Bulgaria and the European Union
- Dimitar BechevDimitar BechevCenter of Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies, Univeristy of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, yet neither its road to membership nor its time in the Union have been easy. In the 1990s and 2000s, the accession process provided an impetus for political and economic reforms, but the EU’s famed transformative power worked unevenly. Bulgaria started its journey later than other countries in post-communist Europe, and had to deal with worse domestic and external political and economic impediments, and thus failed to close the gap with the wave of nations entering the EU in 2004. The sense of unfinished business paved the way to a post-accession conditionality regime, subjecting Bulgaria and Romania to special monitoring and regimenting them into a special category apart from other members. Despite efforts by successive governments in Sofia, the country has not made it into either the Schengen area or the eurozone’s antechamber, the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM-2). The limited progress in reforming the judiciary and combatting high-level corruption and organized crime has prevented Bulgaria from continuing its journey to the core of Europe, unlike some of the 2004 entrants from Central and Eastern Europe. Being part of the Union has not made a profound difference when it comes to deep ingrained ills such as state capture, and the lack of accountability and transparency in policymaking. Some critical areas have witnessed serious backsliding—notably the national media, where the EU has few formal competences or levers of influence.
Yet, Bulgaria’s EU membership should not be written off as a failure. On the contrary, it has delivered enormous economic benefits: increased growth, expanded safety nets in times of recession (especially after 2008), improved economic competitiveness, new opportunities for entrepreneurship, cross-border labor and educational mobility, and transfer of knowledge and skills. As a result, EU membership continues to enjoy high levels of public support, irrespective of the multiple crises it has gone through during the 2010s. Political parties by and large back integration, though soft Euroscepticism has made inroads into society and politics.
While the EU has had, caveats aside, a significant domestic impact, Bulgaria’s imprint on common institutions and policies is limited. It lacks the resources and political clout to advance its interests in Brussels. That generates risk in light of the growing divide between a closely integrated core and a loose periphery, likely to expand in the wake of Brexit. Bulgaria is affected by decisions in the eurozone but has little say over them. The absence of leverage is particularly striking in external affairs. Despite its geographic location, next to the Western Balkans and Turkey and in proximity to Russia and Ukraine, Bulgaria has rarely, if ever, been on the forefront of major decisions or policies to do with the EU’s turbulent neighborhood. At the same time, Bulgaria has been exposed to a series of crises affecting the Union, notably the antagonistic turn in relations with Russia after the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the influx of asylum seekers from the Middle East.