Bulgarian’s view on the European future. Interview with Vladimir Shopov

30.12.2016 | By Vladimir Shopov and Jordan Szołdra

Q: Please tell us about yourself, who you are, what you do.


Mr.Shopov: I do a number of things actually. Over the last years I’ve been doing quite a bit of consultance. In 2011 we established the website for analytical journalism (Reduta.bg), which is completely independent and basically mostly funded by foreign foundations. I also teach, work for the Foreign Ministry on a various issues, quite a range of things – mainly on foreign policy and European politics.

Q: You said you teach – where?


Mr. Shopov: New Bulgarian University, sometimes at Sofia University, but I also travel a lot, to give lectures on specific topics in Europe and in Asia. Mostly politics, about what’s happening in the EU and within its politics. Of course, there are always questions about Bulgaria and the situation in the South East Europe and I’m happy to answer them, although my main interest is the European Union.


Q: Well, then how would you describe the changes in Bulgaria since its accession to the EU in 2007?


Mr.Shopov: The accession has been very transformational in many ways – in terms of policy, in terms of various institutions – it has also been transformational from the individual perspective, mainly for the obvious benefits – people gaining a number of opportunities that were not present before. At the same time there is still that perception, that somehow the European Union by itself can be the agent for change, which somehow circumvents what can operate and function without an active engagement of Bulgarian institutions. I think that is something especially prevalent in the perceptions of the citizens, mainly because they have been traditionally quite critical of their own institutions – because of communism, because of the mishandling of different processes after the start of the transition. This is still quite prevalent perception, but as you know very well , this is by no means sufficient in order to transform the society. Time is beggining to act as a handicap in terms of achieving effective changes and certain important policies and issues. Another recent trend which is quite important to recognize, is the overreliance on the European funding. Obviously it has been a huge contribution, yet it is somehow seen in exclusive terms – I mean sometimes the EU money is the only money in the town. For instance it has a side effect of people paying less attention to how national public funds are being spent, because everyone is so focused on the EU funds. I think it has also led to a slight sidelining of the effort to actually go out to the world and seek investments from  other countries, from other sources. So these are just some elements, but clearly, if you look at the history of the country and its accession to the EU and NATO, the transformation had consequences for everyone. It is necessary now, for people, institutions and political parties, to start using EU membership more effectively and in parallel to national mechanisms, for affecting an effective change. It’s not only a political change, but also a cultural one, because being a country on the periphery, as it were, there has been that overreliance on external agents to achieve change. This is where we’re at in a very general terms.


Q: Talking about peripheries, how do you find a current state of cooperation between Central Eastern Europe countries? The report presented today, regarding image of our countries in the foreign media, touched the subject of many countries being just a background for more interesting things, like immigration crisis. Do you think it’s only natural, or should we concentrate, put more emphasize on improving that image?


Mr.Shopov: I’m not sure if this is a task of primary importance, frankly speaking. I mean it’s obviously important, for a number of reasons, how the old member states perceive us, but I don’t think this is the determining factor in terms of the key processes happening within the EU itself. Most necessary and what I think would be most useful for the countries of the region, is to recognize that the overall status of these countries within the EU, but also in a wider, sort of continental sense, is being transformed by what is happening globally. In a way there was a period, prior to accession, surely after the global crisis, when most of the countries in the region could afford to stop paying too much attention to each other. If you’re looking periodically, there is little surprise, that there is a decline in a regional cooperation after accession, because regional integration prior to accession was one of this kind of unwritten criteria of joining those organisations – in a sense it was a test of your political culture, how do you manage to overcome differences with your neighbours, how do you work together etc. So there was an imperative, which after accession got lost to a larger extent. Of course, within the Union itself, there are many natural alliances in connection to ceratain issues, like the ones which regard Poland, for obvious reasons. I think in most countries of the region, at least South East European countries and also Visegrad countries this clustering around issues regarding Poland – I don’t think it really caused much worry or much concern among the states in the region, which I take as a sign of political maturity. Obviously you have differences, some unspoken jealousies, but in general terms, we have behaved quite reasonably. It is good, but of course we need to go beyond that, because of a number of reasons I think our countries are being transformed from the kind of an outposts capable of reflecting the ideas, the values of the European project into the frontline states. We can talk a great deal about the reasons, but it should be quite self evident – security issues, Russia, Middle East, North Africa and so on. This is now creating a new imperative for the regional cooperation which goes beyond the pre-accession logic of cooperation. I’m not quite certain to what extent it is happening, I know some governments are thinking in such terms, others not necessarily. From my perspective it would be really important, for the next couple of years, for governments in the region to realize and to recognize this shift. It’s also necessary to have a proper national, political debates, in terms of how they wish to respond to that situation. Of course this is a change of the situation which goes beyond only national politics, it very much has to do with the re-evaluation of their own presence in the Union, not just regionally. As these debates are happening in many of our countries, I’m hoping that sooner rather than later there will be a new, wider and quite comprehensive basis on which to construct some more coherent Central East and South East European presence within the EU, with a very clear structure of ideas and notions on how to develop European Union from here onwards. In countries like Bulgaria or Romania, certainly in Bulgaria, some of the responses to the current crisis are more self -evident, simply because we cannot allow ourselves to become a buffer member state, in a variety of meanings. Clearly our inclination now is to seek Europeanization on number of important policies – economy, security, migration. It’s a no-brainer, if I can say that, there are countries in Central Europe, where these debates are proceeding in a different ways. Non-membership of the Eurozone, for instance, is perceived as an useful element of the economic management – like in Hungary or Poland. That is the sort of a different rationale, so I’m just hoping that these debates can at least begin to reach provisional consensus, and then on this consensus we can begin to construct more comprehensive presence within the European Union, which is actually related to a new generation of issues, in a sense. Prior to the global crisis, prior to the shift of the status of our countries it was more or less about adjustment to the foundations of the organisation. Obviously there was a period of political and institutional difficulties, but we’re past that. Now we should be aiming to construct a quite clear set of priorities, ideas and policies, which then can have an impact on the overall debate.


Q: You are mentioning ideas and policies a lot, but do you have some concrete proposals?


Mr. Shopov: In a sense of specific policies?


Q: Yes, like military cooperation, economic cooperation and so on.

Mr: Shopov: I’m not speaking on behalf of the government, but from the terms of our debate and what I’ve been saying, what other lot of people have been saying, we have to slowly reframe the discussion within the Union. We need to recognize processes for which we’re trying to find the responses. Strangely enough, I think that something like that sort of happened within the member states of the Eurozone crisis, in Germany or Netherlands, especially Germany, when they were trying to respond to the crisis in Greece. I think that was a process of discussion, a process of trying to identify different scenarios, different alternatives in terms of integrating, but also in terms of non-integrating. That was an appreciation of the price of a disintegration. The German government going with the entire set of proposals about developing further integration in the Eurozone was in a way consequence, an outcome of such a discussion. I think it’s quite interesting, because what needs to happen now in many of our countries, is that we need to figure out how we respond as an organisation to the different challenges of globalization – how we respond, how we position our countries in a context which is much more unpredictable, how much of those responses should be national, how much supranational. Then position the EU in such a context. If you approach it from this perspective, then the debate in the European Union becomes to look really different. Then it’s not much a debate about responding to a series of crises, but in fact it’s a debate about how we continuously adjust and respond to a continuously volatile global context. And if you change that perspective the situation becomes in a way less dramatic, because you don’t really perceive yourself as being bombarded with a different crisis every day. From this perspective countries would be much more at ease about the future of the Union, because then they will have a clearer idea why they are in it, what’s their kind of raison d’être. I think that is something that will happen in the next couple of years. If you adopt this kind of situation, this kind of thinking, then obviously there are some self -evident policy ideas, simply following as a result of this conviction. If you treat the European Union as essential to your individual and collective prosperity, then you obviously have to go forward with economic integration, you have to deepen the single market, invest in new industries etc. The pace of this integration is obviously a political question that can be debated continuously, it’s not something that has to be resolved once and for all. It has some logical consequences in terms of non-military security, it obviously means you have to bring together into one system all the policies regarding migration, refugees, returns – but also political cooperation, counterintelligence cooperation. In fact I’ve been discussing this issues with a number of people in my country and we came to conclusion  that a useful conceptual idea in this respect, would be to try and seek the construction of the European system of non-military security. Well it sounds a bit pretentious, but you have to think in concepts and ideas instead of chaotic thinking. Actually, when you look at the context of the refugee crisis, there are some elements of this, which are happening, but we don’t really recognize it.
It also means military cooperation, obviously it has to be done very carefully, because you want to just complement NATO, not create more difficulties – you want to identify more synergies within the EU and NATO and try to institutionalize them, of course in a good way. It shouldn’t be that difficult to do, it’s possible, and then you can go and do this kind of “audit” of the different policies from this entirely new perspective. Then foreign policy becomes much more important, because we’re going to be intervening in so many various places in the world, what we’ve not been doing – like Northern Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa etc.
If you want to conduct this debate in the old terms, then I think the days of this sort of carte blanche integration are gone. We have to be very careful and very selective about how and where we integrate, from such a perpective. The idea that we’re going to be integrating “across the board” is clearly, for variety of reasons, quite outdated now. But I don’t see anything overly dramatic and actually, when you look at the history of the European integration, it was always a bit uneven, with some exceptions.

Q: So you mentioned a different pace of integration – I’d say that’s a concept popular in the Western Europe right now. Do you think the countries of CEE can and should do something about counteracting this idea and the set of policies it would bring?

Mr. Shopov: Frankly speaking I don’t see that debate as something dramatic, because if you look at the actual areas of different-speed integration, there are not that many left. You have Eurozone, Schengen – and I think Schengen from our perspective is going to be resolved reasonably soon. So if you take those two policy areas aside, I don’t really see any significant policy areas, where there is a huge institutionalized discrepancy between the different member states. Countries of Central Europe, maybe not so much countries of South Eastern Europe, presently find themselves in the situation of their own making, because if integration is proceeding in this areas, they have to make a choice whether they put aside current reservations that they have and go forward with integration. If not, if they remain in the status quo, they are perpetuating this various-speed integration themselves. In a way you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If you integrate further, you’re joining a “German Union” as some people are fond of saying, if you don’t integrate further, you’re accusing the West of positioning you in a multi-speeds Europe. We are all reaching a point, when you have to make certain choices about how we go forward. Even if there are ideas of further differentiated integration, I think the key, the element that has to be present is that non-participation is not institutionalized in a way as to make it irreversible – and I don’t really see how that’s politically possible in this European Union. So I’m not terribly worried and I don’t see it in such dramatic terms.
I can understand, that there are genuine, real divisions and reasons for debates in all of the Central European states, mainly in Poland. I don’t really see Slovakia or Czech Republic as having such dramatic difficulties with going forward with this integration. In Hungary it’s more political than social – so Poland is the only country, where you have genuine social differences on how to go forward. How do you resolve that politically is still an outstanding question, but as it is with many events, circumstances are going to force you to make choices.


Q: That actually makes for a great question – is Polish Euroscepticism something that usually appears in the media of your country(Bulgaria) in the context of Poland?


Mr.Shopov: No, not really…

Q: Well then please just elaborate on image of Poland in Bulgaria.


Mr. Shopov: People in Bulgaria have traditionally a very clear and recognizable perceptions vis-à-vis Poland for historical, cultural reasons. It’s maybe two of such countries with clear and recognizable perceptions, along with Hungary. Czech Republic and Slovakia are also similar in this regard, although a bit more vague. So Poland, obviously I’m generalizing, would be perceived as being culturally and linguistically close, even though are our own Slavic self-perception is more and more in question. People of course recognize and see Poland as very catholic, country of believers. In the last couple of years people have been very impressed by the economic success of Poland. Also things like European Championships in Poland (and Ukraine) – it was very well received, people enjoyed the atmosphere, they were surprised to see how the whole thing was organized, the new stadiums etc. Of course, people know that Poles are very big patriots, because every time we play volleyball the hall is full of people waving flags and all that, but obviously it’s not seen as an aggressive type of nationalism. That’s the general, very positive perception. In policy and other such communities people are of course more knowledgeable about the political differences. The older generations know a great deal about John Paul II, the Solidarity movement.

Actually, interestingly sociology and political science did not exist as an university subject in Bulgaria until quite late. For instance sociology was established around late 70’s as a separate subject, and the political science was established as an independent unit in 1986. The generations of older Bulgarian sociologists were actually trained and studied in Poland, so there was a quite a bit of influence from there, and of course Kołakowski is a big name for political scientists and sociologists. Even my generation, when we started studying Marxism, new Marxism and the general history of sociology, Kołakowski was a towering figure. So, back to general perceptions, it’s quite positive and of course, every now and then you get this anecdotes and stories about the Poles coming nowadays to the Black See on summer holidays and all that. Actually people have a reasonably well-rounded and detailed perception of Poland, if you compare it to how we view other countries.


Central – Eastern European Journalists Congress, 21.10.2016, Cracow

Interviewer: Jordan Szołdra, Jagiellonian Club, Poland
Interviewee: Vladimir Shopov, Reduta.bg, Bulgaria