Crisis looming for next EU presidency

09 11 17

Brussels will need to brace itself for a blast of fascism when Bulgaria takes the Presidency of the European Union (EU) from January next year for six months.

The junior coalition party in the Sofia government is the far-right United Patriots (UP). For some months, the EU seemed rather blasé about the prospect of racist thugs playing at presiding over the affairs of Europe.

But alarm bells are now ringing in Brussels, suddenly alert to the very real prospect of extremist UP politicians chairing committees of the Council of the European Union during Bulgaria’s six-month term at the helm.

The UP is comprised of three far right parties: the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO), the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB) and Ataka.

The aggressive racism of this coalition puts it so far beyond the pale of what is acceptable in democratic politics that the Bulgarian EU presidency could prompt a values crisis for Europe.

EU silence

Despite domestic and international protests, the EU remained silent over the appointment last May of NFSB henchman Valeri Simeonov, to lead Bulgaria’s National Council on Co-operation on Ethnic and Integration Issues.

Over 400 Bulgarian human rights activists and intellectuals have described Simeonov as a “pronounced supporter of fascist and neo-Nazi ideology” in an open letter denouncing his appointment.

Simeonov, who is also Deputy Prime Minister, was finally convicted of hate speech by a Bulgarian court on 28 October. Simeonov had described Roma as:

“Brazen, feral, human-like creatures that demand pay without work, and collect sickness benefits without being sick. They receive child benefits for children that play with pigs on the street, and for women that have the instincts of stray dogs.”

Simeonov’s party has called for the demolition of “Gypsy ghettos” and the isolation of Roma in closed “reservations” that could generate income as tourist attractions.

In convicting Simeonov, the judges said that his hate speech “has led to harming the dignity…and creating a hostile, degrading, humiliating and offensive environment which can affect anyone with a Roma ethnic background”.

Toxic populism

In another worrying appointment, Ilian Todorov from the far right ATAKA party, is now Sofia’s regional governor.

Last year, the notorious party leader Volen Siderov stormed the National Academy for Film and Theater Arts, attacking students and teachers for having allegedly mocked him. Todorov was filmed steaming in by his leader’s side during the violent brawl.

The opposition party, Yes Bulgaria, described both of these appointments as “another frank demonstration that the government is actually abandoning the European model of development of the country,” and warned the ruling party GERB that its “toxic national-populism” can only divide society and heighten the “risk of stirring up ethnic enmity.”

Things have gone way past the risk stage when it comes to ethnic enmity in Bulgaria. The country has witnessed mob attacks on Roma neighbourhoods, worsening segregation in housing and education, and a rise in forced evictions and house demolitions.

Concerned at the surge in racism, the UN called on Bulgaria to prevent and condemn hate speech by politicians, and to prosecute perpetrators of racially-motivated violence.

Insult to minorities

UNCERD (the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination) called on the government to “raise public awareness on respect for diversity and the elimination of racial discrimination.”

In light of this, the President of the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) Ðorđe Jovanović, described the government’s appointment of the racist Simeonov as “nothing short of a direct provocation and a calculated insult to Bulgaria’s ethnic minorities, and a direct affront to European values.”

The initial diffident ‘no comment’ response the ERRC received from the European Commission suddenly gave way to forthright condemnation of UP rhetoric as “absolutely unacceptable” by Commissioner for Justice Věra Jourová.

She said she was closely monitoring the government for signs of backsliding in Roma inclusion policy and that she would be in “intensive” discussions with Sofia over the coming months.

Calling for action from the EU, the ERRC warned: “Now is not the time for the EU to equivocate in the face of fascism. The appointment to high office in Bulgaria of thugs who openly espouse racist views should alert the EU that there is yet another rogue member state to be reckoned with.”

The ruling GERB party in Sofia is a member of the European People’s Party, and its chair Joseph Daul could not be drawn to criticise his Bulgarian sister party for appointing far-right extremists to high office.

By contrast, MEP Guy Verhofstadt, who leads the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, gave some sense of the scandal that lies in waiting for the EU when he told POLITICO:

“At a time when [U.S. President Donald] Trump is defending Nazi sympathizers, we have to ensure that the Council presidency shows unitedly that there is no place for fascist ideas in the European Union.”


On 23 October, the European Parliament Anti-Racism and Diversity Intergroup (ARDI), issued a statement and served notice that there can be no equivocation in the face of fascism, and described Simeonov’s appointment to head integration and ethnic issues as “reprehensible”.

ARDI co-President and Romani MEP Soraya Post declared:

“The Council presidency must show that there is no place for fascist ideas within the European Union. Therefore, I call on the EU to take up the issue with the Bulgarian government and prevent fascist groups from holding positions of high authority whilst they continue to violate principles of human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. Human rights are indisputable, they belong to everyone.”

Bulgaria has been described as a classic example of everything that is wrong with democracy – corruption, dysfunctional institutions and public apathy. Add toxic racism to the mix.

The situation of Roma and other minorities in Bulgaria is worsening; and the coarseness of public debate with frequent resort by politicians to racist hate speech and incitement to violence against Roma, migrants and Muslims is a harbinger of dark times.

Following Simeonov’s conviction for anti-Roma hate speech, it is now incumbent upon the Bulgarian government to sack him from his post heading the council for ethnic and integration issues. In addition, a clear and unambiguous message needs to come from Brussels: a government which includes neo-fascists in prominent ministerial positions is unfit to preside over the European Union.


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