Let’s Talk About the Priorities of the Bulgarian Presidency

Prof. Ingrid Shikova


A Bulgarian citizen was asked what the priorities of the Rotational Presidency of the Council of the EU in 2018 are. “The renovations!”, he replied shortly. “You mean, you will renovate the European Union?”, exclaimed the inquirer, “this is a very ambitious goal”. “Oh, not the European Union, we shall not touch the Union, we plan to renovate the National Palace of Culture and “Sofia” Hall”, answered the citizen.

All jokes aside, renovations are indeed necessary in order to organize the Presidency, but it is also very important to discuss the nature of the Presidency and above all, its priorities. The careful selection of Priorities of the Rotational Presidency of the Council of the EU is one of the preconditions for achieving positive results, since its success is usually evaluated on the basis of its work on the priorities set in its programme. The analysis of the experience of the presidencies so far demonstrates that the priorities need to be in accord with the current economic and political situation and the need to find solutions to the pertinent issues (even if they may not be the most important from a national point of view). Before the inclusion of a particular priority in the presidency programme an ex ante assessment of their implementation should be performed, including whether the support of other Member-States is probable, whether agreement can be reached and under what conditions. In addition, the implementation of the rotational presidency with a common programme for 18 months sets a requirement for the trio of countries (Estonia – Bulgaria- Austria) to reach accord on their common priorities. The most difficult task is to choose priorities that reflect national interests but also the interests of the entire European Union, in compliance with the requirement for neutrality of the presidency. This calls for very skillful search of balances between national interests and the interests of the integration community. It is also important that the priorities bring visibility to the country holding the presidency, for example, reaching agreement on a sensitive issue, starting a new initiative or policy which, despite not concluded during its term, will help the presidency leave a trace.

Despite the fact that the largest part of the priorities are dictated by the current situation in the EU and the world, i.e. the external environment, or are inherited by the previous presidency, and only around 5-10% are set by the presiding country itself, it is nevertheless important to stress that priorities help send messages and develop the image of the presidency. Priorities can be classified into four primary categories: inevitable priorities, inherited priorities, specific priorities and unexpected priorities.

The inevitable priorities are related to the current situation. A number of previous presidencies had to cope with tackling the crisis and with limiting unemployment, another long-term priority seems to be security and migration. At the moment an inevitable priority is the work on Brexit as well as the debate on the future of the EU. The inherited priorities are the ones, left by the previous presidencies and they rely on the legislative and political cycle in the EU. They are related to a large extent to the long-term agenda of the Union. For example, enlargement to the Central and Eastern European countries was the key priority of 6 rotational presidencies, while the financial framework 2007-2013 was the priority of 3 rotational presidency. Lisbon Treaty was negotiated under 7 rotational presidencies. The development off the digital market – by 9. The specific priorities are the ones that create the image of the presidency and make it outstanding. It is not necessary that every presidency includes such priorities in its programme, i.e. its own initiative or project, but the fact is that each presidency prioritizes issues that it wants to place the focus onto.

An important factor for the success of the presidency is to select specific priorities in areas where the country has expertise and feels secure in implementing them. It is not adequate to choose priorities which are relatively unusual or the country decides to experiment in new and unknown spheres. The specific priorities should be carefully considered and discussed. They should not only be well-formulated but there should also be absolute clarity regarding objectives and specific measures. The lack of clarity may lead to failure in the implementation of these priorities and in achieving results. For example, if Bulgaria intends to put forward an initiative related to the Western Balkans, then it has to be clear about what its impact wants to be. It will be illusory to believe that a Western Balkan country may conclude its membership negotiation under the Bulgarian Presidency, but an informal European Council may be convened with the participation of the leaders of the Western Balkan countries to reconfirm their European perspective. In case this priority is selected, it should be carefully considered and the end-goals should be clearly formulated. The Greek presidency in 2014 provides a useful example in this regard. In contrast to the previous Greek presidency in 2003, whose main achievement was the Thessaloniki Programme regarding the European integration of the Western Balkans, as a turning point in this process, in 2014 Greece did not include the Western Balkans in its priorities. The preliminary agenda of the Greek Presidency of 14 February 2011 included the goal of convening an EU-Western Balkans summit (named Programme Thessaloniki II) which was meant to adopt a political declaration about a realistic target date for concluding the accession processes of the Western Balkan countries. The Thessaloniki II programme was included for months in the Greek presidency programme and was one of the priorities for speeding up the processes of enlargement and raising competitiveness in the region. According to the idea, developed by the Greek government, Thessaloniki II had to enhance cooperation among candidate countries at the regional level and to set a specific date for the accession of those candidates which are ready to join the EU. Later on Greece opted for caution and made the tactical choice not to include this tough issue in its presidency programme.

There is a fourth group of priorities – we may call them unexpected. The country has to be prepared for adaptation of its agenda in situations when the international context requires so and to adopt further measures which are not included in its initial agenda. It has been assessed that in 2006 the Finnish presidency has dedicated 65% of its time to unexpected events and only 35% to planned activities. When a young journalist asked Harold Macmillan what can hinder the implementation of the government programme, he replied “Events, dear boy, events!”. And this is what we need to be prepared for – to embrace the challenges and risks of the contemporary world.

The common priorities of the trio of Estonia, Bulgaria and Austria are already clear: Employment and competitiveness, a Union that empowers and protects its citizens, an Energy Union, a Union of freedom, justice and security, the EU as a key player in the world.

The priorities of Estonia which will uptake the presidency on 1 July 2017 are already announced. The four priorities of Estonia will be: Open and innovative European economy, Security in Europe, Digital Europe and free flow of data, Inclusive and sustainable Europe. Estonia wants to send out a message for affinity towards nature and innovative digital society. These topics are in line with the history and the essence of Estonians through two very important related issues: the relationship between humans and nature and the challenges related to new technologies. The Estonian presidency will be conducted under the motto: “Unity through Balance”. The main goal of the Estonian presidency is to guarantee that the EU remains unified and decisive. Estonia places the balance as a clear reflection of its presidency – the idea that today more than ever Europe needs unity and achieving a balance of diverging opinion, interests and visions of the Member States.

The priorities of the Bulgarian presidency are still to be formulated. It will have to work on a number of inevitable priority issues such as security, migration, Brexit, the future of the EU. We will also have inherited priorities. In practice, we will probably inherit work on each of the four Estonian priorities, but we should also put forward a Bulgarian footprint on the priorities. Statements pointing that it would be absurd to continue the issues set out by Estonia are a demonstration of utter ignorance about the mechanism in which the trio presidencies and the legislative process in the EU are implemented. In this regard it is indeed necessary that those who will take decisions on issues related to the presidency, are well acquainted with the overall functioning of the EU and specifically, with the presidency tasks.

Specific attention should be focused on the specific priorities since they largely determine the image of the presidency and distinguish it from other presidencies. It is clear that Bulgaria will have to work on a large number of topics but it is important how these priorities will be formulated to make them memorable, to send clear messages to the citizens, to help the active communication of the presidency and to leave a Bulgarian trace.

One proposal for the Bulgarian priorities may be named the “Three Cs”:

  1. Competitiveness – this priority may include issues related to energy, innovations, digital market, education, science, environment.
  2. Cohesion – this priority should put forward the issues of economic and social cohesion among countries and regions (financial framework 2020-2027), cohesion in European society – social issues, solidarity among generations, demography, cohesion with the Western Balkans.
  3. Culture – this could be the specifically Bulgarian priority which can encompass issues regarding cultural heritage, cultural diplomacy of the EU in the world, cultural industry, European values, protection of the European way of life, cohesion among EU citizens on the basis of culture. This priority will help Bulgaria place a strong footprint on its presidency, and show its respect for European values but also bridge a gap in the discussions about EU’s future. 24 May can be an excellent occasion for a number of events which will make this priority visible in the EU.

These priorities are not only easy to remember but also encompass the three most important spheres on which the future of the EU depends. Competitiveness is decisive for the future economic prosperity of the citizens, cohesion is the precondition for a socially stable EU, and culture is what distinguishes Europe as a standard for civilization. I would recommend that another priority stretches through these three, and it should be a horizontal priority on youth. A new EU strategy on youth is forthcoming and its preparation is a good occasion for paying attention to the issues of youth unemployment, education, demography and other issues.

Each presidency has a motto which expresses its objective and priorities. Here is an idea for a motto: “Europe for all, all for Europe”. This motto could present the Bulgarian determination for a Europe that reaches out to all citizens and protects them and the need to be united, to protect our Europe, and to protect what we have achieved and want to bequeath to our children.