Did Bulgaria Really Propose to Set Up a Migrant Hotspot?
Bulgaria, despite being relatively unaffected by the migrant crisis compared to neighboring states, managed to make several headlines last week, all containing the word "hotspot". German Chancellor Angela Merkel said after an emergency EU Summit that Sofia had asked about the prospects of being funded to set up a "refugee hotspot" on its territory – and also that it would be assisted in case it takes the step. Her Bulgarian counterpart Boyko Borisov, somewhat furious, later explained his words had been distorted, and in the end a supposed misunderstanding between the two leaders was hastily (though not officially) blamed on loose translation - too loose to have contained exact information as to whether Sofia wants to have a "hostpot" or it is just being curious about how neighbors will build theirs. Suddenly it turned out Bulgaria had simply asked if it could count on help in case of emergencies.
But is translation really to blame?
Two of a Kind
Back in his first term several years ago, Borisov was quite keen on making references to the "European partners" whenever possible to motivate his policies. Even only knowing that "austerity" was the leitmotiv underpinning that tenure, one can figure which partner entered the "Highly Cited" category more often than others.
Interestingly enough, Angela Merkel also showed certain sympathy for Borisov. Unlike his successor (and now - predecessor) Plamen Oresharski, appointed by the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the conservative Bulgarian PM was and still is a more frequent guest in Berlin: from the outset of his second tenure, he definitely looks more invited than Oresharski ever did in the previous fourteen months before his resignation.
One might wonder where the "most powerful leader in the EU" and the head of "the EU's poorest nation" have common ground. Let's try with an easy answer. Both are conservative and Borisov is supposedly easy to handle - is that it? Maybe yes, maybe no - but there is one feature of Merkel and Borisov which makes them quite alike.
Ever since making their way into the executive, each of them has been equally able to maneuver subtly, taking shifts in public opinion into consideration; with Borisov allowing one single, albeit notable, exception. The so-called "Energiewende" (the shift away from nuclear energy and other sources to renewables) is a case in point in Germany; in Bulgaria, the ban on shale gas is a reciprocal example.
Pleasing the EU or Testing Public Opinion?
Borisov, whose main job in the days around the migrant crisis has been to reiterate how successful Bulgaria is at protecting its own borders, has always considered it important to impress EU partners in order to garner political capital at home. Stability and macroeconomic consolidation, the two mantras that worked well during his previous term in office, drew the appraisal of EU partners. Obsession with border security, however, does not seem to find its way into the agenda of European leaders now, at a time when the migrant crisis is putting Europe’s post-modern values at stake – cynically, they perceive it as just “one problem less to worry about.”
Before the EU Summit on Wednesday, Deputy PM Meglena Kuneva was very specific as to the demands Sofia would put forward in a few hours’ time: Bulgaria needs access to the Schengen database and, prospectively, accession, in view of the crisis. The “hotspot” issue was completely absent, even though Bulgaria, one of the first countries hit by migrant influx back in 2013 (I refrain here from commenting on whether the “border fence” response was right or whether it was efficient), has been otherwise consistently demanding to know whether it could receive more funding for both response and prevention. It has repeatedly asked about emergency allocation with regard to the impact of flash floods last year, but also if it could there will be additional funding to help it deal with the flow - especially, what has been repeatedly insisted, if the EU will extend its hand when "temperatures rise" in the spring and more people set off for Western Europe via Bulgaria or other neighboring states.
Added to this should be the transparency - later on but still before the meeting - that Borisov's press office demonstrated about his intention to fully throw support behind Turkey and lobby on its behalf for the setting up of a "safe zone" in Syria and boosting crisis response funding. In other words, what would be discussed at the meeting was crystal clear.
What Is a Hotspot? Bulgarian Politicians Don't Know
Suddenly Borisov, otherwise committed to explaining his intentions before meeting European leaders in the name of a supposedly transparent Bulgarian position and clear demands, seems to have become interested in hotspots. This enflamed public opinion. Euractiv noted that the comments had "set Bulgaria on fire". In a country where a dominant discourse, not necessarily overlapping with or representing the majority, has fostered an image of conservativeness and inhospitality toward migrants (one cannot judge from single incidents - and even the story in this link had a happy ending), TV stations and mass circulation papers were quick to run headlines reading that Bulgaria "demands to be a hotspot", "is turning into a hotspot", etc. without even bothering to mention what a hotspot is. For the record – Borisov didn’t seem to know either; otherwise he would have explained the term refers to processing centers and a team of experts deployed by border agency Frontex and then avoid confusion at home.
Apocalyptic images followed suit in comments below the respective online news reports – as though a “hotspot” suggested “we”, Bulgaria, had given in to pressure from the EU to receive "more people". It was precisely then that Borisov had to switch to “explanatory mode” – which, leaving his fervent anger aside, he has become quite good at. The PM said Bulgaria had not demanded anything, but simply “wanted to know”.
A wary, careful politician like Borisov, who was once toppled down for "unilateral decisions", doesn't ask such questions without consultation at a moment when the sheer act of communicating them to the public in Bulgaria can play to his advantage. "I am going to ask if we will be funded and protected in case of emergency" - normally he would voice his intention and would be proud to show care for his compatriots, which has been part of his role for more than a decade. GERB administrations (led by Borisov's party) tend to boast cautiousness – unlike real intentions which are normally thrown up into the public sphere to contemplate the consequences.
Opposition politicians for their part were quick to blame Borisov for seeking to turn Bulgaria into a hotspot, distancing themselves from the idea to win a supposed public opinion.
Even GERB officials were quick to retract: Eva Paunova, a Bulgarian MEP who reportedly assisted Borisov and Merkel in the translation during the EU Summit. Paunova denied there had been discussions about EU-based hotspots, insisting they would only be set up outside the bloc - whereas data and document processing centers which in countries like Greece and Italy have already been approved.
Was it really like this? Maybe. Regardless of the details – which one can never tell with certainty when it comes to summits and other high-level meetings – Bulgaria is still failing to realize that migrant-related issues are not a simply a domestic agenda bullet anymore.
Ironically, these latest developments put Bulgaria on equal footing with most EU partners in one thing: like fellow member states, it cannot understand short-term domestic rhetoric cannot make up for the consequences of an inadequate (meaning not joint) long-term response to the crisis.
Yes, the Bulgarian government was apparently interested in at least exploring the options - but chose to fend off a populist backlash instead.
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