Bulgaria: Wealthy EU governments target 'freedom of movement' for poor workers

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GERB leader Boyko Borissov and his political role model Angela Merkel.

By Raya Apostolova

September 30, 2014 -- Left Perspectives/Left East -- The election in Bulgaria scheduled to take place on October 5, 2014, comes in the midst of a deep political crisis and social disarray. Bulgaria’s right-oriented vote in the past two decades has resulted in non-existent public services and social destabilisation. Thousands of Bulgarian workers journey to Germany’s slaughter houses or Poland’s agricultural fields as they cannot secure employment in Bulgaria. The unfolding enmity towards the working poor on a European scale, as expressed in the openly declared battle against migrant labour from eastern Europe, may cost Bulgaria's shaky social peace. Bulgaria needs to immediately address social inequalities.

In February 2013 Bulgaria erupted in the most massive protests after the early 1990s. The wave of disarray was provoked by extremely high electricity and heating bills, often exceeding a worker’s monthly salary. As barricades, self-immolations, daily street protests and police violence intensified, the government at the time, the centre-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) resigned. The situation brought to power the neoliberal Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) in coalition with the liberal Movements for Rights and Freedom (DPS), which selected the independent Plamen Oresharski as prime minister. The silence on the streets did not last long when the infamous oligarch Delyan Peevski was appointed head of the state agency for national security.

Despite 400 days of protest, the BSP only resigned when the political and economic crisis escalated. A severe loss of votes for its coalition partner DPS and its rival GERB cracked the coalition. An acute banking crisis emptied out what little legitimacy the financier PM had left to lose.

The Bulgarian year of turmoil, 2013, did not see solely fierce opposition to the ruling parties of GERB and then to the BSP. An acute social division along class lines surfaced. As the protests in the summer of 2013 erupted, participants were quick to distinguish themselves from the outcry that shook the country just a few months earlier. In February, people were united around demanding the nationalisation of the foreign-owned energy industry. In contrast, the summer protests were mostly confined to pro-EU and pro-free market demands.

The so-called “summer protesters”, the self-proclaimed “creative and capable of paying bills class”, quickly pronounced themselves the only legitimate strata competent of bringing “real” change. They declared the working poor to be guilty of the failed "transition" [from 'communism", i.e. Stailism] and internalised the Western attitude towards Bulgaria of a backward country that is incapable of embracing the culture of democracy and free markets. The political environment in Bulgaria, however, does not show any sign of an even slight desire for building alternatives to the main model followed for the past 18 years.

The country’s political map is like a little version of the European Parliament. The only difference is that what would be a representative of the European Left Party cannot even be detected on the horizon in the near future. With no serious opposition from the left, the BSP’s course remains in the right spectrum. When it comes to substantial politics, as looked at through the prism of European politics, the main political parties in the country, BSP and GERB, are only in a seeming opposition.

The Party of European Socialists' (PES) rightist direction is well felt in Bulgaria as its leader, Sergey Stanishev was until recently also a leader of the BSP. The newly elected head of the BSP, Mikov is a protégé of the previous leadership of the BSP.

The BSP is responsible for pushing through some of the most neoliberal policies, such as the stiff liberalisation of the public sector, lowering of the corporate tax rate and introducing a flat tax for private persons. And even though the BSP’s election campaign is organised under the motto “BSP – Bulgaria of the left”, the cosmetic changes in the leadership of the party do not suggest substantial change. A non-conformist left is absent in Bulgaria.

Against this background, as the country is getting ready to vote in early October, Bulgaria is run by President Plevneliev’s assigned government. A collapsing energy sector, a health-care system in disarray, unemployment still on the rise, a budget deficit and a potential banking crisis are the status quo of today. The main actions of the current governments, however, is cobbling the road for GERB’s return.

Boyko Borisov, GERB’s leader, has stated that he would only run the country on the condition that GERB has an absolute majority. GERB’s utmost devotion to Germany's leader Angela Merkel’s political leadership, in combination with the BSP’s continuous support for rightist reforms, leaves no chances for social change in the poorest EU country. GERB’s formula of governance, as declared by Borisov on August 31 and expressed in the formula "GERB + Germany" can only result in a perilous war against the working poor.

And it is the poor who pose the biggest challenge to Bulgaria’s next government, on both the national and international arena. The unemployment rate in the country is growing proportionally to the rising prices and the devastation of the economies throughout Europe. In April 2014, the largest trade union in Bulgaria published a report according to which 20% live under the poverty line and 80% of households live with a total income that is under the normal living standard. The campaign “Clean clothes” recently found that those employed in the garment industry, one of the strongest industries in the country in terms of employment and exports, receive salaries comparable or below those received by sweatshop workers in China and Indonesia. The largest export markets to this industry are Italy and Germany.

And if people in Bulgaria expect more socially oriented policies expressed in the lessening of unemployment and firm measures against growing poverty, what the Northern wind brings to us is not even close to that.

The attitude of the EU towards the social collapse of Bulgaria is seen in the recent measures against Bulgaria’s labour migrants in the EU. As emigration has been Bulgaria’s faithful companion throughout the so-called "transition", it has been the country’s barometer for its internal politics but also for the overall relations between the EU and Bulgaria. As a rather telling example, relations between Bulgaria and Germany – the strongest EU economy and most desired partner for the Bulgarian government – have been tense over the issue of labour migration.

In the past two years, little by little we have witnessed both on national and supra-national level, how one of the main principles of the EU – freedom of movement – has under gone a qualitative change in its meaning. From being considered one of the liberals’ main demands against "socialist" regimes, freedom of movement has come to be associated more so with its potential to enable the abuse of wealthier nation-states’ social security systems. The attack on the principle of freedom of movement is, in essence, an attack on the countless working poor.

January 1, 2014, marked the opening of the labour markets of all EU states to Bulgarian labour. In March 2013, British PM David Cameron was firm that the UK would not be able to sustain “29 million Bulgarians and Romanians”. In the next year and a half, the UK continuously showed how miffed it was, demanding that freedom of movement to be less free”.

Heinz Fischer recommented in 2013 that poor Bulgarians to be restricted from movement. Despite the political turmoil that took place in early 2013 in Bulgaria, Tsvetan Tsvetnov, Bulgaria’s minister of interior at the time assured the Western elite that Bulgaria will undertake measures to prevent the “social benefit tourism”.

Brussels responded. In early January 2014, Viviane Reding taunted the UK government in spreading anti-immigrant sentiments.

Earlier on, in October 2013, Laszlo Andor quarrelled with David Cameron over allegations that EU migrants (read Bulgarian) are abusing UK’s social system. Andor’s spokesperson, Jonathan Todd, assured the public that in fact the “immigrants” are contributing to the welfare system and “pay more in tax and social security contributions than they receive in benefits.” On January 13, 2014, the European Commission (re)published a guide that is supposed to direct nation-states in their handling of EU immigrants and to place the boundaries around habitual residence. When introducing the guide, Andor was clear that discriminatory remarks need to be halted but EU principles cannot stimulate welfare abuse either.

On January 1, 2014, all EU labour markets opened their doors to labour coming from Bulgaria. The attack on Bulgarian citizens, which invoked images of empty social security coffers and waves of desperate “poverty migrants” was soon to give results. And as political commentators compared the attack to the one that took place in 2004 after Poland’s joining the EU, two significant differences can be detected: the very tangible possibility that this time around restrictions are to be placed on freedom of movement within the EU on the one hand and the continuous application of austerity measures as found in the aftermath of 2008 on the other. The wealthier states’ hostility towards migrant labour can be read in Germany’s newly adopted 139-page report, titled “Legal issues and challenges before the abuse of the social security system by members of the EU.”

The purpose of the report is to suggest legislative possibilities for halting movement for EU citizens if it is somehow "linked" to abuse of welfare.

Germany’s proposition is the result of a two-year battle against flexible and subcontracted migrant labour. Before 2014, many relied on the so-called "self-employment', as acquiring a working permit could take up to six months, if such a permit was granted at all. But flipping from the category of self-employed, regular work, to fake self-employed, irregular work, is quite easy. Germany’s report contains proposals for re-entry bans in cases of fraud and abuse of freedom of movement; limits to the time available for seeking employment; limits to child benefits; measures against the so-called “faked self-employed,” etc. If these take hold, countless people will have to go back home. Not much has changed since January 1, as many still have to rely on self-employment to access the labour market.

Germany is not the only EU actor with similar requirements. The UK, Netherlands and France are to immediately follow suit if Germany succeeds in its endeavour. Such measures do not have to be pushed through on the national level but have only to pass municipal orders in major EU cities in order for thousands to be affected. And as much as freedom of movement has enabled extreme levels of migrant labour exploitation within core countries in the EU, the abandoning of it, in combination with melting-down socio-economic situation in countries such as Bulgaria, is a ticking time bomb.

At the very least, freedom of movement provides an escape, and hence some sort of safety net for many who have fallen victim of the so-called "transition". Emigration, unfortunately, might be the only possible escape for the victims of one of the largest social disasters taking place right now. Namely, the floods that lasted the whole summer and left numerous people homeless.

Bulgaria, more than ever, needs an emergency plan. Such plan cannot be locked in to propositions for more austerity measures or turning the whole country to an exporter of easily exploitable labour. Such a plan instead has to provide for a radical rupture with gross social inequalities.

The alliance between political elites in Europe, for example between Borisov and Merkel, need to be broken as soon as possible if we are not to have even more scandalous failures compared to those since 2008. Neoliberal parties such as the PES and its representative in Bulgaria's BSP need to be superseded by a new political force that represents precisely those who have been and continue to be framed as benefit abusers.

Contrary to what the summer protesters cry out for, if we are to exit the crisis, demands cannot be defined through what the EU offers us. Bulgaria has to adequately debate instead the past 25 years of right turn and reconsider the politics that brought about inequality and povery: privatisation, the flat tax rate and destruction of the public sector.

[Raya Apostolova is from Sofia and a PhD student at the Central European University, Budapest.]