The 2007 EU enlargement is a success

Antoinette Primatarova

About Antoinette Primatarova

Antoinette Primatarova is Director of the European Program of the Bulgarian Think Tank CLS (Centre for Liberal Strategies). She was directly involved in the process of Bulgaria’s preparation for EU accession as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs (1997-1999), Ambassador to the European Communities (1999-2001) and Deputy Chief Negotiator (2000-2001).

2014 marked the tenth anniversary of EU enlargement. In many memorial speeches the narrative of putting an end to the East-West divide was framed as a fairy tale with a happy ending: a stronger, richer, and safer Europe.

But 2004-2014 was far from any “they-lived-happily-ever-after” story. In contrast to the 2004 enlargement, the 2007 one was framed as a cautionary tale and was at least partly used as an argument for slowing down enlargement towards the Western Balkans (“the quality over speed” philosophy).

My hope is that the new East-West divide over Ukraine will help adopt the right perspective. In terms of increased stability, security, economic dynamism, and prosperity (in comparison to the early 90s) the 2007 enlargement is a success. The far from perfect situation in Bulgaria and Romania is only part of the story. Citizens remain among the most pro-European ones.

Due to EU membership, civil society feels empowered to play an increasing role as reform driver. In contrast with Russia’s hopes to use Bulgaria as its Trojan horse in the EU, Bulgaria played the European game in the dispute over South Stream (and did get the “blame” for its cancelling). Moscow feels Bulgaria is at odds with its ambitions both in the “near abroad” and in the Western Balkans.

So, it didn’t come as a surprise when in mid-December 2014, in an “Nezavisimaja Gazeta” article, Russian Prime Minister Medvedev argued that EU membership is both unrealistic and, if ever possible, disadvantageous for Ukraine, since it would result in doom and gloom (high unemployment, FDI decline, low GDP growth, low wages) … like in Bulgaria (supporting “data” intentionally chosen). A similar line of argument might be also used as part of eventual Russian attempts to destabilise the Balkans in order to distract attention from the Ukraine.

No doubt, the EU is no silver bullet. Highly relevant policies are still planned and executed by the country itself; many reforms still on Bulgaria’s agenda are linked to such competences: healthcare, education, social policy, even the judicial system. Because of the state’s role in prevention and combat of corruption and organised crime, it is still EU monitored under the Cooperation and verification of progress mechanism (CVM).

Internationally, the CVM has been broadly perceived as ineffective and did feed into the cautionary tale about Bulgaria’s “failed” EU membership. But in Bulgaria itself harsh criticism is most welcome by citizens. In October 2014, 78  per cent of Bulgarians expressed the view that the CVM should remain in place; it came as a surprise that the January 2015 Report was less critical than expected, was not presented in an official press conference, and didn’t make international headlines.

In Bulgaria this was perceived as hidden support for the reform-minded government. I want to hope this was linked to raising awareness that, however important the CVM as a facilitator of further reforms, it should stop feeding into the cautionary tale about Bulgaria’s “failure,” which easily plays into Moscow’s hands.

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