Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union and Georgia’s Interests
On 1 January 2018, for the first time in the history of the EU, Bulgaria assumed presidency of the Council of the European Union, meaning that Bulgaria will be setting EU’s working agenda for the next six months. Bulgaria has taken over the presidency from Estonia. In addition to the rotating six-month presidency, Member States holding three successive presidencies of the Council of the European Union (known as a trio) create a long-term program for the next 18 months. Based on this program, each of the three States prepares a more detailed agenda for the period of six months. The current trio is made up of Estonia, Bulgaria and Austria. Bulgaria has announced the following priorities for the first half of 2018: the future of Europe and the young people, the Western Balkans, security and stability, digital economy.
Bulgaria became a member of the European Union in 2007 but it has not yet joined the Schengen Area and the Eurozone. Since accessing the Union, Bulgaria has been dealing with numerous domestic challenges, including corruption as one of the most difficult and significant problems. In 2007, the European Union set up the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) with the aim of monitoring Bulgaria’s progress on judicial reform and corruption. According to the 2017 report of the European Commission, despite efforts of the Bulgarian authorities, the country continues to face important challenges in fighting corruption. In Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2016, Bulgaria ranks 75th. Irrespective of the domestic challenges that Bulgaria continues to face, it has been given a historic opportunity in the six-month period to solidify its role in domestic and foreign policy of the European Union.
Bulgaria has taken over the presidency of the Council of the European Union in rather turbulent times. In addition to its domestic problems, Bulgaria will also have to deal with domestic and foreign challenges of the European Union, which the Union’s future is directly depending on. These challenges including Brexit negotiations, rise of populism, hybrid threats posed by Russia and more, make it difficult for Bulgaria to achieve its aim of making its presidency a prominent one.
It comes as no surprise that Bulgaria has named the Western Balkans among EU’s foreign policy priorities. Bulgaria’s strategic goal is to play an important role in accession of the Western Balkans to the European Union. This will help cement Bulgaria’s role as a regional leader. The program unveiled by Bulgaria that will serve as EU’s agenda for the next six months views EU membership as the most effective tool for peace, stability and prosperity in Western Balkans.
Countries of the Western Balkans are the focus of the plan for EU’s future enlargement. On February 6, the European Commission published a strategy on the Western Balkans’ accession perspective. The strategy sets 2025 as a possible date for the next wave of EU’s enlargement and names Montenegro and Serbia as the current front-runners in the process of accession negotiations in the region. As to the remaining other countries, the strategy underlines that they now have a historic window of opportunity to bind their future to the European Union but it also warns that successful conclusion of membership negotiations will remain fully dependent on implementation of consistent and correct reforms by each country. The European Commission is ready to prepare recommendations to open accession negotiations with Albania and Macedonia, and with right reforms Bosnia and Herzegovina could become a candidate for accession. Regarding Kosovo, the Commission has stated that thorough implementation of the Stabilization and Association Agreement will allow the country to advance on its European path. On 17 May 2018, Sofia will be hosting a joint summit of EU Member States and the region’s six countries on the topic of enlargement. Primary objective of the summit is to develop individual strategies for each candidate and potential candidate country to support their journey on the path towards EU association.
Recent active discussions about enlargement bear positive significance for Georgia. Following Croatia’s accession in 2013, the EU remained rather cautious about the issue of enlargement. However, talks about future members almost always underlined that any future enlargement would be directed towards the region of Western Balkans but no specific date was provided, so the fact that the EU has set the date for enlargement is positive news not only for the Western Balkan countries but also for Georgia with a long-standing declared will to join the Union. Even though EU’s interest is currently focused on the Western Balkans, Georgia can start preparing grounds by adopting a more active rhetoric on EU membership.
Bulgaria’s presidency is important for Georgia from regional point of view. More specifically, Bulgaria’s presidential program underlines the potential of the Black Sea region and the importance of its effective utilization for European security. In particular, Bulgaria plans to work on strengthening security and improving transport, communication and digital infrastructure in the region, so it is important for Georgia to use Bulgaria’s natural interest towards the Black Sea region to its advantage and actively participate in initiatives for cooperation in the above-mentioned areas during Bulgaria’s presidency.
European neighborhood remains on the list of priorities of the president of the Council of EU but this area is not quite given as much of importance as the Western Balkans. Bulgaria’s presidential program underlines that the ongoing partnership within the Eastern Partnership will depend on the ambition and needs of the EU and the partner states, as well as on the quality of the reforms that they will implement. Particular attention will be given to reforms in the fields of economy and trade, communication, education, research and people-to-people contacts. Cooperation will continue based on the roadmap determined in the document “20 Deliverables for 2020” approved at the 5th Eastern Partnership Summit.
Digital economy has been named as one of the areas of focus during the Bulgarian presidency. Important cooperation has already been initiated between the EU and its partners in this regard, so it is important for Georgia to tap into this opportunity and strengthen bilateral as well as multilateral cooperation with EU within the EaP format, in terms of harmonization with the European digital market.
Bulgaria will be holding the presidency of the Council of the European Union until 30 June 2018. The presidency will subsequently be taken over by Austria for the second half of the year but until then Bulgaria will be trying to implement is presidential motto – “United We Stand Strong” – in practice together with other EU Member States.