View from Sofia: Multi-tier Europe a reality now

Poland’s likely disengagement from EU mainstream will force tough choices on Sofia

The elections in Poland coincided with the first round of local elections across Bulgaria, and so did not get the attention that they probably deserved.

Poland is often viewed as spokesman of the new member states in the EU on certain topics, and the current division in the group on the issue of refugee quotas does not diminish its role. Even though the governments in both Warsaw and Sofia endorsed the relocation scheme, public opinion in both countries share fear and scepticism on the issue. The EU continues to be a relatively new terrain for the central and east Europeans, and the Visegrad grouping is an influential coalition for some of these voices and it’s one in which Poland has a prominent place.

In addition, both countries went lately on a course of strategic military cooperation: it will be in Poland instead of Russia where Bulgarian MIG29 jets will be refurbished, for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union. The contract triggered diplomatic protests from Moscow as it breaches the near total dependence of the Bulgarian military on Russian equipment.

With these broad as well as more concrete factors in mind, here are four messages Bulgaria received from the Polish general election:

Firstly, the division between left and the right is not what it used to be. The Law and Justice party is often portrayed as a conservative Eurosceptic force. What is often overlooked is that though it does stand for family values and patriotic positions, it is economically left-wing. In Bulgaria too many would surely vote for a lower retirement age, more family benefits and tax rebates for small businesses. However, a higher budget deficit and lower foreign investment are the consequences of such populist policies.

Secondly, even successful governing parties should take care not be perceived as elitist. Civic Platform, the party that governed Poland for the last eight years, seemed to be doing everything right: it kept the economy going at a higher growth rate than the rest of the EU, bridged the effects of the financial crises and established Poland as a reliable and important player in Europe. What it didn’t get right was the relationship with the public: exacerbated by taped phone conversations of leading figures in the party, it has built up the image to be the party of the elite, detached from the daily problems of the Polish citizens. Bulgarian Prime Minister Borissov seems to painfully aware of the danger, as his rhetoric and political behaviour suggest (“If my party becomes like the others, I will dissolve it. I don’t need the power. The power has been given to me by the people’s endorsement and I will give it back to them”).

Thirdly, a Europe of multiple tiers is not the future, it is the present. With the new governing party in Poland strongly against Poland’s entry into the Eurozone, decision making in the EU will clearly have to take into account the assertiveness of the euro-outs, two of which – Poland and the UK – are among the big five. For small countries like Bulgaria, who do not have good prospects of joining the Eurozone or Schengen, this dynamic is not positive. The pro-Europeanness of Bulgarian elites and the public will clash further with the limits of integration.

Fouthly, Russia will not gain a friend but Germany might lose one. Poland will continue to drive a hard line towards Moscow, and will probably be on the frontline for renewing the EU sanctions. However, the Law and Justice party seems to doubt the EU’s (and the West’s in general) ability to deliver more security against the threat from Russia. With Law and Justice’s strong sovereigntist tenor and its desire to be ‘difficult’ in order to win Germany’s respect, Warsaw’s push on internal European policies will mainly go through the Visegrad+ formula, which includes the Baltics and Romania. Sofia will have to make up its mind, which side it will be on, and on which issues and at what price.

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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