Bulgarian pipe dreams

Article published on May 15, 2006
Article published on May 15, 2006

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

84% of Bulgarians want to join the EU. They hope to reach a European standard of living, but are afraid that they will have to give up their own identity

Sofia’s new mayor, Boyko Borisov, has launched a campaign to clean up the Bulgarian capital’s image. Machines are working around the clock to fill potholes, making it difficult for cars to get around. Institutional advertising reminds pedestrians that cleanliness helps everyone. “Sofia is becoming a European city,” the newspapers exult. In Bulgaria, “European” is synonymous with good quality. When a farm owner brings in modern technology, everyone says that he is developing “European agriculture.” Moreover, when the Levski football team got into the UEFA Cup and managed to reach the quarterfinals, commentators said that the team from Sofia was playing “European football.”

Therefore, it is not surprising that Bulgaria is one of the countries that have the most positive image of the EU (59%), after Ireland (70%), Romania (64%) and Turkey (60%), according to the latest Eurobarometer survey. For the Bulgarians, joining means that they will finally be able to turn the page on the Communist era. “At last, it looks as though we have got over our deep-seated inferiority complex, with everyone thinking that we would never be prepared enough to join the EU,” said a 20-year-old Bulgarian girl.

Thinking positive

84% of Bulgarians want their country to join. Improving the quality of life and reducing corruption are two of the wishes that they hope membership will achieve. “The criminals will be put in prison and shootings in the centre of Sofia will end,” says one hopeful businessman in the Bulgarian capital. In the field of education, many students hope it will be easier to go European universities and above all, “Bulgarian university degrees will be officially recognised across Europe.”

Many Bulgarians dream of going on holiday abroad, but with an average salary of less than 140 euros per month, travelling is only within the reach of a certain social class. “To go to Europe, I need a formal invitation or I have to show a large sum of money at the border to prove that I won’t need to steal,” says Elena, a Bulgarian who is writing a thesis in Paris. In the long term, Bulgarians hope to draw a European-level salary and be able to pay for holidays in Rome or London without the need to save for three years.

Finding their niche

In the economic sphere, there is a difference of opinion. On the one hand, some wine producers are convinced that they meet the technical standards required for “European quality” and can find their niche in the European market. On the other hand, small businesses are afraid of being crushed by competition from multinationals.

Farmers are also worried. In the countryside, many families have land for growing vegetables and raising animals. From next year, only a few will fulfil European Community requirements and thus be registered as legally capable of carrying out economic activity. Some, with a bitter smile, complain that the EU will not permit Rakia, a traditional Bulgarian spirit, to be distilled at home. Rumours are also rife that changing a light bulb or cleaning windows will require a specialist company who meet “European quality standards.”

Soaring hopes, soaring prices

However, the main worry of both Bulgarians and Romanians is that from 2007, prices will go through the roof and this will affect their way of life. For example, the majority of Bulgarians and Romanians live in their own home. However, when prices reach the European average, those who want to buy their own home will need a bank loan, which in these countries, is still seen as risky and unsafe.

Not everyone is ready to accept these changes. “There is a sector of older people who are unemployed. They haven’t been able to find their place in current society. They miss the Soviet era and would prefer that Bulgaria look to Russia,” explains Borislav Todorov, 22, a Sofia resident. Disappointed by the poor performance of the governing socialist party, this group of disillusioned people has opened their arms to the ultranationalist Ataka party, who won 9% of the votes in the June 25 elections. Ataka defends the idea that, “a Bulgarian investor, businessman or producer has to have an advantage over foreigners, at least until the Bulgarian standard of living reaches that of the European average.” Nevertheless, this ultranationalist party has been accused of using racist rhetoric and has not gathered much support. The economic development that countries like Spain has seen since joining the EU has meant the large majority of Bulgarians firmly support entering the EU.