View from Sofia: A Single-Issue agenda sidelines longer-term concerns

View from Sofia: A Single-Issue agenda sidelines longer-term concerns

Commentary

When the future of the EU is discussed in Sofia, keeping the four freedoms intact takes primacy over any desire for a cultural counter-revolution.

No matter where Bulgarian Prime Minister Borissov travels to or speaks with, he seems to have one issue on his mind: migration from Turkey. Stemming from the level of public anxiety at home, this issue dominates Borissov's attitude towards Europe ahead of the Bratislava summit.

"I don't see in Europe any sensible long-term solution to the [migration] issue. Just to the contrary, I see how one member state after the other is looking panicked for its own way out. I see an absolute non-solidarity." Borissov was referring to recent buck-passing policies in Europe, which have seen Germany send several thousand asylum seekers back to Hungary, which in turn pushed the problem down to Balkans.

Following this statement at the end of August, Borissov payed visits to Ankara and to Berlin. 

His meetings in the Turkish capital with the government and President Erdogan (the first by any EU head of government after the attempted coup of July 15) achieved a modestly advertised but significant success from a Bulgarian point of view: a bilateral agreement on readmission of rejected asylum seekers.  

According to official data, around 600 refugees enter Bulgaria each week.

According to official data, around 600 refugees enter Bulgaria each week. Only 24 have been officially sent back to Turkey since the agreement with the EU was achieved in spring, but over 26,000 have been ‘hindered’ from entering Bulgaria. The new agreement formalises this arrangement and improves Bulgaria’s ability to swiftly and legally return rejected asylum, regardless of whether the larger EU-Turkey migration deal – which has stalled and is close to collapse - holds or not.

The following day, Borissov met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin. Despite his previous criticism of the EU’s handling of the matter, he found a responsive interlocutor. In light of the larger crises around Brexit and the future of the Union, Merkel willingly conceded to Bulgaria's short-term plea for technical and other support for guarding its southern border. German support for Bulgaria's membership in Schengen and ERM2, the pre-chamber of the eurozone, may also follow from this consultation.

Seen from Berlin, Sofia's migration fears are more grounded than, say, the Slovaks', and fairly easy to handle. They are primarily about technicalities around the borders and the Dublin agreement, rather than about ideological opposition to a common European solution on migration as with the Visegrad Four countries. Bulgaria made a point of not siding with the Central Europeans in the East-West divide, and its ambitions for the EU are much more modest. 

When the future of the EU is discussed in Sofia, keeping the four freedoms intact - especially freedom of movement of labour - takes primacy over any desire for a cultural counter-revolution. The longer-term worry is, of course, that a multi-tier Europe would push Bulgaria further out in the periphery and lump it together with the Balkan states, reducing its voice at the big table. Ahead of the Council Summit in Bratislava, however, Bulgaria is willing to sideline this concern in return for support on the issue of the moment. For Merkel and others in need of supporters in Europe’s East, this should be an easy sell.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

Read more on: View from the Capitals, European Power

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