On 1 January 2007, Bulgaria joined the EU. As the poorest in this ‘club of the rich’, Bulgarians expected that membership would bring about such economic development that the country would catch up with Europe’s high flyers. Bulgaria, though, is still the EU’s poorest.
After the fall of communism, ex-Tsar Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha returned to become Bulgaria’s prime minister between 2001-2005. This calmed the raw political emotions of the 1990s and evoked optimism, which was also inspired by the economic growth achieved by two coalitions – of Simeon and then of socialist leader Sergei Stanishev until 2009. Unfortunately, that was when the financial crisis reached Bulgaria, and changed everything.
Public opinion polls reveal most Bulgarians consider the transition a failure. The result was the destruction of large-scale machine agriculture and of the social state, costing a very high price – the collapse of education, inaccessible healthcare, and unemployment that forced 2 million Bulgarians (out of 8 million) to look for a better life abroad. This cheerless reality gave rise to populist parties, the most significant of which – Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) – was founded by by Boyko Borissov, who is well-known for his ability to combine good memories of the past with the hopes directed at the EU. As a result, Borissov is the first new politician to have been elected prime minister twice.
Borissov has enjoyed the backing of the European People’s Party and of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But over recent months, this has gradually waned because Bulgaria continues to lag behind. This is obvious from the April 2016 CatchUp Index, which includes the EU’s 28 members and seven candidates. The results show Bulgaria 34th for ‘Energy intensity of the economy’; 33rd for ‘Control of corruption’; 32nd for ‘Rule of law’, ‘Government effectiveness’ and ‘EuroHealth Consumer Index’ ; 30th for ‘Motorways’ and ‘Quality of life’; 29th for Satisfaction with democracy’ and ‘Press Freedom’; and 28th for ‘Economy’ and ‘Education’. The only exception to its poor running is ‘General government debt’, in which Bulgaria is 3rd.
Bulgaria’s scores reveal that the country hasn’t taken advantage of its EU membership to develop. Bulgaria is even behind some non-EU members, explaining the growing disappointment of Bulgarians. In which direction the disappointment will turn is a serious problem. Borissov’s populist talent for defending his position means he will likely direct discontent towards the EU and not the real problem – the reluctance of the political elite to impose European standards.
In 2016, there is of course another leading theme – the migration crisis. Unlike its neighbours Greece and Macedonia, Bulgaria is not subject to strong immigrant pressures. As well as Turkey’s policy of directing migrant flows westward, this also means that migrants find Bulgaria genuinely unattractive, and this is cause for great alarm.
IMAGE CREDIT: CC / FLICKR – Martin Schulz