It’s the economy, dear reader. The economy has been and will be, once more, the major consideration for Bulgarians when they go to the polls on 26 May. Twelve years after Bulgaria joined the EU club, Brussels still seems a bit distant for citizens of the South-Eastern European state due to a variety of economic and political factors. However, one general sentiment of Bulgarian citizens when it comes to the EU, has prevailed ever since the country’s accession: that catching up with the rest of the European states and moving closer to the “heart of Europe” has to be equivalent to tangible economic and social benefits, which should be felt by all Bulgarian citizens across the country.
When it comes to the EU, the Union enjoys solid support in Bulgaria. On the whole, Bulgarian citizens support the idea of the European project, and alongside their membership of NATO, see it as a welcome alternative to their past Soviet membership and dependence. Yet in 2018, only 51% of Bulgarian citizens indicated they see themselves as citizens of the EU, a number which contrasts starkly with Luxembourg’s 93%, for example. Why then, do Bulgarians support the EU, yet still not feel like they are fully a part of it?
Economically, Bulgarian citizens have enjoyed stable economic growth for several years now, as well as continued wage increases and rising private consumption. Even so, Bulgarians are well aware that working and social conditions in other EU states might offer better prospects. In addition to some dissatisfaction on this, there is also growing concern among the population that this would have a negative impact on the country’s labour force, as many Bulgarian citizens increasingly choose to study, work and live elsewhere in Europe.
In addition to domestic economic factors, however, there are also political factors which reinforce the feeling of incomplete European integration in Bulgaria. The Member State is not yet part of two of the more exclusive EU membership clubs: Schengen and the Eurozone. Both have become hot topics in recent debates around the EU elections, with voters trying to determine which political candidates can deliver best on inching the country closer to membership. While joining both clubs will be based on Bulgaria meeting certain technical criteria (with some arguing that the ones for Schengen have already been met), the decision for both will ultimately be a political one. The reason for this political decision, on the other hand, lies in the assessment of EU leaders on how well Sofia has managed to deal with key obstacles and persisting weaknesses: that of corruption, difficulties in implementing judicial reforms, and lack of financial transparency.
It is for these reasons, that the topics that will come up in the election debates will reflect political actions needed to effectively bridge the gap between Bulgaria and Europe, on the one hand, but also practical economic concerns such as expanding infrastructure projects, improving living standards, boosting economic growth, and thus, attracting investment and business opportunities to the country.
Demonstrating benefits of EU membership through concrete projects, however, would require that EU funding is properly implemented, administrative burdens for businesses are eased, and that investors have the confidence that opaque practices will not present a challenge to their business. It is for the same reason that an additional topic has recently become very popular in Bulgaria: who will head the future European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO). The Bulgarian public hopes that the EPPO, led by a strong personality such as Romanian candidate Ms Laura Kovesi, will become a new EU tool which would effectively investigate financial fraud and deter further mismanagement of EU funds, especially in Bulgaria.
The current threshold for getting one Bulgarian Member of European Parliament elected is 5.8%. Therefore, for the moment, parties that have a realistic chance of securing a spot in the European Parliament are GERB (EPP), the Bulgarian Socialist Party (S&D), DPS (ALDE), VMRO (ECR), and potentially the Democratic Bulgaria coalition, which has not yet indicated its preference for a European political group.
To achieve this goal of integration, future Bulgarian Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) will have to tackle the challenges of the process at two fronts. While some of their political battles will be fought in Brussels and Strasbourg, a further, even more important challenge will have to be addressed back home. It will be crucial for Bulgarian MEPs to present their solutions for ensuring that EU legislation, funding and projects offer the same benefits to all Bulgarian citizens across the country, as they do for other Europeans. This would be essential in convincing voters of the practical change an MEP candidate can bring to Bulgarian citizens and their livelihood, and critical in reminding them of their European identity and the relevance of their vote in a non-national election.
Before casting their ballot on 26 May, Bulgarian citizens will have two key questions for their MEP candidates: how will you ensure that we, the citizens, truly feel like equal members of the EU, and what tangible benefits will further EU integration bring for our economy and society?