European and foreign policy implications of Bulgaria’s election

Borissov will probably have to make some symbolic shifts on foreign policy, but he is likely to do his best to be constructive within the EU.

The EU has dodged a bullet in the Bulgarian elections with the victory of former prime minister Boyko Borrissov’s GERB party.  For much of the campaign it looked like this small country on the southern fringe of Europe could become another disruptive force in a transforming EU.  

Kornelia Ninova, the leader of the Bulgarian Socialists (BSP) who had been expected by some to win the election, ran her campaign on a pro-Russia platform, threatening to overturn the consensus on EU sanctions. “Foreign policy will be oriented to improve and develop relations with Russia, including taking concrete initiatives and steps for the removal of sanctions on the European Union to Russia,” she was quoted saying.  Her party also distanced itself from the traditional narrative on Bulgaria’s transition away from communism, claiming “Democracy took a lot away from us”. 

It seems that this murky mixture of pro-Russian attitude and nostalgia ultimately scared off some of the voters and eventually led to BSP losing by five percent to GERB.

This is not to say that Mr Borissov is liberal, refugee-friendly, or anti-Russia. He is rather opportunistic on values, security-oriented on the migration issue (he described the Turkey border fence as “absolutely necessary”) and is well aware of the large portion of Bulgarian voters who have sympathies with Russia. As a politician with a populist bent Borissov may admire Victor Orban’s domestic popularity and political longevity, but he understands that Bulgaria's modernization depends upon being part of the EU mainstream. As such, he has also chosen to follow an EPP line and to build close relations with Mrs. Merkel. Even the bilateral deal he struck with Turkish President Erdogan over the Bulgarian-Turkish border, would likely not have gone ahead without Angela Merkel’s EU-Turkey deal.

With only 5 parties in parliament (compared with 8 in the previous one), GERB will probably form a coalition with the United Patriots (UP) and the smaller party Volya of the businessman Veselin Mareshki. While the latter has not set out any positions on foreign or European policy, the Patriots – a coalition of right-wing populist parties – have pronounced views on a number of  topics. They are hostile to Turkey, undecided on the EU, and divided on Russia. The latter is understandable given that the coalition is made up of   the pro-Russian Ataka, the anti-Russian National Front for National Salvation and the opportunistic VMRO. If a split is to occur in the nationalist bloc, the Russia question is likely to provide the wedge.

The lesson the Patriots learned at previous elections – that united they could easily enter parliament – is still to be grasped by the three small centre-right parties, remnants from the old reformist party of the 1990s. With 3 percent of the vote each, they left some of the most economically active and politically vocal part of the urban middle class – and their demand for real anti-corruption measures – unrepresented in the new parliament.

For Borissov the task to unite the currently fragmented parties in a governing coalition will not be easy. He will probably have to make some symbolic shifts on foreign policy, including taking a slightly tougher line on Turkey and a softer one on Russia. But he is likely to do his best to be constructive within the EU. 

This will be welcome news in Brussels as Bulgaria will have the rotating presidency of the EU in the first half of 2018, when some of Europe's critical portfolios will come to a climax: Brexit negotiations, and talks on the next budget framework, on the future of Schengen, and possibly on a common European defence policy.

The victory of Borissov, a known entity who reclaimed his constructive attitude to the EU towards the end of the campaign, was good news for his fellow European leaders. At the very least, a presidency that will not be a problem in itself will be one headache less to worry about.   

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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