January 31, 2018
With the start of the New Year comes the start of another six-month Presidency of the Council of the European Union. Bulgaria holds the Presidency till June of this year. This is the fourth Presidency in succession where the holding Member State is exercising this task for the first time, but it is the first new Member State to hold the Presidency before joining the Schengen Area.
Schengen, which Malta joined in 2007 together with nine other Member States, is an area comprising 26 European states that have officially abolished passport and all other types of border control at their mutual borders in order to guarantee the EU’s fundamental right of freedom of movement to its citizens. The area mostly functions as a single country for international travel purposes. However, while relaxing internal border procedures; states within the Schengen Area have strengthened their external border controls with non-Schengen countries, including Bulgaria.
Although Bulgaria is actively working to implement all the Schengen Acquis, it is specified in a protocol attached to the country’s act of accession that the decision on Bulgaria joining the Schengen Area will need to be taken unanimously by all EU members of the Schengen area, after evaluation procedures have established that the necessary conditions have been met.
Among many other things, these conditions include technical standards for border crossing points such as electronic databases, the installation of thermo-sensitive devices and truck scanners; full participation in the Schengen Information System (SIS), and laws on data protection allowing Bulgaria and current Schengen countries to exchange information about individuals.
Therefore, within this context, while it comes as no surprise that one of the four main priorities of the Bulgarian Presidency is ‘security and stability in a strong and united Europe’, given that this topic has been catapulted to the fore of the EU’s agenda in view of recent events, it would be interesting to see how well Bulgaria is able to steer discussions and negotiate with the other European Institutions on this area.
Under this priority area, Bulgaria has stated that it will put an emphasis on measures aimed at increasing the security of EU citizens while strengthening border controls and improving the effectiveness of the EU’s migration processes. This is all well and good, however, it remains to be seen how effective it can be given that its officials, who shall be leading discussions on the subject within the Council, have no first-hand experience on implementing and working within the structures of such measures that are central to Schengen.
Besides security and stability, the Bulgarian Presidency has stated that it will also focus on three other priority areas which are: the future of Europe and young people, the Western Balkans, and the digital economy. Within these priorities we should expect progress on the Multiannual Financial Framework and Cohesion Policy post-2020. Bulgaria will also strive to deepen cooperation and good relations in the Western Balkan region through the EU’s Enlargement Policy as a number of states in the region work on their accession. Under the fourth priority area, efforts will be made on economic prosperity of EU citizens, the digital single market, and the future of labour in a digital and fairer EU.
We have become accustomed to every new Presidency of the Council of the European Union coming up with an ambitious list of priorities before its term commences; however, EU Presidencies are ultimately judged upon their success in concluding dossiers and drafting good legislation that will withstand the test of time to the benefit of EU citizens.
The EU as a whole has entered a critical phase in its history as it comes to terms with one of its most prominent Member States negotiating its exit whilst continuing to work on stabilising its economy.
Concurrently, one must also keep in mind that in the meantime the EU’s current legislative cycle is nearing its end. The European Parliament is scheduled to hold its elections in May next year and this will be followed by the election of the new Commission after the summer. As a result, most legislative proposals currently on the table will need to be agreed to by the beginning of next year or risk being delayed considerably in order to allow for the new Parliament and Commission to be in place.
Within such a scenario, it is not the time to take any chances, but EU citizens will be better served by a hard-working Presidency that is willing to take on the main questions that Europe is being faced with, without trying to be excessively bold or ambitious.
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