Bulgaria acceded to the EU in 2007 along with Romania and, exactly 11 years later, took up the presidency of the council of the EU – the EU institution representing the executive governments of the member states. It is the first time that the country has had to step up to such a leading role within the Union. Unlike the traditional public negativity towards the state institutions, the public mood was generally positive towards the country’s EU presidency. In a Gallup International survey of late 2017, 55 per cent of respondents believed that Bulgaria will do well during its Presidency, 16 per cent thought the opposite, and over a quarter, 29 per cent, did not know or did not provide an answer.
A key priority of the presidency is foreign policy – the Western Balkans and its European Perspective and Connectivity. In its official programme, the presidency recognises that accession to the EU is “the most effective instrument for guaranteeing peace, stability and prosperity in the Western Balkans.” By prioritising the neighbouring region, Bulgaria has sought to cement itself as the leader of the Balkans into Europe, even claiming that its ambition during is “to be a Balkan presidency.”
The Commission’s Strategy Paper for the Western Balkans, published in February 2018, kick started the presidency’s Western Balkan ambitions. The paper sets 2025 as a target year for Serbia and Montenegro to join the EU if they carry out all the necessary reforms – it is explicit that this is not an accession promise. With this strategy paper, the EU reaffirmed its commitment to the region: “The door is open … There is a clear path for the Western Balkans to finally join the European Union,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said of the six countries in question, as she presented the plan at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. However, realising that such favouritism on the part of the Commission, by setting a goal date only for Montenegro and Serbia, does reinforce the regatta principle – that the EU is encouraging the Western Balkan countries to race and outdo each other in the lead up to accession – which is in itself contradictory to EU calls for regional cooperation as a prerequisite for accession. Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker subsequently stated that the 2025 target should apply to all Western Balkan nations.
Sofia, therefore, has a chance to bring about greater consistency in EU policy towards Western Balkan accession when it hosts the EU-Western Balkans summit on May 17. An important step in the right direction was the historic (and long overdue) signing of the Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighbourliness and Cooperation between Bulgaria and the Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). The treaty seeks to mend differences regarding historic events, the celebration of mutual holidays and improved links between the countries. The Balkans are known for having good transport connections to Western Europe, but intraregional transport infrastructure remains inadequate. Having remained unfinished since the communist period, the construction of the Sofia-Skopje railway service is expected to be renewed and completed by 2027, connecting several towns along the route in both countries.
Although the task of leading the integration of the Western Balkans into the EU is a justified one for the Bulgarian presidency to set itself, it is by no means an easy and straightforward process. The highlight of the presidency will indeed be the EU-Western Balkans summit. Bulgaria has never before hosted an international meeting of this magnitude, which is to include all 28 EU leaders and the six Western Balkan leaders, including, yes, Kosovo. The difficulties regarding Kosovo and its international status means that not all who are invited are willing to sit at the same table. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy told his Bulgarian counterpart Boyko Borissov that he may not attend if Kosovo is participating – Mr Rajoy himself faces problems with separatists at home.
Sofia’s plan to ease tensions is to host a first stage of the summit – a dinner with the 28 member states only, and a second day with the leaders of the EU institutions and the six Balkan hopefuls. However, this plan may prove to fail: not surprisingly, Serbia may refuse to sit at a table with Kosovo. The Bulgarian presidency is understandable, and rightfully, seeking to replicate the role of Catherine Ashton during her mediation of Belgrade-Prishtina talks in 2013, but it will have greater difficulty, as the discussions will not be about the normalisation of Serbia-Kosovo relations, but aboutthe accession of the six nations, thus de facto recognising Kosovo as a potential candidate country and, in practice, an independent state. Hopefully, Sofia can utilise its current presidency of the council of the EU and establish itself as a key regional player and promoter of peace and stability in the entire Balkan region. We will see how Bulgaria will mediate on May 17.