In an exclusive interview, Ivo Hristov, probably the most intriguing candidate of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, explains the stakes of the European election, his party’s – and his own – views about Europe today and in the future.
Ivo Hristov is a Bulgarian journalist and translator of French authors. He was the chief of cabinet of President Rumen Radev and is a candidate for the European elections under the ‘civil’ quota (from civil society) of BSP. He spoke to Georgi Gotev.
We know each other, but be aware that some of our readers are not familiar with Bulgarian politics well. What is the stake of these European elections?
In Bulgaria there are two stakes. The first one is national. The election result can create a new political situation in the country. If the BSP opposition wins, it opens up the prospect of early elections and the political change that Bulgarians expect. The second stake is the future attitude of Bulgarians toward Europe. We are currently witnessing a paradox. The EPP has for years been giving unreserved support to the ruling GERB party. In Bulgaria Borissov privatizes the European topic for his own needs. At the same time, GERB is stuck in countless grandiose corruption scandals. They resurge at least once a week, with the potential of putting down any government in any country, not just in Europe. Top officials were exposed as owners of apartments acquired at discounted rates, a minister was caught on tape instructing how to circumvent the law. The latest Brussels report under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism gave an assessment of Bulgaria, which was interpreted by those in power as papal indulgence, and immediately after a series of scandals unfolded and dramatically discredited the EC’s findings. In this sense, the pro-European party GERB, in the eyes of the vast majority of Bulgarians, is the party of corruption, and this discredits the European idea itself. Brussels is not aware of it. Embassies in Sofia also prefer the easy dialogue with the well-known administration and badly evaluate the situation. This feeds anti-European moods that do not give birth to an alternative, but degenerate into populism.
In recent days, Brussels has signaled that it does not intend to lift the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism. This means it has put into question the rule of law in Bulgaria. Meanwhile, Manfred Weber, the candidate of the EPP and GERB for President of the European Commission, has taken position for cutting EU funds in countries where there is no rule of law. Thus GERB is proving to be doubly dangerous for Bulgaria: it undermines the rule of law, and supports Weber who plans sanctions against us for their sins. I think the time of the political bluff that GERB is the Bulgarian partner of Brussels is going away because the party is already discrediting the EPP itself. Tolerance will end with the elections, then the EPP will expect changes in Borissov-Tsvetanov’s party. But for them it will be too late.
You are highly critical of Borissov and GERB, but the BSP has also made a lot of shit when they were in power. Are BSP really a better alternative?
BSP was in power when Bulgaria signed its EU accession. In the last ten years, GERB has almost invariably been in power with a coalition of small, right and far-right partners. At present, the BSP is the only alternative with a ready-made program. The president, elected by BSP, enjoys the support of more than half of Bulgarians, which is symptomatic of the moods. Regardless of the possible criticism, BSP is the only rescue alternative to Borissov’s autocratic regime, which wiped out the dividing lines between the powers and concentrated in its hands a huge amount of media, administrative and financial resources that it uses for its own needs. Brussels criticizes Polish and Hungarian democracies, but is totally disinterested in far more flagrant violations in Bulgaria. For example Poland was attacked by the EC about the way the Supreme Court was formed. In Bulgaria, the government has set up an anti-corruption commission, which is appointed by the parliamentary majority and is controlled by the government, appointed by the same parliamentary majority. Brussels does not react to this absurdity. Today, this commission’s leadership is the centre of scandals and checks, and its failure to fight corruption is obvious.
If GERB, by manipulation, wins in this election as well, despite the catastrophic corruption revelations, Borissov still has the resources to muzzle his remaining critics. There may be no next elections. In the future, the elections will become a pseudo-democratic caricature to legitimize the mayors and deputies appointed by GERB.
Why did you, a Bulgarian intellectual, engage politically with BSP? Don’t you think that under its current leadership, the BSP stepped in anti-EU grounds, by opposing to the Istanbul Convention [against domestic violence], the UN Pact on Migration, not speaking about its pro-Russian rhetoric? How are you reconciled to this?
In Bulgaria the concept of an intellectual is burdened with moral compromises and I want to disassociate myself from such controversial business card. The current leadership of the BSP is making proof of character and autonomy. Europe is accustomed to having to deal with eager yes-men in Bulgaria and is therefore suspicious of the BSP. I do not think that the rejection of the Istanbul Convention is anti-European behavior. It was not rejected by BSP, but also by the Constitutional Court of Bulgaria, in which five women sit. It is difficult for me to accept that ladies in the CC of Bulgaria are less women or legally less competent than the advocates of the convention who insist on its adoption.
The convention is a poorly written document that creates a monitoring business for NGOs, but it will in no way affect the problem of domestic violence and violence against women. A phenomenon, moreover, we can track in the countries that have adopted the convention.
As far as foreign policy positions are concerned, I do not accept the position of Brussels as correct by default, and the agreement with them for an obligation. In the case of Venezuela, as an example, High Representative Mogherini suggested an inadequate position containing an ultimatum. A common position of the EU has never been attained, and events have shown the whole weakness of European foreign policy because the ultimatum was neglected by Caracas. Europe is strong when it speaks with the arguments of law and not with ultimatums. We must strive for unity in principles and in law, not unity in mistakes.
And I do not think the accusations of pro-Russian rhetoric against BSP are reasonable. BSP has common sense. If we want to be intellectually consistent, “pro-Russian” is not synonymous with “wrong” and “short-sighted” position. Incantations should not replace sobriety. Europe is not always more far-sighted than Russia. Let’s say in Syria the EU and the individual member states were so disoriented and inconsistent that today Europe has fallen out of the Syrian political process.
You were the chief of President Rumen Radev’s cabinet, and there was a general impression that you were useful to him. Isn’t there a risk, without you, that the President [a former general], would be more influenced from people with similar military background?
I do not see such a risk. There is a team of competent people around the president, and I am chairman of the Strategic Council [this consultative body under the President was established shortly before Ivo Hristov left his job as Chief of Cabinet], which I hope will continue to be useful. Radev himself is a man of an intellectual structure and can make an objective judgment.
What kind of campaign are you planning?
The center of my campaign is the man. Europe is the homeland of humanism, but this very word itself is dismissed from the EU vocabulary. Or almost. Europe is the land of free thinking, it owes its progress to freedom and criticism, but today they are under the pressure of conformism and the politically correct. The philosopher, the nobleman, the gentleman, the intellectual, the revolutionary, the dissident are all figures of the European tradition. They are now extinct. Today’s world views the human as a consumer, classifies him as a human resource, politically reduces it to an “activist,” but deprives him of ethical depth. Unfortunately, the EU has aligned with the global oversimplification, while Europe owes its achievements to its own tradition, to its diversity. We need to nourish ourselves from the great European culture – political and spiritual – and not to bow to the pressure from outside. For example the welfare state, with its paid holidays, guarantees, indemnities, is part of Europe’s political conquests. And it has to be asserted, not broken down. The EU must set social standards for its external partners. Instead, it bends to corporate pressure that breaks down the welfare state.
Recently in a conversation, one of the European politics grand ladies, Catherine Lalumière, told me: “we created Europe but failed to create the Europeans”. At the beginning of the last century, when Europe is politically divided into rival empires, but on the continent people traveled without visas, the cultural and spiritual unity of the continent was a reality more than today. The intellectual climate, taste, vocabulary is determined by figures such as Coudenhove-Kalergi, Stefan Zweig, Paul Valéry. In Bulgaria Ivan Shishmanov was the vehicle of this European cultural optimism. Today, the EU is a strictly economic and political project, driven by officials and lobbyists, and we should not be surprised to find ourselves in a dead-end street.
Do you realize that other BSP candidates will struggle to get preferential vote and push you down [Ivo Hristov is N. 4 in the BSP list]?
Yes of course. That does not bother me at all. It is important for Bulgaria to choose its most reputable representatives. I am glad that the voters preserved their right to preferential voting thanks to the President’s veto, which stopped GERB’s law providing for the factual cancellation of the preferential vote.
If you are elected MEP, what topics would you like to work on?
I believe that the EU must guarantee the freedom and decent income of its citizens. This means to give life to the principles enshrined in the European Pillar of Social Rights. To ensure access to public services such as power and water supply, which a country like Slovenia already enshrined in its constitution. Expand the capabilities of countries in the economy. To introduce legislation against offshore areas which siphon the European’s money. To tax financial transactions, because the rapid migration of money ravages the manufacturing sector and threatens jobs.
I would like to work on issues related to democracy: today the European citizen feels far away from Brussels, which nourishes mistrust and grievance. To curb the destructive extremes, we need to create the chance for the voice of citizens to be heard. Low-threshold petitions to be considered. We should not damn before we have heard. I believe that Brussels must radically simplify and clear the language in which it communicates with people in order to be understood.