Bulgaria: the Backbone of European Enlargement?

The Eastern Enlargement of the European Union in 2004 and 2007 was the largest such undertaking by the organization. The uniqueness of the event has stirred up criticisms and praise from all circles of society. Whether it is truly to be a success story is too early to tell, but the eyes of the EU are now firmly fixed on the Western Balkans for its next imminent enlargement. Can the new member states such as Bulgaria teach the Union some important lessons about the local mentality and the correct approach to European integration in the region?

Historically, the Balkan peninsula, situated between the Adriatic, Black and Aegean Seas, has been of major importance to many great powers. Before the 19th Century, it was dominated by the Ottoman Empire and after the Russian-Ottoman war of 1877-78 the map changed. Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro and Romania declared independence, while Bosnia-Herzegovina was occupied by the Austrian Empire after the Congress of Berlin. Then, in 1912 and 1913, the Balkan Wars saw many of these newly-independent states fight together and then amongst each other.

Passing over other, nevertheless important, parts of history and arriving at present day, we still see national-based antagonisms in the region. Greece’s conflict with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia’s argument over the independence of Kosovo, and the ongoing problems in Bosnia-Herzegovina being some of the major ones, it seems that the Balkans are divided in an intangible series of disputes amongst themselves. Can the European Union put an end to these quarrels?

When Bulgaria and Romania joined the Union in 2007 it was obvious to many and criticized by few that the two were not ready for the enlargement. Yet, it was a fact to be accepted and dealt with in the best possible way. In the following years, the EU constantly sent letters with warnings to the two states that they have to continue on their paths to European integration by fighting corruption, striving for independent judicial systems and addressing a whole range of other problems. From the other point of view, the two states considered the Union’s requirements as being very high and close to impossible. The general mentality of the Balkan people is different from that of the Western Europeans and that causes problems like calling into question the possibility of forming a truly civil society. Although there is progress on these issues, it is slow and requires super-human effort in some cases.

The latest round of enlargement negotiations shows that Croatia will be the next country to be accepted into the EU. As a former Yugoslav republic, it has seen its share of conflict and war but has come out of it in very good shape. That cannot be said about some of the other states in the region such as Bosnia, who still have a long way to go to even be considered as possible candidates. Yet, the Bulgarian experience can teach the viable candidate countries of what to expect from EU enlargement. It seems that too often the new member states imagine that once they become part of the Union, their lives will magically transform into the ‘European dream’. The lessons learned show that it takes a lot of effort to be accepted into the EU, but it takes even greater effort to integrate in all aspects with it. Therefore, they must be prepared to face the fact that they are part of a club of nations where most policies are decided together and any national-based differences have to be set aside.

Whether the Bulgarians themselves will stand up and grab the opportunity to lead their neighbors into the Union is another question. The Balkan nation has its own internal problems and its quarrels with some of the neighboring states create continuous antagonisms over ‘vital national interests’. In order for true integration to happen, such differences have to be set aside and good-will has to be built up. Cooperation on economic and political matters cannot occur if there are petty quibbles over bread-crumbs from the past. As a nation part of the EU, Bulgaria has to defend the European interests and promote democracy, the rule of law and civil society. Whether it is the best example of these values is probably not the case, but if there is going to be peace in the Balkans it is essential that it tries to follow the Union’s rhetoric and export these values and norms to its neighbors.

It is a question for the future whether the EU will use the lessons learnt from its first expansion into the Balkans for any subsequent ones. It would do well to consider the nations which are already its members as key players in the enlargement process because their national values are closest to the candidate countries’. Bulgaria is a nation which can hold the light on the Balkan’s road to European integration. How long that path will take and whether it can be successful will depend on the candidate countries’ motivation to integrate into European society as well as on who leads them.

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