Georgieva’s difficult tasks

The European Parliament votes on the new EU Commission on Tuesday. But for the replacement for the original Bulgarian Commissioner the vote is a minor hurdle compared to the tasks of the next five years

On Tuesday the European Parliament will vote on the
second Barroso commission, two weeks late. The delay is thanks to the replacement
of the troubled original Bulgarian candidate, Rumjana Jeleva. Her replacement,
Kristalina Georgieva, now faces more than just her immediate duties as ‘Commissioner
for Haiti’.

The Jeleva episode, and the concerns thrown up by her
deeply unconvincing presentation before the parliament, exacerbated a
widespread view of Bulgaria
as a notoriously corrupt country. Among Georgieva’s tasks are to convince the sceptics
that Bulgaria
is a competent European partner, while defining her own role in the EU foreign
policy machinery.

The allegations of
conflicts of interest prior to and after Jeleva’s hearing were bad news for the
new government in Sofia.
It had arrived in office with the promise to crack down on crime and
corruption, end the mismanagement of EU funds, and overcome the pervasive
perception around Europe and elsewhere that Bulgaria produces only bad news. In
this sense the successful candidacy of Kristalina Georgieva, the new
Commissioner designate for international cooperation, humanitarian aid and
crisis response, brought relief to the Bulgarian government – and, no doubt, to
Commission President Barroso. But it is only one (even if a major) step on the
way of turning Bulgaria into
a ‘more equal’ member of the Union.
Georgieva’s role here will be crucial.

For a start she will
have to convince a Bulgarian public of the importance of her own job. Bulgarians
seem sure that few other peoples on the planet are worse of than themselves,
and that helping the global needy is a matter of duty for every citizen in the
EU. A recent Eurobarometer survey on development aid showed that Bulgarians are the
least inclined to see their country offer poor people help (0%), rather than
the EU or the UN. Hence, the lack of a clear inter-agency system for releasing
development aid to date.  On the concrete
issue of civil protection, which is at the heart of Georgieva’s portfolio,
Bulgarian respondents to another Eurobarometer poll perceive themselves as highly threatened by
natural disasters and are least informed about prevention (9%). So although she
has declared her priorities being in Asia or Latin America, the new aid
Commissioner will have to spend a good amount of her time on opening the
horizon of the domestic public debate as well as on overcoming the notion that
the EU cares for others first, and its own citizens second. (While listening to
the radio advertisement for a concert benefitting Haiti, one Sofia taxi driver
exclaimed, “Why would we do a concert for that exotic island when we didn’t
have one after the drowning of 15 Bulgarians in the
lake Ohrid last September?

On the question of
what her first task in office would be, Georgieva answered instantly, “Haiti”. Of
course, the Haiti
earthquake of 12 January radically changed the perceptions and the expectations
of her portfolio. But looking mid- and long-term, she also mentioned the
establishment of a European voluntary corps in 2011 and the improved
coordination and effectiveness of providing aid, while integrating the efforts
with reconstruction and long-term development. And it is here another bottle
neck can be found: managing the trade-off between the necessary (immediate
relief) and the politically viable (non-cooperation with unacceptable regimes)
will be her daily struggle. Finding the right balance within the Commission (and
accommodating the strategising of the member states) will be a hard exercise of
political judgment and vision.

Although these goals
seem to be quite a load already, an equally challenging part of Georgieva’s job
will be to position herself within the College. During her hearing, she relayed
a simple message: that she will be open and serious, will work in a team with the High Representative for Foreign
Policy and the Commissioner for Development, and at the same time will protect
the independence of her portfolio. Georgieva made a credible pledge for
innovation (the proposal of
“disaster insurance” for risk countries and regions) and promised to be
“the voice of the voiceless”, even when European vested interests stood in
her way.

In the context of the complex
and often confusing powers of the main actors in European foreign policy (the President
of the Council, the rotating president, the head of the European Parliament, the
European Commission President, the High Representative for foreign policy plus
three Commissioners with responsibilities in this area) Georgieva created a
solid impression of a someone who clearly understands her duties and their


But there is more to Kristalina
Georgieva’s task than simply negotiating the post-Lisbon European institutional
minefield, and finding new ways to bring coherence and structure to the EU’s
foreign policy machinery (without being swallowed by it). At a time when
European economies are themselves under strain, simply selling the importance
of her job will be difficult enough in the rest of Europe, let alone Bulgaria. On
the European stage she will also be faced with selling Bulgaria’s
credibility as a member state. And on the global stage her work will have a
direct impact on the lives of many of the world’s poorest. The European
parliamentary vote will only be the first obstacle of a very challenging five


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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