Tuesday, 5 January 2010

So what's with EU enlargement or why we shouldn't expect Croatia and Iceland to join soon

The process of EU enlargement took a major blow when it became apparent that once in the union, countries like Bulgaria and Romania can not be forced to comply with higher standards in fighting corruption and organized crime. The integration of different Western Balkan states (plus Turkey) is stalled at different stages and does not look like finishing anytime soon.

The two countries with most serious chances of becoming the 28th and 29th member of the EU are Croatia and Iceland. The progress towards membership of both seemed straightforward due to their compliance with many EU's policies, especially in the case of Iceland. However reality proved to be different.

Slovenia's determination to use its veto powers in order to solve a border dispute with Croatia delayed the negotiations with the latter. After most of 2009 was lost in disputs, the two former Yugoslav republics found common ground and negotiations resumed. However the last intergovernmental conference saw a failure to open new negotiation chapters, again due to Slovenia'a objections.

The resolution of the border dispute as seen by Slovenia.

Iceland is a member of the Schengen zone, complies with most EU policies, has a higher than the average European living standard (ranked no.1 on quality of life in the world in 2008) and is rather small country (320,000 people) which in theory meant negotiations would go fast and smootly. The two issues that have and will prove to hinder country's path to membership are the terms of the common fisheries policy and the settling of claims by continental clients of collapsed Icelandic banks. The latter might appear quite problematic given the latest developments.

Yesterday (Jan. 5) the president of Iceland refused to sign a bill that would set the framework for repaying €3,8 bn. to British and Dutch clients of the collapsed Icesave bank. The repayment is crucial in securing Britain's and Netherland's consent for opening negotiations with Iceland. The sum would have represented around 40% of Icelandic GDP and although the payment would be stretched in time until around 2024, it is seen as too heavy burden by most Icelanders. Consecutively, more than 56 000 citizens petitioned the president asking him not to sign the bill.

President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson of Iceland.

It seems that in both cases national interests come in conflict with the integration process - the Croatia-Slovenia border dispute as well as the three-way Icesave issue. These are no precedents as Slovenia itself was forced to withdraw all claims against Italy to be allowed to join the EU in 2004. Once Croatia becomes an EU members it may well be expected that the country puts conditions on Serbia's accession given the recent history of both.

It is obvious now that the 2011 Croatian accession target will not be met. Same will hold for Iceland'a 2012 aspirations should the Icesave case remains unsolved in the near future. No one doubts that both counties could make better EU members than the likes of Bulgaria and Romania yet they suffer from other factors. Time will tell whether they are just applying for membership in the wrong time or are too stubborn in defending their own stance. In any case, under the current circumstances the EU looks set to see off the economic crisis in its present format.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

The quest for the Bulgarian Commissioner

As I have already written, the speculations about the figure of the Bulgarian representative of the 2009-2014 European Commission have been going for quite some time now. The parliamentary elections in Bulgaria (held on July 7th 2009) have reduced the list of possible candidates to just two.

The electoral success of the EPP-affiliated GERB has dramatically increased the chances of Rumyana Zheleva who is currently holding the post of foreign minister. Ms. Zheleva has been in the consultancy sector before becoming an MEP in 2007. She regained her seat in the European Parliament as a top-candidate of the party in 2009. However she held it just briefly after the new Bulgarian government was constituted in late July.

The other candidate is the present Commissioner Meglena Kuneva (in charge of the Consumer protection portfolio). Ms. Kuneva has long been a favorite to retain her post after transforming the area she is responsible for from a minor one to one of the most important during this Commissions mandate. As a result she was elected Commissioner of the year in 2008. Meglena Kuneva has even been tipped for a vice-presidency if she managed to be re-appointed.

If the appointment of an European commissioner was up to the judgment of the national governments only then Ms. Zheleva would have been almost 100% certain for the post. However in reality the viewpoint of the Commission President and Parliament matter just as much. That pretty much levels the two ladies' chances. Meglena Kuneva can count on the benevolense of re-elected Barosso as she has been one of the popular commissioners during his first term. Kuneva has managed to establish quite solid relations in Brussels already during Bulgaria's negotiation process with the EU when she was the country's chief negotiator. The level of "mutual understanding" (although one-sided) was signalled by the nickname "Misis Yes" she received. That all comes to speak about the very strong connections Kuneva has in Brussels.

Compared to her opponent, Rumyana Zheleva is virtually nobody in Brussels. When elected for an MEP in 2007 she was fifth in her party's list and never held an important post in any Parliament commission. Hence she has never been involved in any interaction with the Commission. At present the major asset in her CV is the post of foreign minister which she holds for just 45 days. Such a background will not help in the preliminary hearings even if Barosso does not ask for another candidate. However Zheleva is sure to be the country's first candidate as prime minister Borisov declared that the Bulgarian nomination will be a woman representing his political party GERB.

The structure of support for Barroso's re-election could prove to be crucial in determining the fate of the Bulgarian commissioner. The backing of the ALDE group did not come free of charge. Barroso would have to secure a one-third commissioner quota for the liberals. Where those eight or nine commissioners are going to come from is hard to tell as 23 of the 27 European governments are center-right. As one of the new and uninfluential member-states Bulgaria might well be forced to make a compromise. And that will leave the doors for Kuneva wide open ...

P.S. The impact of the second Irish referendum on the Lisbon treaty should also not be underestimated as Bulgaria might not even have a commissioner if the treaty is ratified.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

The results of the Bulgarian EP elections

The official results of the European elections have been finally announced. As for a Balkan country there were complaints for vote rigging, buying and selling of votes, vote recount was requested but turned down by the Central Electoral Commission that administers the elections.

If we try to be more positive, the turnout was higher - up good 10% from 28,9% in 2007 to 38,9% now which means 650 000 more people bothered to go vote. It was raining heavily back in 2007 and many people blamed that for the low turnout while this time the sun was shining. Of course the increased polarization of the Bulgarian society due to the upcoming parliamentary elections also contributed.

So, who won and who lost in the Bulgarian EP elections?

The populist GERB (EPP) retained the first place from two years ago, the socialists came second again (although by a bigger margin), while the party of the Turkish minority in Bulgaria DPS was again third. The nationalists of ATAKA were fourth. NDSV and the Blue coalition contested the fifth place with just 361 votes separating them on the finish. What does that mean in mandates?

The electoral formula used for the European elections in Bulgaria is that of the largest remainder (Hare-Niemeyer). The system does not have a bias in favor of the big parties so the distribution of mandates is seen as fair. As a largest party GERB got 5 mandates, BSP - 4, DPS - 3. The nationalists of ATAKA will have two representatives in the European parliament, NDSV also two and the Blue coalition - one. However if and when the Lisbon treaty comes into force the 18th Bulgarian mandate will go to the Blue coalition.

That's how the distribution looks like according to European party affiliation:

GERB and the Blue coalition are EPP members, BSP is the PES representative in Bulgaria, NDSV are part of the ALDE group, while ATAKA were briefly part of the nationalist "Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty" group in the EP before it dissolved. The Turkish minority party also claims to be liberal which is ridiculous when you think about it but they are also ALDE members.

The European elections in Bulgaria were unlucky to come just a month before the national ones so the debate never came really European and already on election night everybody was analyzing what the results mean in national perspective. However, there are a few positive tendencies. First of all, the turnout was substantially higher than in 2007. Secondly, the traditional center-right parties managed to achieve representation which was not the case two years ago so all the segments of Bulgarian society will have their say in Strasbourg. Thirdly, I'd like to think people know little bit more about the European Parliament does - it was the second such elections and much more European information campaigns targeted society. The higher turnout may be one of the signs that worked. Elections'2009 good bye, 2013 - here we come!