Bulgaria

Flowers are the traditional way to say “I love you”. But in European Union etiquette, they can just as well be the side-product of a political spat.

Romanian authorities this week-end blocked six trucks filled with flowers from the Netherlands, citing health concerns linked to unspecified “dangerous bacteria”.

The blockade came – perhaps coincidentally, but likely not – just one day after the Dutch government said it would veto the enlargement of the passport-free Schengen zone to Romania and Bulgaria.

The Dutch are not the only sceptics when it comes to expanding Europe’s borders to include the eastern duo, a decision that requires unanimity among current Schengen members.

At least a dozen other countries, including France and Germany, lined up against Schengen enlargement last year, worried that though Bulgaria and Romania had met the technical requirements laid out in the accession programme, the endemic corruption in both countries had to be addressed first. 

In today’s paper, fellow Brussels Blogger Stanley Pignal has a nice scoop about a letter France and Germany sent to European Union officials announcing their formal objections to including Bulgaria and Romania in the Schengen area, the visa-free travel zone that most EU members are part of.

Traian Basescu, the Romanian president, has already responded this morning by calling the letter a “discriminatory act against Romania,” and vowing to fight the move.

Because the issue could get even hotter, especially since the incoming Hungarian presidency had made Bulgarian and Romanian Schengen membership such a priority, we thought we should post the letter here, with some annotations of our own. 

There are some who say the forced withdrawal of Rumiana Jeleva as Bulgaria’s candidate for the European Commission on Tuesday was a blow to Commission president José Manuel Barroso.  After all, didn’t Barroso make public a letter in support of Jeleva as late as last Friday, only two working days before she crashed in flames?

I disagree.  The truth is, Barroso found himself in a very delicate situation and needed to extract himself from it without humiliating Jeleva, annoying the Bulgarian government and giving more excuses for the European Parliament to delay confirming his new Commission in office.  By and large, Barroso has achieved these three objectives.  He has handled the whole thing rather well. 

Say what you will about Rumiana Jeleva, Bulgaria’s nominee for the new European Commission, but she is one hell of a dancer.  A Youtube clip shows her doing the rumba in what appears to be Bulgaria’s equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing – and there’s no question, it would be a severe injustice if she didn’t get 10 out of 10.

It would be less of an injustice, however, if the European Parliament refused to support her appointment as the EU commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis response.  This is partly because, in her parliamentary hearing on Tuesday, she did not convincingly answer some of the many questions that MEPs asked her about her financial affairs.  She denied allegations of impropriety, but she seemed remarkably hazy about the details of her involvement with a consultancy that specialised in privatisation matters. 

Tuesday’s murder of Bobi Tsankov, a young Bulgarian journalist who wrote about his country’s over-mighty gangsters, took place in broad daylight in a crowded street in the centre of Sofia.  As a statement about the power of organised crime in Bulgaria, it could hardly have been more explicit.

Moreover, it could hardly have come at a worse time for Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s government.  Borissov came to power in July facing the arduous task of regaining the trust of Bulgaria’s European Union partners.  Some of them bitterly regretted their decision to let Bulgaria join the EU in 2007 before it had properly confronted the scourge of organised crime.  A 2008 European Commission report on Bulgaria’s progress in tackling corruption and organised crime was, in my view, the most negative ever produced about a EU member-state. 

Slovenia’s announcement last Friday that it is ready to lift its veto on Croatia’s European Union entry talks gave a welcome boost to the EU enlargement process.  Other than Iceland’s decision in July to apply for membership, enlargement has been running into one brick wall after another in the past couple of years.

This is partly because of petty arguments such as the Slovenian-Croatian maritime border dispute (still unresolved, in spite of last Friday’s breakthrough) which held up Croatia’s talks.  But it is also because of a certain fatigue and disillusion in many of the EU’s 27 member-states, especially in western Europe, about admitting new entrants. 

What’s the connection between martial arts and European financial market regulation?  Answers in Bulgarian, please.  Because the most colourful member of the newly elected European Parliament’s powerful economic and monetary affairs committee is surely Slavi Binev, a Bulgarian MEP

Binev is a Taekwondo champion whose parliamentary website describes him, with little exaggeration, as “the most recognisable figure in the history of martial arts in Bulgaria”.  Perhaps I should add that he is also a wealthy man who belongs to Bulgaria’s ultra-nationalist Ataka party and who runs a company specialising in nightclubs, construction and finance.  He knows, shall we say, how to look after himself.