The way in
For ten years leading up to formal EU membership in 2007, Bulgaria sent well-educated, female foreign ministers to negotiate with Brussels. Their mission was to improve Bulgaria’s negative image abroad, to replace the old stereotype of Bulgaria as a haven for money-washing, organized crime and chronic corruption, into something new, civilized and Western bound. Clearly the tactics worked. But others came to Bulgaria’s aid as well. The bureaucrats in the Delegation of the European Commission in Sofia were probably the most prominent promoter of Bulgarian EU membership, painting a rosy picture of a country in rapid transition in its official reports. To get Bulgaria in the EU as quickly as possible would benefit their careers, for sure. A third force pushing for Bulgaria was the US. Bulgaria, notably unknown to most Americans before the bombing of Serbia in 1999, suddenly turned into a firm ally as NATO fighter jets were permitted to fly over Bulgarian airspace on route to targets in Kosovo and Serbia. For sure, keeping the Russian bear out of Europe also played a role, as Bulgaria was rushed into NATO as well.
However, despite all the good looks and good words, in reality, Bulgaria in 2007 was far away from coping with the Copenhagen criteria for EU membership. The Bulgarians knew it, that’s why the EU membership came as such a surprise to most Bulgarian citizens and companies. According to the Copenhagen criteria, to join the EU, a new member State must meet three specific criteria: political (democratic institutions, rule of law, human rights and protection of minorities), economic (functioning market economy and capacity to cope with free market forces), acceptance of the Community Acquis (ability to cope with obligations of membership). How the EU came to the conclusion in 2007 that the rule of law is upheld in Bulgaria remains a mystery. By any measure, and again any Bulgarian taxi driver will confirm this fact, the legal system in Bulgaria is not up to par. To the contrary, it is an under-performing institution, which protects the bad, and leaves the good out in the cold. In summary, 150 business related assassinations in 20 years remain unsolved, famous businessmen whose only claim to fame is their capacity to avoid taxes and steal state assets remain at large and so does generations of politicians, policemen, custom officials, public administrators, prosecutors and others on low state salaries who own properties for which they would have to work 300 years to actually afford. All of the above must have been obvious to Brussels, yet made no impression on the EU as it gave Bulgaria the green light to enter the Club.
Most Bulgarians expected euro notes to fall from the trees as a result of EU membership. The politicians did little to restrain expectations. Instead, what followed was a range of disasters and disappointments – inflation, closure of production units not adhering to tough EU directives and standards, increased brain drain especially among the young and well-educated, outbursts of blatant corruption in the use of EU funds and a horrific realization that the country was incapable of managing the opportunities and responsibilities of EU membership. Why? Well, in good Balkan fashion political change means change in public administration. The winner fills the public sector with his own people. Any capacity built up is effectively lost as the old staff walks out the door. There is no continuity in skills or procedures, everything starts over from scratch, including new desperate attempts by the EU to strengthen administrative capacity.
No way out
There is no historical presence of a member state being asked to leave the EU due to under-performance. There is no clear legal framework for a member to choose to leave the EU. If your are in the Club, you are in forever. This does not send the right signal to the layer of irresponsible politicians that the Balkans has the unfortunate, but very consistent habit of electing to power, over and over again. The EU’s stick is hence non-existence, while the financial carrot has limited influence. In Bulgaria’s case, when the EU decided to “punish” it for misuse of EU funds, the Government turned to the national reserve to keep its abuse of power machine ticking, at least until the next election. Who got hurt? Neither the political elite nor the businessmen dictating policy and new legislation, of course, but the average citizen who saw the quality of health care, education, roads take a nose dive.
Dare to change
So, will the EU learn anything from the Bulgaria case in its current negotiating with countries in Western Balkan? Will it change its approach to taking in new member states? Probably not. This is both unfortunate and irresponsible. A new model for absorbing new member states, which at the time of entrance are far below the EU average on the Copenhagen criteria, is desperately needed. If the EU is to become a global economic and political power, it has to invent new membership rules, which promote the well-performing member states, while at the same time demanding improved performance by the other members of the Club.
To build and enforce positive and sustainable changes in the politics, economy and society of new members states, it is simply not enough that these countries perform well during 10 years leading up to EU membership. Bulgaria did this and has since fallen back into old habits of chronism, corruption and crime. The recent debt crisis in Greece shows that also older members of the EU continue to misbehave like children hoping that they will get away with it, every time.
EU is a club of very diverse nation states. It includes states with clear Banana Republic tendencies (not functioning judicial system, heavy political involvement in the economy and businessmen in politics, incompetent and over-staffed public administration, etc) glued together with some of the most competitive economies, with highest living standards anywhere in the World. EU member states are like pupils, divided into groups depending on performance, and in classic egalitarian manner the teacher is giving all his/her attention to the under-performing students, ignoring the plea of the better students. And then we wonder why we are not the most competitive economy in the world yet.
A new approach is necessary to break the bad habits of Ottoman rule and communist mismanagement among the potential new member states from South East Europe. Rather than granting full membership to new member states, a trial period of 25 years (at least one generation) with limited voting rights and no presidency should be applied, during which the country will still receive a comprehensive package of technical assistance to build up the capacity to fulfill the Copenhagen criteria in a sustainable manner. Some will argue that this is unfair, and that the countries of Western Balkan will be a B-team within EU. Well, yes, but let’s be honest, they are 20-50 years behind the best performers in the EU anyway (and some of the older member states surely belongs to this category as well) However, upward mobility is the goal and by showing consist improvement on the Copenhagen criteria for 25 years a new member state will earn promotion to the A-team. In simple school terms, the current accession process is like cramming for an exam, taking the test successfully, and forgetting everything you learned the next day…and going back to doing things they way you and your buddies know best! Nobody benefits from this approach.