism propagated

With the accession of Bulgaria in the EU on January 1st 2007, 18 new MEPs will represent our state in the European Parliament. In this way Bulgaria would have presumably the same impact on European matters as Austria – a state commensurate with Bulgaria in all parameters except for two – its annual GDP and the clout following from it. It’s a marvellous jump in time for a country which, according to most estimates, will need decades in order to align to the middle-European level in terms of wages and standard of living. Great. But people in Bulgaria are not impressed. Why? First, the media disseminate shocking prognoses of prices rapidly accelerating immediately after January 1st. Second, the fears for a second-class membership and the role of Bulgaria as a European backyard are quite convincing to people who were brought up under the sway of Communism in a state which is notorious for being the most servile among USSR satellites. Though both these prospects – of expensive life and second-rate membership – are highly exaggerated – they may fuel euroscepticism and pose a threat to Bulgarian identity as a political subject in the EU.

Reality Unveiled

One of the main challenges in Bulgaria in the foreseeable future concerns the clash of traditional mentality and backward working habits with the orders of modernity. Bulgarians seek solace for daily hardships in their remote past, plunge into sloppy sentiments about communistic society of protectionism and security and are divided in their attitude towards the participation of the former secret service members into today’s economic and political life. Many of them seem utterly unprepared for the demands of a constantly globalizing world and growing competition, given their low education, bad language skills, parochialism and paternalistic approach to life, inherited by the previous regime.

The debate about the role of communism in Bulgarian history is still going on, but the picture is blurred and even today most people are confused about all the different theories circulating in the public sphere.

The accession of Bulgaria to the EU won’t put an end to questions of national character, common interest and shared future. Bulgaria has no clear sense of where it wants to go.

Service economy or tourist paradise? Cheap work force incubator, ground for outsourcing tigers or sanitary cordon? We are also facing a sharp identity crisis. Who we are? Europeans? Bulgarians? Slavs? What do we want? Where do we go? Terms of identity, origin and nationality are to be redefined in the context of a changing global world and spreading pluralism.

Mixed Signals

Bulgaria still finds it difficult to follow a consistent attitude towards its partners from Europe and NATO. The three-party coalition government led by the Socialist Party set up a controversial project for the construction of a second Atomic Power Station in Belene and gave the realization to a Russian company thus cementing the dependence of Bulgarian economics on Kremlin. This step along with other concessions to Russia reinforced European doubts in Bulgarian loyalty and undermines the attempts of European states to diversify their energy supplies and to draw up common pan-European energy politics. Bulgarian political elite must meet the challenge of less hypocritical approach and forge a national doctrine with clear definition of the Bulgarian interest as a constituent and integral part of a broader and common European interest. Otherwise we won’t fulfil our obligations as a European partner and will turn into Trojan horse for Kremlin in the EU after the words /and desires/ of the current Russian Ambassador in the EU Vladimir Cijov.

Nationalism revived: Passing Infatutations?

Election results and opinion polls in recent years together with historical background show that more and more people in Bulgaria give preference to an “iron fist rule”, charismatic leaders and pure populism.

That’s a threat to the democratic future of Bulgaria and together with aggressive nationalism adds to a fragmented political spectre and a loss of confidence in traditional political parties. It is up to a new generation of politicians to restore people’s trust and inject new life and meaning into political issues.

A Better Future

The main challenge for Bulgaria is to find its true place in the EU so as not to lose identity – which means – to take on easy its traditional role of a small country without leadership ambitions and at the same time stand up for its rights and interests when necessary. It’s the responsibility of a new generation of young leaders – in politics as well as in economics – to better utilize the resources of the state and the potentials of young people in order to trace the path to a society of tolerance and social welfare.

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