EU presidency showed capacity strengths…
…but later events increased stress on government
…but later events increased stress on government
In the first half of 2018, politics and policymaking in Bulgaria was dominated by the country’s presidency of the Council of the European Union. The general assessment of the government’s handling of this responsibility has been positive. The experience indicated the government’s willingness to participate in the formulation of strategic priorities, and ability to coordinate and manage complex agendas at the EU level. The presidency also helped solidify the coalition government between Prime Minister Borissov’s Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) and the United Patriots, an alliance of three extreme nationalist and xenophobic parties, which has held office since May 2017. However, in the second half of the year, a series of events (a multi-victim road accident that highlighted weaknesses in the supervision of road construction, the murder of a prominent regional journalist, new corruption allegations, rising heating and fuel prices, and an unpopular policy change affecting children with disabilities) led to public protests and the resignation of several ministers, and strained relations between the coalition partners.
Strong economy, but
In economic terms, 2018 has been another year of moderately high economic growth for Bulgaria, coupled with a budget surplus and decreasing public debt, and record high employment and low unemployment rates. However, the external trade balance worsened due a combination of dropping exports and rising imports. Structurally, Bulgaria still faces serious challenges in terms of improving skills levels, innovation capacity and productivity. The country continues to lag severely in both public and private research and innovation funding. Other serious problems include the relatively low-skilled labor force, and the economic exclusion of people with low educational attainment and some minority groups. Three main challenges in this area remain: achieving reform of the education sector to produce a more adequate skills base; addressing negative demographic trends, which – given the existing health care and pension systems – continue to squeeze the labor market; and the need to further increase labor-market flexibility.
Progress on judiciary,
Constitutional amendments to the structure of the Supreme Judicial Council were adopted and the election of a new council in 2017 has increased the feasibility of improving the judicial system, especially with respect to judges’ career development and independence. Whether these changes will be realized remains to be seen. A new centralized anti-corruption agency was established in 2018 following new legislation, but (at the time of writing) it is too early to evaluate its effectiveness. According to all observers, the integrity of traditional media continues to deteriorate with problems spanning nontransparent ownership, illicit political influence and capture by narrow business interests.
Limited capacity for strategic planning
The executive’s institutional capacity to coordinate and plan strategically is limited. While EU membership has increased strategic planning, interministerial coordination is weak and there is no mechanism for regularly monitoring institutional arrangements. The second and third Borissov governments paid little attention to addressing these issues. Even though both Borissov governments were coalitions, which could have included in their coalition agreements precise details regarding policy coordination and responsibilities, Borissov and his key coalition partners chose to proceed in an informal manner without explicit agreements. This remains the case with the 2017 government coalition between GERB and the extreme United Patriots. Despite the lack of a clear coalition agreement, the United Patriots, while part of the government, have behaved more moderately than initially expected.
RIAs improving, but much room for growth
After being enhanced in 2016, the RIA framework has improved somewhat, especially with respect to policies and regulations proposed at the national executive level, but less so with respect to legislation proposed by individual members of parliament or at the local level. The existence and operation of the independent Fiscal Council and the RIA framework promise better-informed legislation.
A reactive, not proactive actor internationally
Internationally, Bulgaria continues to behave reactively on issues ranging from international financial stability to climate change, international democratic assistance and migration. Even though migration is an important issue in domestic politics, the country remains incapable of formulating a concise and well-defined position. While it never obstructs measures aimed at developing the framework for international cooperation, it is also never among the main proponents of international cooperation. Having held the presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2018, Bulgaria managed to formulate and promote the integration of the Western Balkans into the European Union.