Bulgaria’s EU presidency is good news for Turkey

The European Union may have long ceased to capture the imagination of most Turks, but that is clearly not the case with many of Turkey’s neighbours. From Georgia to Greece, and from Romania to Bosnia, Brussels remains an important centre of political gravity. 

Whether you are an EU member state or aspiring to join, the chances are that the union is your largest trading partner, principal source of investment and financial subsidies and a key arena in which to assert your national interests.  

Turkey is arguably no different. For all the negative press the EU has received inside the country, the acrimony over failed accession talks and a recent spat with Germany, two-thirds of Turkey’s foreign direct investment comes from Europe. 

Over the past two decades, the volume of trade has expanded four-fold, reaching €144 billion in 2016. Collectively, the EU is still Turkey’s largest trading partner. It should come as no surprise then that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s first foreign trip in 2018 is to Paris where he is scheduled to meet French President Emmanuel Macron on January 5.

Yet, as much as heavyweights such as France or Germany matter, Ankara can more easily find common ground with smaller members on the EU’s eastern flank. 

Consider Erdoğan’s warm reception in Warsaw in October, or Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s lament that the EU had been unfair to Turkey. Under heavy criticism over their growingly authoritarian politics, those countries are in no mood to lecture Turks over democracy and human rights. Instead, they view Turkey as a source of economic opportunities and a buffer to migration from the volatile Middle East.

Bulgaria, which holds the rotating EU presidency for the first half of 2018, falls into the same category.  

“Turkey is our most important protection on the southern flank,” said Prime Minister Boyko Borisov at a news conference in November. “We should not refuse to talk to it in Europe while relying on it within NATO.”   

Borisov made similar comments during a visit to Turkey in June after talks with Erdoğan and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım.

“We highly appreciate your categorical solidarity during the July 15 attempted coup,” Yıldırım said during the visit, referring to the failed 2016 military bid to overthrow the government. “You were the first to come to Turkey shortly after.”

Yıldırım could have added that Sofia has readily complied with demands to hand over members of the Gülen movement, ac.cused of carrying out the coup plot.

Some may be surprised that Bulgaria has cozied up to Turkey. After all Borisov is governing in coalition with the United Patriots, a group of far-right parties that never shies away from bashing Turkey and Muslims more generally.

Even Bulgaria’s Movement of Rights and Freedoms (MRF), supported by many in the country’s sizeable ethnic Turkish and Muslim minorities, is not necessarily fond of Erdoğan and the AKP. Formally in opposition, but in practice aligned with Borisov, the MRF is facing a challenge from a splinter group aided by Ankara. 

In the run-up to the general elections in March, Bulgarian media has brimmed with stories of Turkish meddling. But it is the prime minister, not the United Patriots and much less the MRF, who has the say when it comes to policy on Turkey. And his priority is nurturing positive ties with Erdoğan, no matter what.

Could Bulgaria use its tenure as president of the Council to nudge forward EU-Turkey relations? Potentially yes. Sofia is touting its role as an advocate of enlargement, chiefly with respect to the western Balkans, but not wholly ignoring Turkey either.

Though for now, there is disappointment in Turkey that its membership talks have not earned even a single mention in the Bulgarian presidency’s recently unveiled list of priorities.

What matters is not rhetoric but the nitty-gritty. Frankly speaking, Bulgaria is no poster child for EU enlargement. It has tremendous problems with corruption and state-capture. After a decade as a member of the union it has not made much progress in cleaning up its act and arguably has gone backwards in some areas such as media freedom.

Still, with a bit of skill and motivation, the Bulgarian government could lobby the rest of the EU on issues close to its heart. One example is the full implementation of the EU-Turkey refugee deal. Ankara complains that only a fraction of the €6 billion agreed upon in March 2016 has been disbursed. Meanwhile, sluggish asylum procedures in Greece are obstructing returns to Turkey. 

EU member states have been reluctant to accept refugees directly from Turkish territory. In short, if the Bulgarians are serious about addressing the issue and strengthening cooperation with Turkey, there is a lot of work to be done over the next six months.

Whether politicians and bureaucrats in Sofia are able to do much – or anything at all – remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure. As Erdoğan is probing EU governments in the coming months, he can count on a cheerleader on one border at least.