Sofia’s Council of EU and China 16+1 Summit presidencies –
pathway to resilient neighbourhood?
Abstract: The article reviews the legal, historical and policy boundaries of Bulgaria’s current commitments to institutionalized summits in 2018, as well as the conceptual transferability of the idea of resilience in the Neighbourhood that can be achieved through non-sensitive policy initiatives.
How do foreign policies come to being?
Eastern Partnership of the EU was evoked during the Czech presidency of the Council of the European Union and further developed by most notably by Sweden and Poland. The executive of their governments thus capitalized on the chance not only to continue and conclude legislative dossiers, which take up to two years from the conceptualization to the promulgation, but also to propose a new direction in EU’s common foreign policy, an agenda-setting prerogative exclusive to the Presidency. The domain has been largely restricted by a number of factors. As many other supranational bodies, its functioning depends on a country’s overall welfare, as only a prosperous country would find utility in paying lavish salary to second its experienced bureaucrats, who could spread their ideas internally. Additionally, EU’s foreign policy, often decided at meetings of one of the ten configurations of the Council of EU and chaired by the HRVP, has been difficult to coordinate, both due to the discrepancy of weighting member-states positions embedded in their overall normative performance, as wells as their divergent preferences, which make reaching anonymity almost impossible. Recently, many have begun also to ponder over EU’s ability to maintain the resilience of the pro-European communities not only its vicinity, but also in its internal periphery, which largely corresponds to the countries not willing to sacrifice their sovereignty of having an own monetary policy. Among these there are member states whose foreign and defence ministries are led by ministers mandated by nationalist or populist parties or staffed with elderly personnel belonging to the old conjuncture might have a desire to simply gain access to documents requiring security clearance. Hence, more often than not foreign policy comes to being as a top-down endeavour of the bureaucratic leadership – be it the HRVP, the College of Commissioners, or the EPSC advisory body to the Commission’s President. Of course, there is also the possibility that that a member of the MEP self-commissions a legislative report that is put on AFET’s agenda and voted on with an absolute majority in the plenum – an act, on which the Commission must follow up according to its own inter-institutional agreement with the EP.
Bulgarian origins, soft power influences and identity.
Bulgarians, as many other Balkan nations, suffer from an identity disorder. While some focus on the Eurasian trajectory of their ancestry, which leads back to the aboriginal origins that point towards Uzbekistan and western Kazakhstan, the Old Great Bulgaria around the Azov Sea and possibly extending to North Caucasus (due to the presence of the Kabardino-Balkaria north of Georgia), as well as а number of settlements along the Black Sea coast (near Odessa, Constantsa, Odesos, etc.), as well as the Bolgar Tatarstan region in Russia, some genetic scientists emphasize Thracian influence and discard the Slavic thesis, which was used during Soviet times to draw the country closer to itself (incl. through the simplification of Old Bulgarian language, used until 1920s). More recently, Russia’s soft power comes into play also through the channels that have become well known to the Eastern Partnership countries – hybrid diffusion of ideas and alternative discourses through internet, usage of the Russia population’s feigned friendship to get the best private property along the coast, as well as the promoting a more conservative liberal mind-set through the Orthodox church, which also is a sense a juxtaposition of West European multilateralism and liberalism.
In particular, this transliterates into the presence of the Donetsk People’s Republic flag on national holidays, which is then shared in internet, the ownership of more than 500 000 private properties by around 200 000 thousand Russians, as well as the recent interference of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church into the dialogue concerning the Istanbul Convention. It has focused on Art. 3. c), which defines gender in the context of gender-based violence against women as „socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men“. Naturally, within a country at the crossroads of influences from the west, south and east, this claim was contestable.
What made a bigger impression was the nearly omnipotent political discontent with this claim that included most notably the socialists in opposition, whose previous leader (born in Kherson, Crimea and is currently heading the Party of the European Socialists) committed personally to the adoption of the declaration on European level, the United Patriotic Front (which holds the Defence, Economics and Demographics portfolios). Both of these parties have been accused of some form of cooperation with Russian business groups, leadership or intellectuals (such as A. Dugin, who appears on photos with Volen Siderov, head of ATAKA, which is in turn the most Russophile, populist and nationalist element of the patriotic front). With the rapprochement of Russia and Turkey that comes down to the failed South Stream natural gas pipeline project (discarded due to lack of compliance with the Third Energy Package of the EU and abandoned despite the advancement of the Nord Stream II) that has transformed into the TANAP, the divided and side-lined Movement for Rights and Justice (DPS) might have wanted to vote against the convention, but thus it would have blocked the way for coalition with the ruling Christian-democrats. Although the previous DPS leadership (Ahmet Dogan) has been accused of being seconded by the Turkish intelligence in Bulgaria to overcome the friction that followed the „Great Excursion“, resp. the deporting of Muslims unwilling to change their names by the former Communist party, it has found its allies on both sides of the political spectrum (possibly also due to previous ties with the current Prime Minister, who was back then the private security guard of the communist leader Todor Zhivkov and subsequently also the king-in-exile, who became a prime minister), the new leadership might still be unable to position itself. Although accused of pro-Russianism due to his proposal to review the sanctions against Russia, after the prolongation of the sanctions by the Council of EU in December, the current president Radev (a nomination of the Socialists) has toned down his position and slowly emancipated himself. One clear deduction from the aforementioned facts is that virtually all parties (possibly with the exclusion of the Greens) have had something to do with Russian interests or stakeholders and that it is the advent of the country’s Council of EU Presidency that has transformed these into delegitimizing factors. A further factor in the direction is also the lacking drive for an all-encompassing lustration despite reinvigoration of the Vergangenheitsbewältigung (dealing with past) through uncovering the truth about labour camps or socialist cadre policy, beneficiaries of which still run many public entities (esp. in education, research and intelligence).
But how does this distant and recent past transliterate into identities? The question is asked in plural, as by default the country has been said to consist of at least three ethnicities (proto-Bulgarian, Thracian and Slavic) and support for EU membership just slightly above 50%. With a thesis about a central Asian origin supported during socialism and another about a Pamir-Hindu Kush supported by Turkish and English scholars, previous influences from Iran, Ostrogoths, Celts, with some Armenian and Jewish minorities living inside the country, Bulgarian minorities alongside its borders, as well as in Ukraine, Armenia and Russia (Tatarstan, Chuvashia and Kabardino-Balkaria), the picture becomes even more complicated. To this one should add that there is more work force abroad than in the country itself, as well as that demographic projections are dystopian. Bearing the latter in mind, many are sticking to conservative values and protectionism over the last remaining assets that have not been sold to offshore companies that don’t pay taxes (latest assets sold include most malls in the capital, a large bank, the national tobacco company, as well as gold and wood extraction, etc.). Last but not least, the country is boasting many negative labels, such as most corrupt, the one with the least free media, the poorest, etc., which only support encapsulation, distrust towards the unknown and support for a seemingly strong leadership that legitimizes itself with the support of printed press spread to an aged population and owned by the largest magnate – Delyan Peevski, responsible for a bank outburst that ate nearly four billion Euro of taxpayers’ money.
Geopolitics – a case of small, unreformed member of the Union.
Superimposing geopolitical aspirations over a plethora of domestic concerns seems to the most noted feature of the Bulgarian Council of EU Presidency. It begins with the Western Balkans – a domain with long history that was a feature of the head of the Socialist International Georgi Dimitrov’s and Tito’s aspirations for seclusion from the Soviet Union that resulted in the subsequent plundering of the country (incl. its gold reserves, human capital through resettlements, as well as natural resource endowments) during its time as USSR-satellite. Bulgaria holds also probably the highest number of scholars researching on the region, as well as a large number of former dissident-traders that were active during the Yugoslav embargo. Cultural affinity and susceptibility of socially constructed irregularities could definitely be of use to the wider Union, should Bulgaria manage to conduct the necessary domestic reforms and showcase regional leadership.
But this is not its single geopolitical feature. In November 2017, the Prime Minister and the former king in exile met with their counterparts in Saudi Arabia, thus turning their back on an African Union – European Union Summit in Cote d’Ivoire, possibly thus avoiding the politicization of contentious nature of the migration policy. In the aftermath of its Council of EU Presidency Bulgaria will hold also the next edition of the China – CEE 16+1 Summit, which is by far the best chance to capitalize on the ownership of the trajectory of the One Belt, One Road. Hence, the Bulgarian Presidency must make sure that corruption is eradicated in the domains where the biggest amount of EU funds are distributed – namely transport, railway and energy networks, as well as that its trade-off between South Stream and the Commission support for a Balkan Energy hub finds an additional supporter in the face of China. Additionally, its ability to facilitate dialogue learned during the Council Presidency should make sure that Chinese investments do not take the form of loans, but rather a combination of toll taxes, management and technical engineering expertise (as the current performance of reviving the national railways is rather low). Additionally, it should use the competition for control of ports between Russia and China not only to expand the capacity of its own ports, but also to put illicit maritime networks (oftentimes starting from Sevastopol), the clandestine militarization of the Black Sea (Russian and NATO ships often travel without flags), as well as the Blue and the Circular Economy as its preferences, as China holds strong expertise in the latter. Beijing also supports the autonomous regionalisation of the region, which could mean both support for the further institutionalization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation, as well as of the Polish Intermarium, which remains largely a geopolitical aspiration, rather than a pragmatic instrument (such as PESCO).
What about resilience in the Neighbourhood?
Notwithstanding China’s soft power and multilateral commitments in the trade-sustainability-economic development nexus on the rise, Bulgaria’s current commitments towards the best performers in the Eastern Partnership remain difficult to identify. As the Union’s poorest country it finds it hard to disburse significant amounts of aid (UN commitments remain at 0.7% of GDP) and focuses these predominantly on the Western Balkans and the Neighbourhood. Education projects and twinning of best practices remain its reserved domain. Bearing in mind the EU’s most recent reprogramming of the EU’s Neighbourhood Policy essentially in the direction of technocratic policy cycles and transferrable resilience, Bulgaria should make best use of both its strengths within the EU institutions, as well as China’s expertise. The Bulgarian European Commissioner Gabriel is currently responsible for the intersection among Digital Economy, Cyber Security and the Energy Union – areas, which are of utmost importance to the resilience of the Eastern Neighbourhood to external influence through resource dependency and alternative discourses. Since 2013 the most pronounced problems in Ukraine in this realm were the dependence on Russian gas, whose abolishment has been conditioned by EU to the liberalisation of the energy market, as well as Russia’s distribution of alternative discourses related to the crisis in Crimea. Bulgaria could, for example, seek the accelerated inclusion of the DCFTA countries into the digital single market, as well as the mediation between Eastern Partnership countries and Russian perceptions on the conflict by inviting them as observers to the 16+1 summit and proposing projects of common interest in non-sensitive areas, such as the Blue, the Shared and the Circular Economy, improving railway, maritime, energy and digital connectivity, ethical questions related to usage of the new global currency – personal data and establish horizontal ties between donors from the AIIB, NDB, DEVCO, BSTDB to improve aid effectiveness and twinning of best practices. Such an approach can not only be beneficial to the regional ownership of the OBOR, but also result in positive externalities towards issues that are existential to the major actors in the vicinity and beyond – EU, Russia and China. For that purpose, the aforementioned legal and institutional possibilities must be maximised and party confrontation – depoliticized through a focus on shared identities and technocratic policy-making by the advent of the summer.
 Eva-Maria Poptcheva, Parliament’s legislative initiative, Library of the European Parliament, 24.10.13, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/bibliotheque/briefing/2013/130619/LDM_BRI(2013)130619_REV2_EN.pdf
 Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, https://www.coe.int/en/web/conventions/full-list/-/conventions/rms/090000168008482e