April 14. 2024. 7:27

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The Brief — Is EU adding to the Bulgarian crisis?

Bulgarians will vote in yet another snap election on Sunday (2 April), and my colleagues in Sofia have already described the political crisis and the grim expectations for what lies ahead.

I will add a few comments about home-grown Euroscepticism and some Commission initiatives that have backfired and only compounded the crisis in the poorest EU country.

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has repeatedly said she was proud of how the EU has dealt with the COVID-19 crisis, particularly by securing fast high-quality vaccines for all Europeans via joint purchases.

Bulgaria, however, is not a good example in terms of vaccination.

Only 30% of Bulgarians got their first shot, mainly due to powerful anti-vaxxer sentiments fuelled on social media and mainstream TV stations, where the prevailing attitude was “let’s give the floor to everybody”.

The same attitude in the media has long persisted about Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Many of the anti-vaxxers found a new battle horse in alternative narratives on Ukraine, essentially supporting the Russian narrative that it was the West that attacked Russia.

In any case, Bulgaria was left with vast amounts of unused vaccines, costing millions of euros, which it had to dump as the Commission contracts didn’t allow sending them to countries in need.

Of course, the overall impression of this initiative was not of a big EU success, as claimed in Brussels.

Another example: While the Commission hails the success in joint gas purchasing and filling the EU countries’ gas storages, this initiative has also backfired in Bulgaria.

It is true that Bulgaria was not left without gas during the winter although Russia cut its gas supplies completely after the reformist (and short-lived) government of Kiril Petkov refused to open a rouble account with Gazprom.

Bulgaria has a gas storage near the village of Chiren. It was filled during Petkov’s government but his political opponents now blame him for having it filled with gas bought at such a high price that the companies that bought it cannot sell it, except at a loss, or at the expense of the consumers.

Generally speaking, gas storages are useful if you buy cheap gas, usually in the summer, and use it when the prices go up, usually in the winter. Now Chiren cannot perform this function and while cheap gas is now available, there is nowhere to store it.

The Commission has also spearheaded joint ammunition procurement in an effort to help Ukraine. Bulgaria is likely to remain the only country not signing up to this initiative, although the country has a powerful defence industry, inherited from communist times.

The reason, however, is not that Sofia is fed up with the Commission’s joint procurement experiments.

It’s because Bulgarian President Rumen Radev, who is in charge of the executive in the absence of a parliament and an elected government, wants to pander to a public opinion still nourishing sympathies for Russia.

As Radev hammered out in Brussels last week, Bulgaria remains opposed to sending weapons or ammunition to Ukraine. But in reality, huge amounts produced by the Bulgarian arms plants reach Ukraine via intermediaries.

Which basically means that Bulgaria is not donating, but selling ammunition to Kyiv.

Part of the electorate possibly believes Radev, but another part is disgusted by the hypocrisy, as well as by the lack of European leadership.

Brussels cannot force Bulgaria to join the joint ammunition procurement but it could have expressed its position with regard to the fudge.

On the economic level, Bulgarians continue to fear armageddon should the country join the eurozone, which it apparently may do in 2025, and not many efforts have been made to counter this narrative, espoused by the pro-Russian party Vazrazhdane.

The party polled at 14% in the latest surveys, making it the third or fourth political force in the country, neck-and-neck with the Movement of Rights and Freedoms.

Also, the caretaker government continues to insist on amending the national plan under the EU Recovery Fund to save its polluting coal power plants. As a result, Bulgaria may end up losing EU funding.

Finally, something is wrong even at the most basic diplomatic level.

As in any member state, the European Commission is present in Bulgaria with a representative office, whose head acts as the Union’s chief communicator in the country.

As strange as it may sound, the Commission has been looking for someone to head its representation in Sofia since September 2019. This is probably an absolute vacancy record, one the EU executive cannot be proud of.

The head of the EU representation is treated as an ambassador under protocol rules. When a country doesn’t replace its ambassador, it usually means the relations are downgraded. This is hardly a good signal and it only adds to an already complex crisis.

The Roundup

It is not in Europe’s interest to decouple itself fully from China, and the bloc should instead look into diplomatic and economic ‘de-risking’, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Thursday (30 March).

The negotiations that led to the European Commission brokering the controversial COVID-19 vaccine contracts with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer remain “a business secret”, the chairman of Pfizer France told French Senators during a hearing on Wednesday (29 March).

After a unanimous vote in the legal affairs committee last week, the European Parliament adopted on Wednesday (29 March) its position on the protection of the environment through criminal law, including a definition of ecocide backed by stricter penalties.

The European Commission will propose the establishment of a new unit within the EU’s Intellectual Property Office to focus on the transparency of standard patents, according to a draft version of an upcoming regulation seen by EURACTIV.

Delayed diagnosis and inequalities in access to treatments across the EU are among the main challenges in fighting multiple myeloma, an incurable and rare form of blood cancer.

A large majority in the European Parliament voted in favour of adopting the EU’s pay transparency directive aiming to narrow the EU gender pay gap during a plenary session on Thursday (30 March).

Lawmakers in the European Parliament’s industry committee overwhelmingly rejected a motion tabled by German conservative MEP Markus Pieper claiming that the EU’s proposed renewable hydrogen rules were too “restrictive”.

The amount of biofuels in Europe’s transport sector is expected to increase after the European Parliament and EU countries agreed in the early hours of Thursday on new rules to spur the use of renewable energy across the bloc.

After seven years of ambiguity regarding the German law on data retention, the German Federal Constitutional Court ruled it inapplicable and incompatible with EU law on Thursday.

Do not miss this week’s EU Politics Decoded: Orbán’s pointless isolation.

Look out for…

  • Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans in Bucharest, meets national authorities, stakeholders for Green Deal and climate discussions.
  • Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager participates as main guest in Atlantic Council’s Frontpage event on “How Europe is addressing the geopolitical moment and its economic challenges.”
  • Jobs and Social Rights Commissioner Nicolas Schmit visits facilities of Guidance, Innovation for Employment and Entrepreneurship Centre of La Rioja.
  • Financial Stability Commissioner Mairead McGuinness participates in business lunch organised by Dundalk Chamber of Commerce with local businesses and entrepreneurs (Blackrock, Co. Louth, Ireland).