On 15 December 1995, Bulgaria presented to the Spanish presidency its EU membership application, ending months of uncertainty over its geopolitical aspirations. But the Spanish presidency lost the application.
Today, it may seem only natural that Bulgaria is a member of NATO and of the EU. But more than 21 years ago, in 1995, it was not clear what the intentions of the country’s authorities were. Even less clear were the plans of the European institutions vis-à-vis Bulgaria and Romania.
As Bulgarian diplomats remember, in the mid-1990s, when the country first opened its Mission to the European Communities, there were not many occasions when they could speak to counterparts who could provide insights about EU strategy.
Geoffrey Harris, a high official of the European Parliament, was one of the rare officials who had been accessible at that time, when the scope of enlargement was being designed.
One of the possible scenarios was a small enlargement, starting with Hungary, seen then as the star pupil of the class. Another scenario was for a “big bang” including all ten Central and East European states, which eventually made the fifth EU enlargement, in 2004 and 2007.
Big bang or small bang?
Harris recollects that at that time, the European Commissioner for External Affairs, Hans Van Den Broek, who served in his post from 1993 to 1999, was against the big bang. Similar was the position of Michael Leigh, the then-Director General for Enlargement.
“The Commission was a bit defensive, frightened by the enlargement. Maybe not Michael personally, but the Commission officials running agriculture, budget, saw this as a kind of weakening of the whole structure,” says Harris, who is currently the Deputy Head of the European Parliament Liaison Office with the US Congress.
Harris, who in the mid-90s was the EP official in charge of inter-parliamentary relations with all European countries, said that he advocated “a more political, more institutional approach”. As a result, the European Parliament took the position that all the candidate countries had their difficulties, and all should have an opportunity to join the EU in a reasonable period of time.
In particular, Harris had insisted that the Association Agreement between Bulgaria and the European Communities opened the basis for setting up a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC).
“I personally, interacting with the Bulgarian parliamentarians and officials, became a big supporter of the big bang,” said Harris, praising the work of Philip Dimitrov and Nikolay Kamov, the first Bulgarian MPs with whom the EP started its contacts.
“Dimitrov and Kamov, although they came from different parties [Dimitrov from the centre-right Union of Democratic Forces and Kamov from the Socialists], were very keen of making a success of the accession. [Atanas] Paparizov was minister [of trade] at that time. They helped build the expertise that was necessary, not only in parliament, but in the administration,” Harris said.
Harris said he remembers then-Foreign Minister Georgi Pirinski and Irina Bokova, both “very keen to get on the enlargement train”. Pirinski is currently an MEP with the S&D group, and Bokova is the outgoing Director General of UNESCO.
A unique political context
Nikolay Kamov recollected those times, saying that Bulgaria was the only country from Central and Eastern Europe in which the first democratic elections were won by the former Communist Party.
Kamov, who has retired from politics, recalled that at those times, the democratic opposition was the only one which expressed a consensus regarding the strategic objective for Bulgaria to join the EU and NATO.
“In such circumstances, the contribution of personalities from the Bulgarian left, who were not afraid to push for EU integration in spite of the party or government leadership, was crucial,” Kamov said.
According to Kamov, Bokova’s role in Bulgaria’s EU application had been decisive. Then-Prime Minister, Zhan Videnov, was keeping his cards close to his chest and was actually delaying the process. His real intentions have remained a secret.
In the autumn of 1995, Harris passed the message to Bulgarian diplomats that the further delaying of Bulgaria’s membership application was seen in Brussels as a signal that the country’s authorities “envisage a type of relations with the EU different from membership”. The message was reported to Sofia, and Bokova had reportedly “browbeaten” Videnov to okay the application. Further, the National Assembly passed an unanimous vote backing the application.
Bulgaria’s membership application was handed over by Pirinski to his Spanish colleague at the Madrid European Council, which made important decisions on enlargement.
Pirinski recolects that in his capacity as foreign minister, he had the historic chance to hand over the accession application to Javier Solana, but added:
“However, the huge preparatory work, and the enormous work over the answers to the questionnaire [the first step of the post-application procedure] was led and coordinated by first deputy minister Irina Bokova,” he said.
Bokova said that each time she is asked which the most cherished moment of her political career is, she always says this is the handing over of the accession application.
“Today it seems only natural that Bulgaria would apply for EU membership. But it wasn’t so 20 years ago. There were big doubts. There was opposition. There were politicians who saw Bulgaria’s future in another direction. But for me it was clear that this was the only way. And that the delaying of this act means Bulgaria to fall into isolation, with an uncertain future and fuzzy values.”
Commenting on the geopolitical stakes, Harris said that if Bulgaria was in a way lucky that the confrontation with Russia at that time wasn’t as big as today.
“The main characteristic of the 1990s was that we didn’t have this kind of dramatic confrontation with the Russian Federation which we have now. Even when the former Soviet Republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania applied and were made part of the first wave, it wasn’t a big controversy, whereas now everything is a big controversy,” Harris said.
A final anecdote is that Bulgaria’s membership application was lost by the Spanish Presidency. Several weeks after the Madrid summit, a Council official asked the Bulgarian mission in Brussels to provide their services with an identical copy.