[:en]It is a bit of a stretch to get to Sofia and back – or at least going is OK but getting back to London means hanging around until 10pm and then hoping that Ryanair hasn’t cancelled the flight back to Stansted!  But since we mostly have Solidar Board meetings in Brussels, we always welcome the opportunity to go to the home city of one of our members, in this case, the Bulgarian capital, home to the Institute for Social Integration.


Katya Koleva who is President of the Institute, had organised a roundtable debate with members of the Board and some young researchers about the ‘State of the European Union’.  A great opportunity to get a view from the Balkans and offer some reflections of our own.


Teodor Slavev, Assistant at the Bulgarian Institute for Legal Initiatives, started the session with his personal view of the challenges facing the European Union.  Technology, artificial intelligence and the structure of labour would be a huge issue; the generation gap, that is the one between the baby boomers, the millennials and the post-millennials would continue to pose problems; a multi-regional European Union where there would be a call for more democratic EU institutions and greater debate around tax issues and military issues would be a continuing topic over the next years.


Strahil Deliyski, Assistant at Sofia University, focused on the rise of propaganda and ‘fake news’.  He was concerned about the lack of critical thinking and a tendency for citizens to become passive consumers in an unregulated world of social media.  If you link this to a social climate where there is economic and educational inequality you have a problem maintaining any kind of ‘cultural hegemony’ (Gramschi).  What ensues is political polarisation and the rise of far right and extremist groups.


We then heard from Helene Kortlander, from the Friedrich-Ebert Stifting in Bulgaria who offered an analysis of the situation in Germany in the run up to the elections this Sunday.  She made an interesting comparison between the politics and styles of Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz – Merkel is presidential, Schulz consensual.  But the impact of Schulz’s Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD) on the last German Parliamentary period has been lost – minimum wage, pensions, equal marriage.  It is not looking fantastic for the SPD; they are trailing in the polls, but we’ll see.


Anastas Stevanov, from the ‘Trend’ agency in Sofia gave a fascinating presentation on the view of the EU from Bulgaria.  Of the 1000 Bulgarian adults surveyed, 60% were positive towards the EU and thought that the country had gained in its 10 years of membership.  Equally they thought that the greatest threats to the country were from terrorism, radical Islam and migrants.  EU Institutions were considered to be far away and alienated from everyday life in Bulgaria; they are bureaucratic, they don’t defend EU citizens, the EU is based on the Western and Northern models of welfare states, people don’t feel that they have a European identity.  Familiar?  It resonated with me in terms of some of the reasons people gave for voting in the UK to leave the EU.  And that lack of critical thinking mentioned?  How many leave voters believed the £350m per week return to the NHS which just this week has been discredited by the Head of the National Statistics Watchdog?


Brilliant to get a view of the EU, the German elections and current trends from Bulgaria – 10 years in the EU but not a country we often hear much about in the UK press.  And so interesting to understand some of the similarities in terms of our own country’s attitude to the EU institutions.


Oonagh Aitken, President of Volonteurope[:]