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Bulgaria’s pro-Brussels PM: 'There's no better place to live than the EU'

The Guardian logo The Guardian 6 days ago Shaun Walker in Sofia

Boyko Borisov wearing a suit and tie: Boyko Borisov has been Bulgaria’s prime minister for the majority of the past decade.

Boyko Borisov has been Bulgaria’s prime minister for the majority of the past decade.
© Reuters

At a time when some politicians in central and eastern Europe are profiting from hostility towards Brussels, Bulgaria’s Boyko Borisov is taking a different path, aiming to winning favour from Europe through charm and flattery. 

“I’ve been all over the world and I can say that there’s no better place to live than the EU,” he said during a recent interview with the Guardian in Sofia.

He was careful not to criticise any of his European colleagues. Even Theresa May, who has frustrated many EU leaders after two years of Brexit back and forth, got a positive appraisal. “I have seen with Theresa the way she really puts in all efforts to put her arguments to all those other 27 members that she’s challenged by. I would not want to be in her position at this time. But she’s fighting and fighting hard. She’s putting in all effort to make it work.”

Asked about differing visions of the future of Europe put forward by France’s Emmanuel Macron and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Borisov declined to criticise either Macron’s idea of a progressive, integrated continent or Orbán’s model of a Europe of strong sovereign nations. “We have a Bulgarian vision. There are certain aspects of our vision that coincides with the Macron or Orbán vision and others that don’t,” he said. 

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Borisov’s answers reflect a deft policy of not offending any of his European partners, eschewing anti-Brussels rhetoric and preferring instead to highlight the benefits that European integration has brought Bulgaria since it acceded to the bloc in 2007. Ivan Krastev, a Bulgarian political scientist, said: “Boyko wants to be everybody’s best friend. He wants to hear all sides, make them believe that he has taken their side.”

This careful charm and willingness to equivocate means Borisov is viewed positively in Brussels, where many prefer to gloss over issues related to corruption and rule of law in the country. “He is not somebody who blocks anything,” said a source. “But he will try to show how difficult the situation is for his country, while not quite saying aloud: ‘And this is why you should give us more money.’”

Borisov, a former fireman and bodyguard, has an earthy, man-of-the-people charm, which has helped keep him in the prime minister’s seat for the majority of the past decade. Tall and broad, he has a karate black belt and turned out for a Bulgarian second division football side in 2013 aged 54.

That same year he resigned after protests driven by high energy costs and irritation at perceived corruption. Police clashed with protesters and Borisov claimed he could not bear to have blood on his hands. But he was back again as prime minister a year later. In the interview he spoke about his premiership in hand-wringing terms, claiming he had no thirst for power and was more of a martyr to the cause.

“I never imagined that I would be doing what I am doing right now. It’s a difficult life, to be honest. When there was questioning of whether my government was doing the right thing, I gave up power. But then we had elections and people again elected us, so what should I do?”

He uses his humble origins both for domestic consumption and at high-level political gatherings. At one European summit last year, Italy’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, brandished his credentials as a law professor to complain about the way the negotiations were going. “Well I used to be a fireman and this is not how you negotiate,” Borisov responded, according to a source.

There is something of the fireman still in him in the way he speaks proudly about response times: he frequently emphasised how he conducted government business out of hours or while on the road. He bristled when asked about “GP-gate”, a corruption scandal in which Bulgarian and Romanian journalists exposed how EU money was being used without public oversight, and he focused on his own quick response time to news of police detaining the journalists involved.

“Can you imagine if Theresa May’s office had received a signal from some kind of website at that hour: would she have also called the law enforcement services to react?”

He became irate at questions about corruption, and pushed back against the “idiotic claim” that he was not open to questions from critical local media. “There is not a single media that has not done an interview with me, and there’s not a topic they haven’t broached with me,” he said.

Independent local journalists say the media market is dominated by oligarchs who are at least in a friendly coalition with the government, while Reporters Without Borders ranked Bulgaria as 111th in its press freedom index last year, the lowest of any EU member state. Corruption concerns were highlighted in the weeks after the interview when the deputy leader of Borisov’s party resigned over allegations he bought a luxury flat at a severely knocked-down price.

Despite all this, Borisov gets credit for not causing headaches for the European commission, at a time when relations are strained with Poland, Hungary and Romania. “Bulgaria has benefited from the worsening of the situation in Romania,” said one senior diplomat, while claiming the country had “made a lot of efforts” to come closer to EU norms.

Borisov has had to tread a careful line between his western partners and Russia, with many political forces in the country favouring closer ties with Moscow, citing a long history of warm relations. Bulgaria was one of the few EU countries not to expel any Russian diplomats in solidarity with Britain over the assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal last year, something that seemed particularly strange when it transpired that one of the Russian agents allegedly involved may have been in Bulgaria around the time a local arms dealer was poisoned four years ago.

Asked if Russia was a strategic partner or a strategic threat for Bulgaria, Borisov again equivocated. “Your questions are always dichotomies,” he complained. “It would be an absolute mistake to claim that Russia is an enemy or a threat. At the same time, my government and political party are 100% aligned with the EU-Atlantic organisations.”

It was classic Borisov, always careful not to offend. “He thinks that he needs to take on all positions at once,” said Krastev. “He is more pro-American, pro-Russian and pro-European than anyone else.”

Additional reporting by Jennifer Rankin in Brussels and Maria Georgieva in Sofia

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