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    EU's Poorest Member to Lead Bloc Amid Migration, Poland, Brexit Challenges

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    The Eastern European Balkan nation of Bulgaria took up the rotating presidency of the European Council at midnight on January 1, making it formally responsible for dealing with a series of major challenges expected to face the bloc in the New Year, not least of which is the Balkan nation's own failure to tackle corruption.

    Bulgaria's new status, to be held until July, when the presidency passes to Austria, gives it the formal responsibility of setting the agenda for EU Council meetings at the expert and political levels, and presiding over all EU ministerial meetings apart from meetings of EU foreign ministers over the next six months.

    Bulgaria's official slogan for its EC presidency is "Unity Makes Strength," which also happens to be the country's national motto. However, as EU politics observer Vladimir Dobrovolsky has pointed out, at the EU level, that objective will be easier said than done in the coming months, given deep divisions among EU member states on issues such as migration policy and the rule of law issue in Poland, plus challenges associated with the Brexit process. The Polish issue in particular threatens big problems for the bloc, with German analysts openly talking about kicking Warsaw out of the EU altogether if it and other "renegade states" don't abide by EU laws.

    According to Dobrovolsky, Bulgaria's real main objective will compromise, notwithstanding the country's status as a political lightweight, its rank as the EU's poorest nation (with a GDP per capita of 51% below the EU average in 2016), and a reputation for entrenched corruption.

    The latter issue in particular doesn't shore up confidence in Sofia. The latest report under the EU's anti-corruption Cooperation and Verification Mechanism for Bulgaria and Romania has said that both countries still have a ways to go in legislative reforms and other efforts to combat corruption, a decade after joining the bloc in 2007.

    Breaking the Balkan Barrier

    Bulgaria's priorities as EC president include working on the further integration of the so-called 'EU candidate countries' in the Western Balkans: Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Albania.

    In November, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov assured the EC that Sofia would use its regional experience and, without creating "false expectations," would work with these countries on reforms associated with EU accession. Integration projects include the creation of new transport links, joint energy and digital infrastructure and educational initiatives.

    Bulgaria's Prime minister Boyko Borissov
    © AFP 2018 / THIERRY CHARLIER
    Bulgaria's Prime minister Boyko Borissov

    Triumvirate of Problems: Migrants, Poland and Brexit

    Bulgaria's Balkan ambitions aside, other issues, including EU migration policy reform, Brussels' ongoing spat with Warsaw, and Brexit are issues sure to take up considerable attention during Bulgaria's presidency, according to Dobrovolsky. 

    On migration reform, the countries of the Visegrad Four – Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, have forged a consolidated position that rejects the idea of mandatory refugee quotas, to the chagrin of bloc heavyweights Germany and France. Last week, an EU source told Reuters that Warsaw and Budapest would "face consequences, both financial and political," if the European Court of Justice confirms that the countries violated European law with their stance on migration. 

    EU leaders are expected to continue negotiations on the issue in March, with a final decision to be made in June. The EC does not exclude adopting further decisions on the issue by majority, rather than by the consensus of all member states. That puts Bulgaria as EC president in a tough spot, between its wealthy Western European benefactors on one side, and its Eastern European neighbors on the other.

    The worsening rule of law squabble between the EU and Poland is another headache Bulgaria will have to worry about. In December, the EU triggered Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, paving the way to sanctions against Warsaw, including possible deprivation of its EC voting rights. On December 22, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban vowed to set up an "insurmountable obstacle" to the EU's efforts.

    Finally, there's Brexit. In late 2017, Brussels and the UK announced substantial progress in the first phase of Brexit talks. Last month, the EU approved the start of the second stage of negotiations to determine the conditions for the transition period following London's formal withdrawal from the bloc in March 2019. According to EC President Donald Tusk, the second stage of talks will 'become a real test of unity.' This month, the General Affairs Council, chaired by Bulgaria, will be tasked with approving additional guidance for the second stage of negotiations. In March, a summit will be held, tasked with the approval of new directives on negotiations. 

    Ultimately, while Bulgaria's tenure as EC president will be filled with uncertainties and difficult policy decisions, many observers are more interested in the Austrian presidency that comes after it. Vienna's new coalition government includes political forces which are openly skeptical of some elements of the EU project itself, and politicians who have openly discussed the possibility of joining the Visegrad bloc. What happens when Vienna is tasked with presiding over the EC presidency is something only time will tell.

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    rule of law, Brexit, chairmanship, presidency, predictions, policy, migrants, analysis, European Council, European Union, Europe, Bulgaria
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