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Etienne de Poncins: “The situation of Roma, although often dreadful, is not a hot topic in Bulgaria”

In its new series of monthly interviews, Grand Angle, Toute l’Europe is interviewing an important European person - researcher, politician, historian or artist - on a current European topic. In partnership with Diploweb, Toute l’Europe this month interviewed Etienne de Poncins, the French Ambassador to Bulgaria and expert in European institutions. This is an opportunity to review the economic situation in Bulgaria, major subjects that interest him such as the Roma and energy but also the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty almost one year after it entered into force.

Toute l’Europe: You have been the French Ambassador to Bulgaria since June 2007. What changes have you seen since Bulgaria entered the European Union in terms of integration?

Etienne de Poncins: Bulgarians are making huge efforts to come up to European standards. Two areas have been prioritised in Bulgaria: first of all, economic development as it is a very poor country. The wealth gap between Bulgaria and the rest of the European Union is significant with the GDP per person today standing at 30% of the European average which is very low. In this area, Bulgaria is counting on European funds. Bulgaria is due to receive almost EUR12 billion in different types of European funding for the period 2007-2013. One of the main issues of course is that these funds reach their destination and transform the country as they should.

The second major challenge, which is linked to the first, is the fight against corruption and organised crime. With entry into the European Union, Bulgarians have had to make progress towards a functioning justice system and the fight against corruption and organised crime. The current situation regarding this matter is mediocre with some extremely powerful, often untouchable, ‘oligarchs’ or ‘businessmen’. They control certain sectors of the economy (energy in particular) or certain geographical areas or towns (Varna, Plovdiv etc.).

These problems are very deeply entrenched and have been ongoing for about twenty years. During the return to democracy, some networks (particularly from the old communist secret service) became established. They bring together businessmen, politicians and judges. They still have influence today and cast a wide net across the country. It is for this reason that a follow-up system, known as the ‘cooperation and verification mechanism’ was set up during the joining process in 2007 by the European Union (Romania is also subject to this). Resolving, or even progressing, with this problem is a long and painful process. Although progress has been made, there is a long way to go.

There is of course a link between this fight against corruption and the European Union. When a country is outside the EU, it is certainly unfortunate if it is corrupt but this does not directly affect the Union. However, as soon as a Member State is receiving millions of euro in European funds (16% of which comes directly from the French taxpayer), it is in the collective interest of all Member States to check that this money reaches the right destinations and does not end up financing illegal activity.

In short, we should be financing roads and not the luxury 4x4s that are seen on the streets of Sofia and elsewhere. As such, this is a major European issue and not just a Bulgarian one as Bulgarians have very quickly come to understand. In the context of this corruption, justice is key because if the legal system is corrupt or does not work well, the entire democratic structure is threatened.


Before being nominated French Ambassador to Bulgaria, Etienne de Poncins was
Head of Cabinet of the Deputy Minister for European affairs
under Claudie Haigneré and later Catherine Colonna from March 2005 to May 2007. From February 2002 to September 2003, he was a member of the European Convention (the only French person in the Secretariat) and worked directly alongside President Giscard D’Estaing throughout the European Convention.

In 2008, he published The Lisbon Treaty in 27 Points, an updated version of which is being published in October.

Toute l’Europe: How has the European Union supported Bulgaria in its fight against corruption?

EdP: Monitoring has been put in place for the first time. This mechanism has led to the publication of regular reports with updates on the progress and failures as already mentioned. After three years, it is fair to say that this device has incentivised Bulgarian society and the Bulgarian government to take the necessary measures and make changes. Boiko Borissov’s government (the GERB party, right leaning and member of the EPP group), which has been running the country for over a year, made this point central to its political campaign and chose it as a main political objective. The European Union has demanded this.

The early signs are very positive. Interior Minister Mr. Tsvétanov (right-hand man to Prime Minister Borissov) has courageously dismantled several major criminal groups known for kidnappings, fraud etc. “Street crimes” (people being assassinated in broad daylight) have fallen and, notably, are starting to be solved. Also, the biggest loopholes in the Code of Criminal Procedure and the Criminal Code have been fixed. These loopholes, introduced by design, enabled those with good lawyers and money to escape conviction. The balance had been shifted so far in favour of protecting the rights of the defendant that, in practice, it had become almost impossible to convict someone as long as they had good lawyers.

Toute l’Europe: Do Bulgarians feel European?

EdP: Yes and strongly so. There is a strong feeling of belonging to the European Union here. In Bulgaria, the level of support for the European Commission and the European Union in general is high. The Bulgarian population has little faith in itself and even less in its ruling elite. Going through the European Union is seen as the only way to get things going and external pressure is seen as the only way to internal improvements particularly in the areas of corruption and organised crime.

A lot is expected of the European Union. Bulgarians even feel that sometimes the EU is not strict enough. When it does intervene, even if it admonishes the government or points out its shortcomings, it is appreciated and even desired by the population.

Toute l’Europe: How is the economic situation in Bulgaria? Has the fact that Bulgaria is not a member of the eurozone been an advantage or a disadvantage in the economic crisis?

EdP: The economic situation is very difficult as the country has gone from 6% growth to 6% contraction in one year. Bulgaria does a lot of sub-contracting work with the large Western economies particularly Germany. It has therefore felt the full force of the slowdown. The economy should start to pick up by the end of the year but the shock was dramatic.

Regarding its non-membership of the, the Bulgarian case is specific because its currency is linked to the euro with a fixed exchange rate and this has helped Bulgaria. Integrating into the is one of Bulgaria’s objectives although it has recently lost some ground because of economic crisis followed by the deterioration of its public accounts so the membership criteria for the euro are no longer fulfilled. Nonetheless, membership remains a major political objective. Although they already have a currency linked to the euro, Bulgarians would like to benefit fully from membership of the eurozone.

European integration could be compared to the story of the ‘Three Little Pigs’ where when you are outside the Union, you live in the straw house, inside the Union you live in the wooden house and inside the you live in the stone house. Countries living in the straw house want to get into the wooden house (the EU) and countries like Bulgaria living in the wooden house dream of gaining ultimate protection in the stone house. This aspiration has become all the stronger with the winds of an economic and financial storm blowing.

Toute l’Europe: What is public opinion of the Roma in Bulgaria?

EdP: In the Balkans, communities live side by side rather than mixed together. This is even more noticeable in Bulgaria where one can pass from a Roma village to a Slavic orthodox village to a village where a population of ethnically Turkish Muslims live and so on. It is a situation of coexistence rather than mixing. This coexistence endures with a certain degree of indifference but without any real conflict either.

In Bulgaria, the Roma community is very large with more than 700,000 people (although the figure is disputed) which represents 10% of the population. It is a sedentary population, i.e. not at all itinerant. This community has a different demographic standing than the other communities as the Slavic population does not have many children. The very low birth rate is a real demographic problem in this country. Few children are seen on the streets of Sofia or in other towns. Conversely, the Roma community tends to have a lot of children. Young women, girls sometimes (13-15 years old), get married or are married off very young. It is the scourge of young marriages.

The other characteristic of the Roma community is that, unlike the Turkish community, it has very few public figures and is thus under-represented in public life. This is a real problem. Bulgarians of Turkish origin have parliamentarians, newspapers, a political party, public figures and MEPs. In this way, they have their representatives who carry weight in the country’s political life. The Roma have no such presence - no member of parliament, no mayor of a large town (even the deputy mayors in charge of Roma areas are not Roma). Very rarely, there is a Roma doctor or lawyer who has excelled but this is unfortunately exceptional.

Roma of Bulgarian origin often do not vote for Roma but instead vote for other parties and thus, regrettably, lose their voice. Oddly, the party of the former King Simeon (and of Ms. Kouneva then European Commissioner) which is primarily the party of the intelligentsia and the Bulgarian elite, gained almost 2900 votes out of 3000 for the 2009 European elections in a voting station in Kjustendil, a Roma village in the west of Bulgaria. It is difficult to believe that the Roma community in this village had such admiration for the European ambitions of the former monarchy (while nationally this party barely gained 4% of the votes)!

The Roma community is really marginalised. They live in particular areas that are sometimes akin to ghettos and in which hygiene and public services are often non-existent (no water, no electricity, dirt roads, animals living among people etc.). Examples of this can be seen in Fakulteta in Sofia, Stolipinovo in Plovdiv, Nadejda in Sliven etc.

I have witnessed this (see the site of the French Embassy in Bulgaria and the blog “Vues de Sofia”). These people live in conditions that one might expect to see in the third world yet it exists in the heart of the European Union. Living conditions are extremely difficult there.

The Roma remain seriously discriminated against by the rest of the population. There is also discrimination among Roma themselves as they are divided into different clans or castes (the ‘musicians’ etc.). A main issue is also education of this group and efforts made by the authorities in this matter deserve credit. I have met the educational teams and visited several schools that accept Roma children. Unfortunately, many parents take their children out of these schools (particularly young girls aged 10-11 for fear of kidnapping followed by forced marriage). The education issue is crucial because it is at school that Roma children learn Bulgarian (the majority do not speak Bulgarian at home). To give them the opportunity for later integration, it is necessary that they first go to school.

Toute l’Europe: How has the return of Bulgarian Roma who were living in France been perceived in Bulgaria? Are the French and Bulgarian governments coordinating their actions?

EdP: The Bulgarian government has shown understanding of the French policy for voluntary return of Bulgarian nationals to their country (a few hundred per year for not respecting the conditions of settling in France). There is therefore exchange between the two countries but not cooperation as such.

The Bulgarian government has not had the same political reaction as the Romanian government. It understands the distinction between the right to move freely which is of course fundamental in the EU and the right to settle and set oneself up which is subject to conditions. Besides, Prime Minister Borissov has publicly indicated that he supports the French policy.

The policy being carried out by France, as well as by other countries in Europe, has been ongoing for several years and has not developed recently. The numbers involved are in the region of several hundred of returnees per year but this is quite a small number relative to the population of Roma in Bulgaria. As I said before, there are about 700,000. This policy has not led to protests or particular reactions from the Bulgarian authorities.

Toute l’Europe: What does Bulgaria do for its Roma community? Does it have particular policies?

EdP: The subject has in fact barely been mentioned in the media. This is why last spring I initiated an awareness programme on the reality of living conditions in the Roma community. Unfortunately, one can live in Bulgaria almost without coming across any Roma as there are no public figures, as I have said, and they live in distinct areas. If you don’t go to these areas, you won’t meet any Roma. The rest of the population are largely unaffected by the existence of the Roma population and their often dreadful living conditions and, furthermore, the Roma tend to distance themselves from the other communities because knowledge of Bulgarian is lost due to poor or non-existent schooling.

That said, one of the advantages of the current attention is that it has brought new awareness. People are beginning to be conscious of the issue. The Roma population have particular difficulties so it would be reasonable to give them special attention for example through establishing a ministry to deal with their issues. A part of the European funds should also be specially earmarked for improving living conditions, integration and education of this population. These ideas are starting to develop but until recently they were not in the running.

The government, for example, is planning to create a coordinating structure that will lead an active policy of integration. If these populations are not integrated into their home country, they will migrate. For this reason, it is a European issue.

Toute l’Europe: What is the position of Bulgaria on the European Union’s energy policy, particularly with regard to the Nabucco and South Stream projects?

EdP: Bulgaria hopes to be at the receiving end of the two main gas pipes coming from Central Asia - Nabucco coming from Turkey and South Stream coming from the Black Sea. For this reason, Bulgaria is involved in both projects. Geographically, it should benefit from one, if not both, of them. South Stream has the advantage of being led by the Russians and providing gas that has a known source of supply. Nabucco on the other hand has the support of the European Union and therefore does not need excessive financing. However, its supply is not guaranteed. From the Bulgarian point of view, whichever project brings the energy Bulgaria will benefit from it and therefore it’s a good thing for the country.

Bulgaria is very dependent on Russia’s energy plans as 92% of its oil and 100% of its gas comes from there. Also, their nuclear power plants are Russian-designed. There are solid historical links between Bulgarians and Russians (the 1878 Russo-Turkish War being the cause of Bulgaria regaining its independence), which makes the energy dependence more acceptable. The Bulgarian government is gently trying to extricate itself from this dependence and to diversify its sources or at least create interconnections which, in the event that Russia cuts the gas supply, would mean that they could get gas from Greece or elsewhere. So, there is a desire to weaken this interdependence but they are not making this desire strongly felt.

Toute l’Europe: What is the Bulgarian position on enlarging the EU to its neighbouring countries, particularly Turkey?

EdP: It is interesting because Bulgaria is Turkey’s neighbour. Bulgarians were subjected to five hundred years of Ottoman rule. Bulgaria was at that time known as the ‘Turkey of Europe’. So, they are very familiar with Turkey. Bulgaria sees Turkey as a rising power. Its demographic strength (Istanbul has twice as many inhabitants as the whole of Bulgaria) as well as its economic and political power make a strong impression. Of course one can’t talk about a rising power without mentioning a certain fear among neighbouring countries. Today, the term ‘neo-Ottomanism’ is being used to describe how Turkey is regaining the political position it had prior to the end of the 19th century, particularly in the Balkans.

How do Bulgarians feel about Turkey’s possible membership? It is necessary to distinguish the government’s position from that of the people. To be clear, the Bulgarian people are generally hostile to the idea. It is quite interesting to note that, up until this point, countries that have just become members of the EU were always in favour of their immediate neighbours joining. They consider it a way of removing the EU’s external border from their border. This is Poland’s position on the Ukraine. In this instance, that is not the case. Bulgarians are generally not very enthusiastic about Turkey’s candidacy. They prefer to maintain the external EU border on the Bulgarian-Turkish border rather than removing it and bringing in the giant of Turkey.

The government, for its part, is careful not to be categorical on this point in order not to strain relations with its politically and economically powerful neighbour. Bulgaria distances itself from the issue by asserting that the decision is not theirs to make. However, Prime Minister Borissov is very close to the Franco-German position on the matter which favours a privileged partnership rather than full and total membership. He recently demonstrated dramatically his irritation with the neo-Ottomanism that I mentioned earlier by suddenly leaving a gala dinner organised by Turkey in New York where Balkan leaders crowded effusively around the Turkish President.

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