Tag Archives: European Union

Bulgaria – An EU Presidency and a Prime Minister’s Ambition

EPA/Julien Warnand

Prime Minister of Bulgaria Boyko Borisov welcomed by EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (R). Juncker is know to call the PM ‘his golden boy’.  EPA/JULIEN WARNAND

1 January marked the start of Bulgaria’s first presidency of the Council of the EU. This position amplifies international attention towards the country’s process of democratization and demands further investigation of the political practice in institutional power sharing. The following text is an overview of some of the key issues that Bugaria’s EU presidency will highlight in the next six months: (1) inter-institutional conflict over anti-corruption laws; (2) the dynamics between the parties in the governing coalition; (3) PM Boyko Borisov’s political strength.

  • Fighting corruption: a Bulgarian method

Bulgaria is a premier-presidential semi-presidential republic. This means that control over the government is assigned to the parliament, while the directly elected president shares some executive powers with the PM. The president can also veto legislation. President Rumen Radev used this veto right on 2 January 2018 against new anti-corruption law supported by the parliamentary majority. This is a controversial piece of legislation. According to it, the chair and all the members of a special anti-graft committee meant to investigate high public officials would be appointed by the parliament with a simple majority. The president claims this provides the framework for the parliamentary majority to manipulate the institution’s authorized use of special intelligence means – such as wiretapping – to target political adversaries. PM Borisov’s main coalition party Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) and partner United Patriots support the law, claiming that it answers to the demands of the European Commission for decisive action against corruption.

The Bulgarian constitutional semi-presidential framework favours the implementation of decisions made by the parliamentary majority and limits the powers of the president once the government is formed without his own party. Consequently, we can expect that the president’s veto will be ruled out through a new vote in parliament and that the government backed legislation could soon enter into force.

The controversy surrounding this piece of legislation shows the potential for institutional disagreement when PM and president come from a different political support base. Such policy related conflict is not uncommon in situations of cohabitation and we could easily anticipate its outcome. The constitutional semi-presidential framework favours the implementation of decisions made by the parliamentary majority and renders the president weak once the government is formed without his own party. Consequently, we can expect that the president’s veto will be ruled out through a new vote in parliament and that the government backed legislation could soon enter into force. But this particular conflict is more than ”business as usual’ cohabitation skirmishes.

The debate on the framing of anti-corruption legislation law is telling about the state of elite commitment to consolidate the rule of law in Bulgaria and warns about the democratic progress of the country. Radev was elected president with the support of the main opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). BSP had also proposed their version of an anti-corruption investigative agency whose head would be named precisely by the president. The competing propositions show a lingering understanding that in a young democracy such as Bulgaria, institutions could be created or shaped having in mind the immediate political benefits brought by a temporary distribution of power. While more advanced in its anti-corruption fight, a similar inter-institutional clash takes place in neighbouring Romania. In the Romanian case, the parliamentary majority is currently working on legislative reforms that would eliminate the president from the procedure to appoint the general prosecutor, the chief prosecutor of the National Anti-corruption Agency (and their deputies) and the chief prosecutor of the Organised Crime and Terrorism Investigation Agency.

  • The far-right, from Sofia to Brussels

GERB formed the government with the political alliance United Patriots (UP).  UP consist of three parties – Ataka, led by Volen Siderov, the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria, led by deputy PM for Economic and Demographic Policy Valeri Simeonov, and the Bulgarian National Movement, led by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, Krassimir Karakachanov. The extremist and racist public positions of the UP leaders regarding immigrants and the Roma communities have constantly raised international concerns. The UP ministers that assumed ministerial portfolios and their views are now expected to ‘shock Brussels’.[i] Nevertheless, while their rhetoric stems out, their views on limiting immigration are embraced by all parliamentary parties. Also, PM Borisov has so far proved to be in control of his coalition partners, satisfactorily addressing their demands without losing his status as Brussels’ ‘golden boy‘. As a result, the UP parties have moderated their tone in 2017 and in view of the EU presidency. Opinions may not change on the way from Sofia to Brussels, but their international public discourse could prove to be more restrained than it has previously been on the home front.

Moreover, the prospect of Bulgarian racism and xenophobia at the highest level of European decision making is but a teaser of what could follow once Austria takes over the presidency on 1 July. While the main political presence in both Sofia and Brussels is now secured by GERB ministers, the incoming Austrian government numbers five ministers from the far right Freedom Party (FPO), including the Minister of Interior and an FPO supported Foreign Minister.

  • Boyko Borisov: a balancing act

PM Borisov is highly concerned with internal stability during this period, satisfying requests from different segments of society to avoid any protests. He asked for restraint and ‘more patriotism’ from the socialist led opposition not to initiate a planned vote of no confidence for 17 January, pointing at them as inopportune trouble makers. He secured a truce with the opposition party Movement of Rights and Freedoms (DPS) and its leader Ahmed Dogan.[ii] Internationally, Borisov has set up the Bulgarian presidency as a ‘Balkan presidency’, proposing an ambitious agenda for a clearer European perspective for the Western Balkans. This choice of priority is a manifesto of a pro-European stance which Western Europe expects and favours. This comes in contrast with the pro-Russian image that president Radev and the BSP have been painted by Western media despite no practical proof of defiance against NATO or EU policies.

A seasoned politician, Borisov knows how to use the momentum of the presidency to boost his political capital internally and externally. He wants the following months to be all about his and his government’s successes. In contrast, a less politically experienced Radev avoided reference to the EU Presidency in his end of the year speech on 31 December 2017. Should Borisov successfully continue this balancing act between his coalition partners, citizens’ interest groups and Western European expectations, the resulting political stability would come in handy in delivering justice reforms without significant civic protest or objections from Brussels.  In the longer run, it could also help in winning the debate concerning the changes to the electoral system to his party long term benefit.[iii]


In its 12th year of EU membership, the Bulgarian state continues to grapple with a multitude of ‘sins’ familiar to observers of the democratization process of post-communist states, from unaddressed high-level corruption to power personalization and legislative instability. The EU presidency in itself may not structurally affect political activities, but it serves to highlight elite priorities and the political strategies on the ground. So far, this translates into a focus on the PM and his long term self-empowering ambitions of institutional reform.


[i] Out of similar concerns, another interesting point on the EU calendar is the meeting of the EU Environmental Council to be led by UP supported Environment Minister Neno Dimov, known for a 2015 statement that global warming is a manipulation.

[ii] The power of DPS is far greater than its legislative size as it is also the party of Bulgarian oligarch and media mogul Delyan Peevski.

[iii] GERB favours an electoral reform towards a majority run-off system from which it (and BSP) could also benefit in the medium and long run. President Radev and smaller parties support a mixed electoral system.


Alexander Bürgin – Leadership of the European Commission President: An Assessment of Juncker’s Organisational Reforms

This is a guest post by Alexander Bürgin, Jean Monnet Chair and Associate Professor at Izmir University of Economics. It is based on his recent article in the Journal of Common Market Studies.

When Jean-Claude Juncker took office as Commission President on November, 1, 2014, he set out to establish a more political and less technocratic Commission, implying a focus on a smaller number of priority projects, and a stronger top-down steering. This was intended to enable the Commission to shed its image as a bureaucracy responsible for over-regulation, and to strengthen its profile in areas where EU governance is potentially more effective than national regulations (European Commission, 2014, p. 2). To facilitate his political leadership inside the Commission, he introduced seven Vice-Presidents, each responsible for the coordination of a team of Commissioners working on a specific priority project. In addition, Juncker further increased the Secretariat General’s (SG) staff numbers and range of competences in the coordination of the services. To strengthen the Commission’s leadership role within the EU system, Juncker assigned to the Vice-Presidents the task of organising the representation of the Commission in their area of responsibility in the EP, Council and national parliaments (European Commission, 2014, p. 5). A special role is foreseen for the newly established post of the First Vice-President, responsible inter alia for the coordination of the inter-institutional work on policy programming and the ‘better regulation agenda’.

Intra- institutional Leadership

Among the 37 experienced officials from the Commission, the Council, and the EP whom I interviewed between April 2015 and January 2017, there was a consensus that Juncker’s reforms have contributed to a centralisation of the coordination process in three regards. First, interviewees highlighted the specific filter function of the First Vice-President. It was argued that whereas in the past, the working programme was a rather bottom-up process, making it difficult for Barroso to impose his will, it is now a centralised, top-down process, steered by the First Vice-President. Second, it was also a common view that the introduction of project teams leading Vice-Presidents has promoted coordination at an earlier stage, and thus has improved strategic political decision-making among the Commissioners, providing stronger policy guidance to the services, which are constrained to a more executive role. Finally, interviewees considered the reduced number of Commissioners with a specific portfolio as beneficial for a more centralised coordination.

As regards the role of the SG, a majority of interviewees considered that the SG has significantly gained in importance since the end of the Barroso Commission. Interviewees highlighted that due to new units, the SG has become less dependent on the input from the DGs. Furthermore, there was a wide agreement that the increase in coordination meetings between the services, chaired by the SG, has reduced the discretion level of the respective lead DG, which in the past, could neglect aspects raised by other DGs in the early stage of the policy-formulation process, and be assured that, due to time constraints, the initial draft of the lead DG could only be slightly amended in the subsequent inter-service consultation.

Inter-institutional Leadership

As concerns the leadership of the Commission within the EU system, there was a consensus among the interviewees that the internal reforms are beneficial for the Commission’s leadership in inter-institutional relations. Three main arguments have been offered. First, interviewees stated that the frequent contacts between the First Vice-President or the Vice-Presidents and the EP confer greater political weight to the Commission’s positions, as they are able to present a topic from a more holistic perspective than Commissioners, who, in the past, often focussed on technical messages from their portfolio perspective. It was emphasised that the political rather than more technical language used today better corresponds to the MEP’s expectations. Furthermore, interviewees mentioned the more active SG role in the EP’s committees. Interviewees stated that while the SG used to have rather a note-taking role, the SG now often presents the Commission’s position in its function as chef de file, or monitors whether the line DG’s communication fits with the priorities of the Commission President. A final argument was that the coordination in project teams has led to a trend towards proposing legislative packages, covering items of several policy areas, making it difficult for the EP to unpack the package. It was argued that the EP struggles sometimes with the Commission’s package approach, because it obliges rapporteurs of different committees, and often, from different political parties, to write a common draft report, a practise to which they are not yet used to.

In addition to the organisational reforms, a broad majority of the interviewees stressed that Juncker’s leadership vis-à-vis the member states had benefited from the new appointment process. The cooperation between Juncker, the then EP-President Martin Schulz and the Chairmen of EPP and S&D have been characterized as close as in a coalition government, thus increasing the common negotiation power of Commission and EP towards the member states. Interviewees stressed that the strong coordination with the EP contributed to the Commission’s courage to start initiatives which the Barroso Commission would not have dared to launch, such as for instance some features of the banking union which were against German interests. As an additional factor strengthening the main EP’s parties support for Juncker, interviewees mentioned the increased number of anti-European parliamentarians since the last election, making a grand coalition between EPP and S&D more important than ever.

These findings contest the accounts which describe a decline in the Commission’s leadership capacity, and which emphasize a trend towards a ‘new intergovernmentalism’ (Bickerton et al., 2015). The evidence from the interviews rather suggests that Juncker has in fact further cemented the presidentialization of the Commission, and has successfully improved the Commission’s political leadership capacity in the dialogue with Council and EP. These findings resonate with previous accounts which challenge the ‘new intergovernmentalist’ view of a Commission in decline (Nugent and Rhinard, 2016; Peterson 2015, p. 207).


Bickerton, C. J., Hodson, D. and Puetter, U. (eds) (2015) The New Intergovernmentalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

European Commission (2014) ‘Communication from the President to the Commission, The Working Methods of the European Commission 2014-2019’, C(2014)9004, 11 November.

Nugent, N. and Rhinard, M. (2016) ‘Is the European Commission Really in Decline?’ Journal of Common Market Studies, Vol. 54, No. 5, pp. 1199-1215.

Peterson, J. (2015) ‘The Commission and the New Intergovernmentalism: Calm within the Storm’. In Bickerton, C. J. et al. (eds) The New Intergovernmentalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 185-207.

Europe as a springboard for the presidency? The experience of presidents and presidential candidates in EU institutions

On 25 May 2014, former EU Commissioner Dalia Grybauskaitė won the election for her second term as president of Lithuania. The fact that candidates with experience in EU institutions run for president is not uncommon and a position in the EU institutions should bring a number of advantages for candidates. As a number of former MEPs and Commissioners have been elected president, this raises the question to what extent the European institutions present a ‘springboard’ for the presidency. To answer this question, this post looks at the ‘EU experience’ of presidential candidates and presidents in the EU member states. While (former) MEPs and Commissioners have run for president in 20 out of 27 countries, only few are able to gather a significant number of votes. Also, despite the fact that some European presidents once held a European office, this was rarely the reason for their electoral success. Nevertheless, EU experience does also not hinder success in presidential elections. Rather, candidates with EU experience are often those who would have little chances of success in any case.

Lithuanian President and former EU Commissioner Dalia Grybauskaitė in the European Parliament| photo via eu2013.lt

A political position in the European institutions should have a number of advantages for prospective presidential candidates in both parliamentary and semi-presidential systems. The ‘European experience’ helps candidates to stress their ability to represent their country abroad. They are also less likely to be drawn into fights within their national parties and can thus stay relatively uncontroversial and develop a suprapartisan image that is untainted by national scandals. As they are rarely at the centre of media attention, European candidates might thus be able to maintain a certain ‘outsider’ bonus even if they are part of their party’s leadership.

When Dalia Grybauskaitė was first elected president of Lithuania in 2009, her work as Commissioner for Financial Programming and Budget, particularly her efforts to reduce spending on various agricultural programmes brought her much praise (she was even named ‘Commissioner of the Year 2005’). By openly criticising the Lithuanian government’s failure to respond to the financial crisis she made sure that she became a household name on the political scene of her home country and paved the way for her first-round victory (winning 68%) in the 2009 presidential elections. Her European experience mattered for her initial election. Nevertheless, this story of Europe as a ‘springboard’ for the presidency appears to be rather unique and not the norm in the EU member states.

Already in 2014, Grybauskaitė’s European background – just as the fact that her main opponent Zigmantas Balčytis served as an MEP since 2009 – played no significant role. The table below summarises the number of presidential elections and presidents (total & those with EU experience) as well as the average number of candidates (total & those with EU experience) for presidential elections held in EU member states since 1979. Out of the 484 candidates that ran for presidents in 69 different elections, only 38 (7.8%) could boast with experience in the European institutions. Nevertheless, 6 out of 52 presidents during this period had a European background, i.e. 11.5% and thus a slightly higher proportion. Nevertheless, EU experience only played a role for Lithuanian president and former EU commissioner Dalia Grybauskaite.

In case of the other presidents other factors were more important than their experience in EU institutions. In Estonia, president Toomas Hendrik Ilves had served as Foreign Minister for several years and had been a member of the Social Democratic Party’s leadership before being elected to the European parliament in 2004. At his election in 2006, Ilves’ international experience and recognition gained while in government generally played a greater role for his election than his two years as a MEP. In Hungary, president Pal Schmitt had been a MEP and vice-president of the European Parliament since 2004 before he was elected president in 2010. However, Schmitt’s loyalty to Prime Minister and party leader Viktor Orban and promise not to obstruct the government’s controversial reform agenda was more important for his election. Furthermore, the international experience that Schmitt gained as an ambassador and functionary of the Olympic Committee would have been more salient qualifications than his four years in Strasbourg and Brussels. Slovene president Borut Pahor served as MEP between 2004 and 2008. Nevertheless, Pahor’s following term as Prime Minister during 2008-2012 and previous role as speaker of the Slovene parliament (2000-2004) certainly trumped any influence of his EU experience. Last, French presidents Chirac (1005-2007) and Sarkozy (2007-2012) can claim some,  yet for the course of their further political career and presidency relatively insignificant EU experience. In 1979 Chirac was elected to the newly created European Parliament but gave up his mandate in 1980 in favour of his seat in the French National Assembly. Nicolas Sarkozy was elected as an MEP in 1999 but also resigned to keep his seat in the National Assembly.

Country Number of presidential elections Average number of candidates/
average number of candidates with EU experience
Total number of presidents/
presidents with EU experience
Austria 3 3.3 / n/a 2 / 0
Bulgaria 2 12.5 / 1 2 / 0
Cyprus 2 10 / 1 2 / 0
Czech Republic 2 5.5 / 1 2 / 0
Estonia 2 2.5 / 1.5 1 / 1
Finland 3 7.67 / 1.67 2 / 0
France 6 10 / 4.5 4 / 2
Germany 8 3 / n/a 6 / n/a
Greece 6 ? / n/a 4 / n/a
Hungary 3 1.67 / 0.3 3 / 1
Ireland 5 4.4 / 0.6 4 / 0
Italy 5 18 / 0.2 4 / 0
Latvia 2 3.5 / n/a 2 / n/a
Lithuania 3 6.33 / 1 2 / 1
Malta 2 1 / n/a 2 / n/a
Poland 2 11 / n/a 2 / n/a
Portugal 6 5 / 0.17 3 / 0
Romania 2 12 / 0.5 1 / 0
Slovakia 3 11 / n/a 2 / n/a
Slovenia 2 5 / 1.5 2 / 1
Total 69 7.02 / 0.55 52 / 6
Note: All calculations begin with the first presidential election since the country’s EU accession or  the first presidential election after 1979 (marking the first direct election of the European Parliament).

Regardless of how brief their European experience is, former or current MEPs run far more often for presidential office than (former) members of the Commission – the latter group only consists of three candidates: Meglena Kuneva (Bulgaria; 2011: 14%), Raymond Barre (France; 1988; 17%) and Dalia Grybauskaite (Lithuania; 2009: 68%; 2014: 46% / 58%). Hereby, MEPs running for president are typically leaders of smaller parties that do not generally have any chance at winning the presidential election (or even proceed into the second round of voting). An example of the former is Valdemar Tomaševski, chairman of the Polish Electoral Alliance in Lithuania who won only 4.7% of the vote in 2009 and 8.36% in 2014.

Europe does thus not generally represent a springboard for the presidency although the case of Dalia Grybauskaite shows that it can be beneficial.  Yet even in her case national political experience (Grybauskaite served as minister of finance 2001-2004) played at least a minor role and is thus overall more important than time served as the representative of European institutions.