Fragile support for quotas holds in europhile Bulgaria - for now

Bulgaria did settle for last week’s European Council decision on quotas and agreed to accept around 2000 refugees, in contrast to the vociferous opposition of some of its central and eastern European neighbours. Indeed the Bulgarian – and the Polish – support for quotas undermined prophecies of the re-emergence of a ‘new vs old’ European division. The stereotypes behind such a division have caused many unhelpful generalisations in Europe in recent weeks, but remained largely unnoticed in Bulgaria.

What was at the centre of the domestic debate in Bulgaria was rather the concrete programme that Europe would come up with in handling the crisis and to what extent the crisis would be a serious threat to the future of the European project, a particular concern for the Europhilic Bulgarian perspective.

The picture is more mixed when one looks at domestic public opinion. Around two-thirds of Bulgarians (63 percent) see the refugee flow as a threat, and the same proportion want to see a European solution to the crisis, according to representative survey by Alpha Research Agency.

Unlike some of its Central European fellow travellers, Bulgaria is not obsessed by the cultural and religious diversity of those coming from the south. With a Muslim population of almost 10 percent society is less focused on the ethnic features of the refugees. But over four decades behind the Iron Curtain, have left it easily spooked by ‘otherness’, a fact that is easily exploited by radical and nationalist parties. A shot in that direction was fired in the last few days by the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church which identified accepting more refugees as ‘a threat to Bulgarian statehood’.

In this context, it is hardly surprising that there is strong support for restrictive measures and policies that would limit the access to Bulgarian territory (76 percent), break the illegal trafficking networks (89 percent) and would ensure refugees are kept in camps rather than integrated. There is, however, a significant majority (75 percent) who demand that state institutions work for a more tolerant attitude towards the refugees and to improve their conditions in Bulgaria (57 percent).

The Bulgarian government seems aware of both the fragility of this current consensus and the fact that solidarity in Europe comes as a two-way process. The view of both government and people on the crisis may change should numbers grow significantly or the enforcement mechanisms of the quotas system fail . For now, the fragile support holds.

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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.