Close-Up Eastern EU Enlargement – Bike Paths and Racists

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Bulgaria is still EU’s poorest and most corrupt Member State. When the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev recently presented his essay “Sled Evropa” (“After Europe” in English) in Sofia, he filled the auditorium. The questions and comments from the audience were at least as interesting as Krastev’s analysis of the current situation and possible future developments. One listener put it in a nutshell: Bulgaria, he said, has always been the butt of Europe.

The man is right – sadly. In 2006, a large clock in the centre of the capital city of Sofia indicated the remaining number of days before joining the EU. The population’s expectations were immense although then socialist head of government Sergei Stanishev admitted in an interview with the taz that no one should imagine they would wake up in a different country on 1 January 2007. Even then, anyone who wanted to know could have known that the inclusion of Bulgaria, as well as Romania, in the EU was above all a political decision. But Brussels had set a train on the tracks that was unstoppable.
 
Today, ten years later, the balance is rather sobering. With an annual gross domestic product of 6,500 euros (Germany: 40,000 euros), Bulgaria is not only the poorest, but also the most corrupt country in the EU. According to an analysis by the US organisation Global Financial Integrity, the state loses 14 to 22 percent of its gross domestic product annually, which corresponds to between 10 and 6 billion euros. Last June, when 22 Bulgarian border police who had cashed in heavily were arrested, the equivalent of 33,000 euros were seized from them.
 
As far as the informal economy is concerned, Bulgaria is also the leader with a share of 30 percent of gross domestic product in the EU. The losses for the treasury amount to about 1 billion euros annually. At average wages of 500 euros a month (the minimum wage is 235 euros) and living costs approaching Western standards, many Bulgarians just barely make ends meet. Retirees have to be modest with lousy retirement benefits and often rely on the support of relatives. In early November, employees of academic institutions in Sofia, who receive 350 euros a month, demonstrated for a wage increase. The brain drain that has been battering Bulgaria since the fall of Communism in 1989 goes on. According to the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, the country of seven million inhabitants will lose up to 400,000 well-qualified workers over the next five to ten years.
 
There is still plenty of room for improvement in the infrastructure, as well, for the expansion of which Sofia will receive 800 million euros from the EU budget in the coming year alone. The streets in Sofia away from the main traffic arteries are in miserable condition. The overall picture is not improved by the fact that now, much to the annoyance of many motorists, the first bike paths have been installed in Sofia. The disappointed hopes of many Bulgarians, as in other countries, especially benefit right-wing populist groups. Refugees and migrants are the preferred targets of the hate of the United Patriots, who have been in the government alongside the conservative party GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria) since the elections in March this year.
 
The party-owned TV station SKAT, which also tends to go on tirades against the EU, ensures a correspondingly negative mood. It doesn’t matter that the numbers of refugees in Bulgaria fell drastically in 2017 and only one-fifth of accommodation capacities are presently being put to use. According to a survey conducted last October, 84 percent believed that refugees from the Middle East should be denied entry to Bulgaria. Two-thirds of respondents do not want to have refugees as neighbours.
 
The right-wingers are also not squeamish in their dealings with the Turkish minority. Patriotic lawmaker Valentin Kasabov recently claimed that the Turks should shut up or they would be crushed like cockroaches. Against the backdrop of these unfortunate developments, bets are on as to what will happen in the first half of 2018 when Bulgaria takes over the EU Presidency for the first time.
 
Whether, under the motto of “Unity Makes Us Strong,” this presidency is a success or a disaster will depend not only on those responsible in Sofia, but also on Brussels. In this context, the remarks made by EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at a meeting with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov on 8 November in Brussels seem bizarre. Europe is part of Bulgaria’s DNA, Juncker said, and since the first day after its accession the country has acted as if it were one of the founders of the Union.
 
This assessment reveals a lack of contact with reality. And that is absolutely counterproductive when it comes to seriously tackling the problems in Bulgaria. How much that’s needed is described in a report by the Commission, Juncker’s authority, from last week. In the fight against corruption and organised crime, Bulgaria’s progress is far from sufficient, it says once again.
 
But there are other voices in Brussels, too. Věra Jourová, EU Commissioner for Justice, Consumer Protection and Equality, suggested that the allocation of funds be linked to the development of the rule of law – an unmistakable message not only to Poland and Hungary, but also to Bulgaria. Still, 55 percent of Bulgarians support their country’s EU membership. But the feeling could tip over. And nobody can seriously hope for that.