Bulgaria regards the Irish ‘No’ as a threat to national interests

Participation in and positive contribution to the revisions of the founding EU treaties has consistently headed Bulgaria’s priorities since the country’s accession to the EU. Such revisions are expected to lead to building a more efficient and democratic European Union.
 
During the Lisbon Treaty negotiations Bulgaria was a positive partner, open for dialogue and willing to contribute towards reaching a consensus. The only instance of Bulgaria adopting a firm position and exerting pressure concerned an issue of a cultural nature, and it was quickly resolved. This issue was the right to use the denomination “Evro” (instead of “Euro”), when writing the common European currency in the Cyrillic alphabet. On virtually all other issues, Bulgarian political parties as well as national media have been openly supportive of the reforms envisaged in the treaty and, although much could be desired in terms of a more lively public debate and more detailed information for the general public, the overall attitude in Bulgaria towards the new treaty was favourable. This was demonstrated both at the time of signing the treaty and during its ratification.
  
Bulgaria expected fast ratification in all member states
 
Bulgaria was the sixth member state to ratify the Lisbon Treaty in parliament on March 21st 2008, with an overwhelming majority of MPs and broad support among political parties. With this act Bulgaria became the sixth EU member state to approve the new European treaty.[1]
 
Bulgarian expectations about the ratification process in the other member states were optimistic, having in mind the method of ratification to be applied and the broad understanding that this new treaty was essential for the further development of integration in Europe. The Bulgarian government’s position during the Slovenian EU-Presidency was one of awareness of possible problems and a need for discreet efforts to support the ratification process.
 
With the approaching of the date of the Irish referendum, the prospects for a negative vote began to appear in the public discourse. Media comments were rather cautious, but expectations for a positive vote in Ireland still prevailed. There was no extensive coverage of the run up to the referendum and there was no direct recognition of the critical nature of the vote.
 
Irish ‘No’ risks Bulgarian national interests
 
The results of the referendum received extensive comments in mainstream media. The overall reaction was that the outcome poses a serious problem for the EU with significant negative implications for Bulgaria. Barring a timely resolution of this crisis, various short-term and long-term risks for Bulgarian national interests are recognized:
·         a protracted political crisis in the EU, leading to a weaker and more fragmented union, less able to form consensus and act upon the contemporary economic, social and security challenges;
·         postponing, watering down or blocking of important institutional and policy reforms (In this regard, Bulgaria – in view of its geopolitical location – is especially interested in the positive future development of Common Foreign and Security Policy and the prospects for a common energy policy.);
·         increased tendency of forming ‘concentric circles’ or ‘two-speed Europe’ (This is considered to be one of the most negative scenarios for Bulgaria, because in this case it is expected that Bulgaria would inevitably be attached to the ‘outer layers’ of the union.);
·         blocking or significant postponement of the EU enlargement process (One of the reasons for the Lisbon Treaty was to accommodate institutionally an increased number of member states and its coming to force is almost explicitly a precondition for further enlargement. For Bulgaria, blocking the accession process for its neighbours in South-East Europe (including Turkey) may pose serious long-term economic and security risks.).
 
Ratification should go on
 
Contemplating on possible ways forward after the referendum, Bulgaria joined the position in June 2008 at the European Council that the process of ratification of the Lisbon Treaty should continue. Various scenarios have been debated in the Bulgarian media. The overall assessment is that the Irish ‘No’ poses a very serious challenge to the treaty, which cannot be ignored. It is recognized that the treaty cannot come into force unless all states ratify it, and even if the rest of the member states complete successfully the process, the Irish position needs to be accommodated.
 
The Irish referendum was described in the light of its role in spelling a new institutional crisis for the EU and in revealing the gap between public opinion and political elite.[2] The situation put pressure on France to insist that ratification should continue in the eight countries that have not yet endorsed the treaty, in order to put pressure on Ireland. However, no one can say with certainty that European leaders are going to save the Lisbon Treaty.[3] At the same time, renegotiation is not regarded as an option.[4] According to media reports, the current deadlock stimulates discussion, encouraging the concept of a ‘two-speed’ Europe, which is against the interests of Bulgaria.
 
The official position of the country gives prominence to the support for the enforcement of the Lisbon Treaty.[5] According to the Bulgarian Minister of European Affairs Gergana Grancharova, the Irish vote should be regarded as just a problem rather than as a crisis. She underscored that the major European decisions need leadership, but not referendums.[6]
 
The option of scrapping the Lisbon Treaty and starting the whole process all over again is considered to be the least desirable, with a very uncertain outcome. After so much energy and political capital has been invested after the failure of the Constitutional Treaty, there is now a feeling and understanding that the process needs to be completed successfully this time. On the other hand, there is also the recognition that applying pressure on Ireland and isolating this country is unacceptable and counterproductive. Comments in the media occasionally contained a degree of frustration over the results of the referendum, the argument being that Ireland – a major beneficiary of the EU so far – has become a recurring ‘spoiler’ (with reminders of the Nice Treaty ratification). Officially, though, the Bulgarian position has been one of respect for the sovereign right of Ireland with regards to the treaty and, at the same time, one of pleading for a constructive way forward. Two feasible scenarios are discussed – repetition of the Irish vote at a later date or applying another method of ratification of the Lisbon Treaty.
 
The first option appears to be more democratic and fair. Based on the experience with the Nice Treaty, the idea of a second referendum could be a working solution. The necessary precondition is to analyse the reasons for the negative vote, identify the problematic parts of the treaty and offer adequate concessions to Ireland, thus providing sufficient grounds for a second referendum and enhancing the odds for approval. One possible step in this regard, that is frequently mentioned, is to secure an Irish commissioner. Still, the problems associated with this approach are recognised as well. First of all, there is the risk of further alienating the citizens by questioning their expressed will. A second problem is posed by the ambiguous and often contradictory rationale of the ‘No’ camp – it might be difficult to accommodate the different demands of the Irish voters. And, last but not least, there is the issue of timing. It is necessary to find a solution fast enough in order to implement the institutional reforms envisaged in the treaty. For Bulgaria this is a very important issue because further EU enlargement to South-East Europe is preconditioned by the successful ratification of the treaty. A second referendum is highly unlikely to take place within the initial ratification schedule (the end of 2008).
 
The second approach being discussed in Bulgaria envisages adopting a different method of ratification, which does not include a referendum. For instance there is a discussion about the possibility of obtaining the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty by an act of the Irish parliament during the accession of Croatia, expected to take place in 2009. The applicability of this approach (in case it is at some point accepted to be legally sound) is highly questionable in political terms and, if at all considered, would probably be proposed as a last resort to save the treaty.
 
Last but not least, ratification is pending in several EU member states. The explicit negative positions of the Czech and Polish Presidents for instance, are considered to be sufficient enough evidence that there might be additional obstacles to the coming into force of the Lisbon Treaty.




[1] Bulgarian Parliament: National Assembly Ratifies the Treaty of Lisbon, March 21st 2008, available at: http://www.parliament.bg (last access. September 2nd 2008).

[2] Radio Bulgaria: Implications of Ireland’s “no”, June 16th 2008, available at: http://www.bnr.bg (last access: September 2nd 2008).

[3] Radio Bulgaria: It is “risky” to say we’ll save Lisbon Treaty, June 16th 2008; available at: http://www.bnr.bg (last access: September 2nd 2008).

[4] Econ.bg: EU to push back Lisbon Treaty solution to the end of the year, June 20th 2008, available at: http://www.econ.bg (last access: September 2nd 2008); Econ.bg: Lisbon Treaty result to dominate EU meeting, June 19th 2008, available at: http://www.econ.bg (last access: September 2nd 2008).

[5] Bulgarian Ministry for Foreign Affairs: Gergana Grancharova: Bulgaria has a clear interest in the enforcement of the Lisbon Treaty, April 7th 2008, available at: http://www.mfa.bg (last access: September 2nd 2008).

[6] See Major European decisions need leadership, June 18th 2008, available at: http://www.gerganagrancharova.eu (last access: September 2nd 2008).