On Wednesday, Bulgarian police liberated 109 MPs, journalists, and staff members trapped in parliament after protesters blockaded the building the previous evening. The spontaneous siege occurred after 40 days of protests against Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski and his Socialist-led cabinet, which took power in May after similar nationwide demonstrations ousted the last government. (Bulgarians may have taken a cue in theatrics from their Bosnian counterparts, who blockaded their own parliament on June 6 to protest government inefficiency.) Fueled by persisting anger over corruption, nepotism, and cronyism, Bulgarians are now calling for the current government to resign.
Beyond Sofia, the recent surge of popular protests may be bad news for Brussels, or at least an unwelcome reminder of its past mistakes. Bulgaria, alongside Romania, is often touted as a cautionary tale of enlargement exuberance, and of pinning governance reforms to accession. After joining the bloc in 2007, and following years of E.U. rebukes, Bulgaria’s failure to reform its judiciary, and adequately combat organized crime and corruption led to a formal warning from the European Commission in 2011. To little effect, however — with its E.U. statehood in hand, Bulgaria has made scant effort to deepen its superficial reforms. In 2012, the country ranked 75 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (tied with Liberia, Montenegro, and Tunisia). Run by Communist-era holdovers, Bulgaria remains the poorest country in the E.U.; as many as half a million of its citizens have emigrated in the past two decades.
The reminder of Bulgaria’s stalled reforms comes as Europeans’ distrust in the E.U. has hit a historic high point. It also threatens to cast a harsh light on the bloc’s newest member. Though Brussels contends that the accession process was much more rigorous for Croatia, which become the 28th state to join the E.U. on July 1, critics point out that the Eastern European state shares troubling characteristics with Bulgaria: endemic corruption, a weak judiciary and a lagging economy. Cognizant of flailing support for enlargement among Europeans, Brussels is treading carefully with its next applicant. After ten rounds of E.U.-brokered talks to normalize relations with Kosovo, Serbia, the bloc’s probable 29th member, is set to begin membership talks by January 2014. Thanks to tougher requirements, however, accession isn’t expected until at least 2020. And unlike with Bulgaria and Romania, the E.U. has not promised accession dates this time around.
As for the current protests, Brussels has departed from its usual staid diplomacy. E.U. Commissioner for Justice and Fundamental Rights, Viviane Reding, sympathized with demonstrators while in Sofia on Tuesday, urging the Bulgarian government to show “zero-tolerance in the fight against corruption.” (Fittingly enough, Reding was in the Bulgarian capital to attend a “Future of Europe” debate.) In turn, many Bulgarians called on the E.U. to help reform their country, asking “Europe, where are you?” Not that Brussels is any position to respond. The bloc is grappling with serious financial woes, spreading Euroskepticism, and an influx of six Eastern European countries — all with major infrastructural or political issues – over the coming years. Which means that Bulgarians are unlikely to gain anything from the E.U. besides empty, if supportive, gestures.