David Cameron’s first visit to Bulgaria: EU reform and border security top the agenda

British PM David Cameron and Bulgaria’s PM Boyko Borissov, Sofa, Bulgaria (Number 10, CC BY-NC-ND)

David Cameron’s EU tour on British demands ahead of the country’s EU referendum might have helped him to understand better the ‘stay-in’ rather than ‘leave’ supporters and lobbyists.

And this is why during his first ever visit to Bulgaria, David Cameron, British PM, ended up praising the Bulgarian security measures along its border with Turkey.

Separately, his demands on cutting tax credits to EU newcomers to the UK may create a further backlash across EU capitals, not only because they contradict the EU’s free movement of people principle, but also because of less known last minute changes to the UK’s Autumn Budget Spending Review, which makes this new pre-condition for the UK to stay in the EU less reasonable.

“I do not expect to get support on the UK’s EU reform at the next EU Council on 17 December in Brussels, as our demands are fundamental, legally binding and irreversible,” David Cameron said in Sofia.

“However, I appreciate the relations between the two countries [the UK and Bulgaria], as they are very important for our common security,” he added.

David Cameron flew to Bulgaria just hours after a difficult decision was taken in the UK Parliament for the UK to participate in an international alliance of at least eight countries to bomb IS targets in Syria. Part of the UK’s Conservative Party, known as Eurosceptics, has placed a number of conditions to David Cameron for the UK to stay in the EU. The British PM has been negotiating with his European counterparts by visiting EU capitals to look for support for his Party’s EU reform agenda. He also sent formal letters to all EU prime ministers with the UK’s renegotiation demands on Monday, 7 December.

Cameron and Boyko Borissov, the Bulgarian Prime Minister, agreed on closer co-operation in EU security and reform, as well as over the Syrian refugee crisis, but Cameron’s demands to cut in-work benefits for EU citizens in the first four years after their arrival in the UK may remain a red line across EU capitals, as it violates the EU principles of free movement of people. This demand is a result of growing immigration to the UK, but less than half of immigrants come from the EU.

However, many in the UK assume that EU citizens from CEE, who might be more recent arrivals to the UK, are the main immigrants to the country. However, the biggest number of EU citizens arriving in the UK come from Spain and Italy and not CEE, according to an estimate published on the website of the UK Parliament.

The other misconception in London is that the UK is the only country pushing for reforms in the EU, while the EU’s normal legislative process in the European Parliament suggests the opposite.

Most recently, many Central European countries have rejected Schengen in its original shape due to the Syrian refugee crisis. Moreover, the Danes have just completed a referendum on security opt-outs and have once again voted ‘No’ to closer ties with Brussels, despite the high security alert across the EU after the Paris terrorist attacks.

Another important fact in the UK’s EU debate is that at the latest Comprehensive Spending Review two weeks ago, based on figures from the Office of Budgetary Responsibility, UK Chancellor George Osborne reported before the Commons a surplus of close to GBP 3 billion, which has allowed him to keep the much debated tax credits for those in work. These are aimed at people who earn, but below a certain level per household.

This surplus has been attributed to EU immigration to the UK, as most EU citizens come to the UK to work and do not claim any benefits. Under these circumstances and with the common security threat to the EU, which requires extra funding in all EU budgets, which is yet to be assessed, this demand seems to be untimely, especially when the number of EU citizens living in the UK is the same as the number of UK citizens living elsewhere in the EU, roughly 2 million people.

So, according to the Autumn Statement, the controversial tax credit system still exists for UK nationals, due to the contribution made to the UK’s budget by the EU’s newcomers, but is now considered to be outdated and unfair due to the complex conditions under which it is normally granted.

However, there is no clear comparison between the EU countries’ social systems, so the reciprocity in using them by EU citizens seems to remain conditional due to differences in social security provision across Europe.

In response to Mr Cameron’s statement, the Bulgarian PM Boyko Borissov said that “while the EU’s cohesion and integration funds are beneficial for competition in the EU and is helping poorer countries to catch up, social funds for richer countries should not be drained.”

For now, it is not clear which of the UK’s EU reform demands Borissov might support, but Bulgarians living in the UK, also active Bulgarian voters, are likely to expect him to take the same position as most of the EU countries and oppose this demand in order to preserve the EU principle of free movement. Bulgarians abroad are also the biggest FDI net contributor to Bulgaria’s economy, bringing an estimated BGN 2 billion (EUR 1 billion) a year to the country’s GDP, so this demand is likely to remain controversial for Bulgarian voters living elsewhere in the EU, although those who reside in the US, Australia or Canada and elsewhere also contribute to the above figure.

Mr Cameron now expects EU countries to respond to his EU reform demands by February 2016, so the date for the UK’s referendum on EU membership could be moved from June to September 2016. Its timing is expected to affect the UK’s economy next year, according to City of London observers.

Border security also means business

“It is important that Europe has strong external borders and here in Bulgaria you can see a prime minister and a government that is absolutely committed to that,” Cameron said.

“They [Bulgaria] have got a sea border that they protect, they have got a land border with Turkey that they protect and I think there are real lessons to be learned here about [how] if you give it the priority you can get it done. So we should continue to support them with the important work they do,” Cameron added.

Similarly to Britain, Bulgaria is outside Schengen and is the first EU country between Turkey and the rest of the EU to manage and sustain border controls, as Greece has been overwhelmed by significantly higher numbers of Syrian refugees. Bulgaria has already received some 8000 refugees since 2011, accepting for the same period a similar number of asylum applications. Britain has received around 5000 refugees after the UK’s decision two months ago to bring in 20, 000 refugees over the next couple of years from camps in Jordan. Bulgaria has also recently accepted to receive another 1500 refugees as a voluntary quota, according to Rumyana Buchvarova, the Bulgarian Interior Minister, who also hinted at some extra small voluntary quotas. The opinion polls according to various national media, as well as Alpha Research, show that 85% of Bulgarians do not want Bulgaria to accept more refugees even if the quotas are voluntary.

“Many do not know that Bulgaria’s border with Turkey by land and sea is longer than the one between Greece and Turkey,” said Boyko Borissov.

“I think that seeing the physical environment in which we protect our borders, as well as EU’s borders is a beneficial lesson in geography.”

Bulgaria has also built a 80 km border razor wire fence (close to 5 m high and 1.20 m wide) with Turkey and is planning to add another 100 km of fence over its 257 km mile green border with its neighbour to the South, stopping around 500 people a month jointly with the Turkish border police, according to the Bulgarian Interior Ministry, assuming a protective position like most of its CEE counterparts. Together with boosting its border force with an extra 1000 troops, these measures seem to be justified as one of the terrorists in the recent Paris attacks passed through neighbouring Greece, while others were traced across Europe. EU’s latest financial help and the UK’s operational  contribution in policing Greek and Italian borders by providing continuous support in screening of individuals arriving in Greece and Italy along the EU’s evolving emergency security programme is beneficial, but is unlikely to resolve the problem.

Bulgaria has so far received small amounts of EU funding since last year to sustain its refugee camps, but has not been in the focus of EU security concerns, partially because it is a transit country for a smaller amount of refugees compared to its neighbours. It has also taken the approach of border checks similarly to Hungary from the very start of the crisis and is outside Schengen with a pending application to become a member of the zone.

What may become a real security challenge for Bulgaria and the rest of the EU is its leaders’ plan to renew accession talks with Turkey accompanied by possible visa free movement for Turkish nationals across the EU from 2016. This could only increase the existing vigilance on the Bulgarian-Turkish border due to the possible misuse of this opportunity, not speaking that the Schengen zone may collapse altogether due to disagreements among its members on tackling EU security.

As a result, Bulgaria is also planning a similar border fence protection with Macedonia, which has become a transit country for smuggled refugees through the region. The war in former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s has changed Bulgaria’s position in Europe as an investment and trade destination, so this time the country plans to do anything to sustain peace and stability in the SEE region. This, however, has to become a more tangible concern for EU leaders, making the stability in the Western Balkan states a key priority before committing to promises it may fail to deliver.

In Lenovo, along the Bulgarian border with Turkey, David Cameron also visited a digital border surveillance centre, not far from the place where an earlier incident with Afghani migrant, who was involuntarily shot by a warning fire aimed in the air for 50 young Afghani. This happened as they behaved aggressively and did not stop when asked to do so by three border police, while the former were crossing illegally the Bulgarian border. The Afghani was given first aid, but died later, while the policeman under question was later questioned. He received wide public support with demonstrations in his home town not far away from the Bulgarian Turkish border, while similar demonstrations followed in Central Sofia. The Bulgarian Interior Ministry investigation on that matter has not yet concluded.

Consequently, the incident has been used by UK charity Oxfam and in targeting by the UK press to vilify Bulgaria’s efforts in protecting its own and the EU’s borders, accusing the country of poor refugee protection.  These claims went to the extent to criticise David Cameron’s conclusions that Bulgaria is doing a good job in protecting EU borders.

This is also the first visit of a UK PM to Bulgaria since 1999, when Tony Blair came to Sofia, while Boyko Borissov has visited the UK a few times during his two previous terms as a PM, so as a whole the progress achieved at this meeting exceeded observer expectations and may have even influenced Cameron’s decision to propose on his return to Britain in the Commons, UK membership in the EU’s security programme known as Pruni.

A senior political analyst back in the UK said that “it will be best if in the next stages of the UK’s EU negotiations, which are expected to intensify next spring, David Cameron gets as wide public support as possible as the ‘No’ campaign can easily gain momentum in the crucial last months  before the UK’s referendum on EU membership.”

Rumyana Vakarelska is Editor-in-chief, Team New Europe, a political Action-Tank.

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