Reformulation of the relationship between citizens and political elites needed

Bulgaria
Bulgarian European Community Studies Association
 
The famous reference to the Chinese hieroglyphs depicting the term “crisis” by the notion of “opportunity”, can describe very well the current situation in the EU after the Irish ‘No’. The institutional crisis after the Irish referendum should be interpreted not only as a danger, but also as an opportunity. What the three consecutive referenda (France, Netherlands, Ireland) showed us, is that there is a noticeable lack of adequate communication between political elites and citizens about the actual and future priorities in the development of the Union. The current situation provides an opportunity both for the political elites and the citizens of the member states to reformulate their relations and to start thinking about the “EU project” not only as an elite-driven project but also as something that could be the product of a common effort. In this respect, the decisions of the European Council in December 2008 can be viewed as an attempt aimed at improving communication and at listening to the voices of citizens. The common agreement reached at this meeting concerning issues such as taxation, security and defence, the right to life, education and family, can be taken as an example of the willingness of EU leaders to listen to the demands of the (Irish) citizens. Without doubt, it is regretful that the Discussion about the Constitutional Treaty and the Lisbon Treaty did not receive broad public support in 2003 and 2004 before the referenda took place. The current situation looks more satisfactory. It was a mistake that the discussion before the start of the ratification procedures was focused mainly on “high level politics” and more attention was paid to such issues as the composition of the European Commission and the European Parliament, the redistribution of votes within the Council of the European Union and the appointment of a High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy rather than on problems of everyday life such as security, health care and education. During the ratification discussions, these questions overshadowed the institutional characteristics of the proposed treaties, a fact that indicates their significant importance for the European citizens.
 
In Bulgaria, the situation with the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty was quite different. There was no public discussion and it did not receive significant media coverage. Even the political attention to this treaty was minimal with some sporadic reactions of Bulgarian MEPs. Thus, the treaty was presented as something with little impact on Bulgarian politics and limited influence on the everyday life of Bulgarian citizens. Bulgaria was one of the first EU member states that ratified the treaty by parliamentary vote without long debates. In this conjuncture, it was natural to expect that the decision of the European Council on the Lisbon Treaty would not receive any media coverage and would not be discussed publicly. The only issue that was given attention by the media were the expressed positions of the leaders of France and Luxemburg, Nicolas Sarkozy and Jean-Claude Junker, about the impossibility for the EU to continue its enlargement policy without the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. Thus, the Bulgarian Minister of European Affairs, Gergana Grancharova, stated in her open speech at the ceremony for the presentation of the priorities of the French Presidency in Sofia that the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty has to continue because “it is highly important for us, as an external border of the EU and as a Balkan country, that European enlargement continues”[1].
 
The upcoming European Parliament elections in June 2009 unexpectedly turned out to be an important part of the Bulgarian political discourse. The reason is not the European Parliament election itself, but the fact that regular parliamentary elections will be held at the same time or one to two months later. As a result, Bulgarian politicians are intensively involved in discussions about the exact date of the national elections. One of the governing parties NDSV (National Movement for Stability and Progress, member of European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party, ELDR) proposed a formula named “2-in-1” implying that both the European Parliament and the national parliamentary elections are to be held simultaneously. This position was supported by the Bulgarian President and by some small right-wing parties, members of the European People’s Party (EPP), which are afraid that they lack the necessary organizational capabilities for two electoral campaigns one after the other. Bulgarian political parties standing in favour of the “2-in-1” option, worry that their expected low results at the European Parliament elections will have a strong negative impact on voters’ behavior and support and that this will turn into a catastrophe during the general elections later. In this case, if the “2-in-1” proposal is accepted, the European Parliament elections will be completely overshadowed by the national ones since the public and media interest will concentrate overwhelmingly on the latter. The parties which firmly support the European and national elections to be held separately within the time frame of one to two months are the governing parties the Bulgarian Socialist Party, BSP (member of the Party of European Socialists, PES) and the Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms, DPS (member of the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party, ELDR), which can rely on their strong and well organised electoral cores. These parties, famous for the solid and unquestioned support of their voters, are confident in their abilities to mobilize them for two consecutive campaigns, thus achieving better electoral results. If this happens, there is a chance the Bulgarian European Parliament elections in 2009 will focus not only on the current domestic political situation, but also on the more and more disputable relations between Bulgaria and the EU.
 
Regarding the present-day political situation in Bulgaria, it is not surprising that the discussion about the European Parliament elections is viewed in the perspective of their consequences for the results of the national parliamentary elections. Citizens’ trust in the governing coalition is very low and there are indications for a growing popular discontent. As a result, one more time after the extraordinary 2007 European Parliament elections held in Bulgaria and Romania, the European Parliament elections in 2009 are perceived as second-order, “test-elections”, without particular significance and meaning.
 
However, the Bulgarian media demonstrates some specific interest in the European elections, most of all, personality-wise. There are speculations about future Bulgarian MEPs, indicating that most of the current MEPs will be candidates for the next European Parliament. According to some media sources, it is possible that the current Bulgarian Commissioner, Meglena Kuneva, heads the electoral list of the National Movement for Stability and Progress (NDSV), having the support of the current Bulgarian Minister of European Affairs Gergana Grancharova. Another issue related to the European Parliament elections, which received media attention, is the salary of Bulgarian MEPs – something that is understandable given the current economic situation in Bulgaria. The most recent news in Bulgaria connected with the upcoming European Parliament elections touch upon an ongoing scandal around the foundation of the pan-European Eurosceptic party “Libertas” where, surprisingly, the independent Bulgarian member of the parliament, Mincho Hristov, is involved as a founding member. In conclusion, the expectations for the 2009 European Parliament elections in Bulgaria are that these will be overshadowed again by explicitly domestic issues and problems without paying much attention to the EU problematic. The turnout results that can be expected are more or less similar to the ones of the 2007 European Parliament elections – around 29 percent.
 
The European Commission is perceived by most Bulgarian citizens as an institution of high importance, especially regarding EU funding for Bulgarian agriculture and infrastructural development. However, the formation of the new European Commission in 2009 is not a theme of the current Bulgarian public discourse. The only – not yet officiallised – candidate for a future Bulgarian Commissioner is the incumbent European Commissioner for Consumer Protection, Meglena Kuneva. She is one of the few Bulgarian politicians who receive a high level of citizens’ support in the country. In addition to her domestic popularity, she was elected by the on-line journal “European agenda” as Commissioner of the year in 2008. That is why her candidature will not be a surprise for anyone in Bulgaria. Regarding the nomination of a future President of the European Commission, the Bulgarian official position is not yet expressed.
 
As far as the position of the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy is concerned, both its institutional and personal aspects are not part of the Bulgarian public discourse. Now and again, leading Bulgarian politicians declare support for the development of a strong common EU foreign policy, but this position has not been substantiated by any concrete engagements and steps. The words of Ivailo Kalfin, Bulgarian Minister of Foreign Affairs, in a recent interview for the Bulgarian National Television, could be interpreted along those lines: “Kosovo and Georgia are examples that the European foreign policy, although sometimes achieved with difficulty, is effective. Bulgaria has an interest in a strong Europe.”[2]

 

 



[1] Speech of Bulgarian Minister of European Affairs Gergana Grancharova at the Conference presenting French Presidency priorities, Sofia, 23 June 2008, available at: www.mfa.bg (last access: 20 January 2009).


[2] Interview of Bulgarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivailo Kalfin for the Bulgarian National Television (BNT); BNT1; “Denjat zapochva” program (“The Day Starts”), 10 October 2008, available at: www.mfa.bg (last access:20January 2009).