Contest continues over who will be Bulgaria’s next European Commissioner

Contest continues over who will be Bulgaria’s next European Commissioner

By Clive Leviev-Sawyer of the Sofia Globe

In parallel with the saga of deciding a date for Bulgaria’s early parliamentary elections is that of “formulating clear principles and rules for nominating the Bulgarian EU Commissioner”.

At consultations scheduled to be held on June 27, the leaders of the four political party groups in the National Assembly have the task of coming up with the long-awaited date for ahead-of-term national parliamentary elections. Even if they achieve that, amid the current acrimony, it is an open question how far they will get on the question of the European Commissioner.

After the decisive defeat of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, current holder of the mandate to govern, in May 25 European Parliament elections, centre-right opposition GERB insisted that the current cabinet had no moral right to appoint the commissioner.

Like other EU countries, Bulgaria has limited time to come up with its nomination for the new European Commission. The vote on the new EC President by the European Parliament is scheduled to take place between July 14 and 17.

The EC President should then name his commission nominees, in effect acting on the names given him by member countries. European Parliament hearings of commissioner-designates are to take place in September.

This latter month is the same as that seen as likely to be the time that Bulgaria holds its elections, although what if anything Bulgaria’s perpetually squabbling political leaders come up with on the issue on June 27 remains to be seen.

Various factors influence the dispute, beyond who should be naming the commissioner.

One is the ambition of BSP leader Sergei Stanishev to get the post, although his political fate is unclear not only because of the party’s latest defeat but also because of turbulence within the party over a number of issues, including his decision to break his promise not to take up the MEP seat to which he has been elected.

Stanishev’s ambitions, however damaged they may be by his current troubles, rankle particularly with centre-right forces that could have a chance of forming the next governing coalition. One problem is, of course, the anomaly of Bulgaria having a European Commissioner with a five-year term not only from a different political family that would be governing the country, but also the leader of the BSP and of the EU-wide Party of European Socialists – in turn, for however long Stanishev might hold on to those posts.

The same principle of anomaly would apply to any other BSP figure raised by the current ruling axis.

A further issue is that of the portfolio to which Bulgaria might aspire. In the best of circumstances, as a country hardly at the top of the class in EU standards in most respects, and a downright dunce under the current government in areas such as EU funds, judicial and anti-corruption reform, to say nothing of energy issues, Bulgaria could hardly have very lavish dreams about what its commissioner might be put in charge of.

Theoretically, if the current government pushed through a candidate like Stanishev, that nomination might be confirmed at EU level but then handed a post of insignificance, far from the powerful economy, finance, foreign policy and security portfolios.

For all this, on June 26, Kristian Vigenin – the former MEP who currently occupies the foreign policy ministry in the BSP cabinet – said that he expected that the next European Commissioner would be nominated by the current government on the basis of consensus among political forces.

He denied that he would be a candidate for the post (a fair admission given that Vigenin is a Stanishev ally and highly unlikely to be acceptable to GERB).

Vigenin said that current circumstances required defining a generally accepted figure, which does not exclude one affiliated with one of the parties.

“My recommendation would be to not go immediately with specific names and then begin to strike names out until the most appropriate and generally acceptable remains. I would suggest to go from fundamental questions – what we expect from the new commissioner, regardless of portfolio, what policy to expect, to defend in making decisions.”

Vigenin said that a government which was outgoing deciding on its own who the commissioner should be “is not in good taste”. Doing so, he said, ran the risk of the next government being tempted to reconsider the choice. “In that way, we will become a laughing stock”.

Inevitably, of course, before the consultations beginning on June 27, an option would be for Bulgaria to stick with its current European Commissioner, Kristalina Georgieva, a domestically-popular figure with a strong international CV who since 2009 has held the EU’s humanitarian aid and crisis response portfolio, playing a key role in the bloc’s response to humanitarian crises from Haiti to Syria and through a number of places up to the recent floods in, respectively, the Balkans and in Bulgaria’s Varna and Dobrich.

A known quantity, and although seen as close to GERB not actually a political party figure, Georgieva would be a nomination that the current government could make without drawing on itself the usual widespread derision for its other actions.

But that agreement on “formulating clear principles and rules for nominating the Bulgarian EU Commissioner”, to use the words from the Consultative Council on National Security on June 17 at which it was reached, may prove as elusive as any other consensus in Bulgarian politics at the moment, and – like all else – take longer that may reasonably be expected.