View from Sofia: Little overlap, little opposition

With Bulgaria mulling a realignment towards the Visegrad group, there is no intention of blocking Britain's renegotiation

The December visit by David Cameron showed that there is little overlap between the UK and the Bulgarian agenda. London was seeking acceptance for its reform package, Sofia was looking for support on the borders/migration issue. Still, today it seems that Sofia will support the UK package, even though it will likely protest against possible discrimination for its nationals in the British labour market for the look of it. But Bulgarian officials confirm that there is no desire to block the package.

Bulgaria will easily support the proposals on competitiveness, on protecting the interests of Euro-outs as well as giving more powers to the national parliaments – although the European Parliament enjoys higher trust than its Bulgarian equivalent. As in Poland and elsewhere in central and eastern Europe, the difficulties arise around child benefits being indexed relative to the living standard in the country of origin, and the “safeguard mechanism“ for in-work benefits. But even here, experts say, the numbers of Bulgarians concerned is very low, probably in the low thousands, so the issue is not practically contentious, beyond the political messaging.

The Visegrad 4 dynamic is important for Sofia as well, and this takes us to the recent visit by Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban. The friendly tone of the meeting between the two prime ministers culminated in an invitation to Bulgarian prime minister Borissov to join the next V4 meeting. This will be a key moment for Bulgaria's position in the ever-deepening split in the EU on the migration crisis. Should Borissov choose to join the central Europeans in their sceptical positions regarding the EU solidarity, which is the electorally temptating, it will further expose the limits of Germany's leverage. 

The collective V4 position on Brexit will be clearer as the EU Council draws closer but, after Cameron's Warsaw visit, obstruction from the central Europeans looks very unlikely. Still, the debate on Brexit demonstrates the rifts and divisions within the EU, where the centrifugal forces of integration towards Brussels or around Berlin are quickly disappearing. Being outside of the Eurozone and not being able to enter Schengen for many years, Bulgaria apparently prefers to strengthen its voice within the less integrated European periphery. Here, the relationship is more transactional, stripped of talk about values in favour of interests. Maybe this is the future of the EU.

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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Author

Deputy Director
Head, ECFR Sofia

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