TCS Daily

What About Freedom?

By Ruslan Konstantinov - July 25, 2003 12:00 AM

Polls show that Bulgarians strongly support their country's effort to join the European Union. This is striking when compared to the situation in the former communist countries acceding to the Union next year. Sure, Bulgaria's EU prospects are rather distant and romantically vague; and sure, such public support will decrease as these prospects become clearer and closer. This has been the trend all over Central and Eastern Europe. The more interesting question here is: What would be the effect of this process of integration not on public opinion, but on real life in Bulgaria and on the freedom of its citizens in particular?


First, let's try to define freedom. Freedom means free elections and freedom of speech. This is something Bulgarians have. Freedom also means a reasonable guarantee that one's private property and endeavors for law-abiding prosperity should not be violated or at least that such violations should be strongly discouraged. In other words, the government should refrain from excessive interference in the economy and should see to it that there is an effective system of law enforcement and courts that guarantees the citizens' pursuit of happiness. In Bulgaria's case, there seems to be a reversal of this maxim: the government is where it shouldn't be and isn't where it should be.


In a country where it is not uncommon to need between 15 and 20 licenses and permissions to open a small cafeteria -- and, if one survives the procedure, to be totally unprotected from the blackmail of low-level government employees and the neighborhood gangs -- it is obvious that there is something very wrong. Plenty of other examples are available to show why corruption of the bureaucracy and an ineffective legal system are listed as top problems by the citizens and small domestic businesses, as well as by the few big foreign corporations that dare to invest. What effect could Bulgarian EU integration have on all this?


Believe it or not, the EU actually can bring about something good. Western European legal standards and traditions can only have a positive impact on the situation in Bulgaria. It's too bad for the people of Bulgaria that it appears they need someone else to bring order to their house, but unfortunately the lack of pro-freedom traditions in the country has a strong impact -- and after all it's better to achieve a decent result with aid from the outside than not to achieve such a result at all.


If the story ended here, it would have been more or less a happy one, despite the described problems of the otherwise talented Bulgarians. It would also be far too complimentary to the EU -- something the Union definitely doesn't deserve. So, here comes the second part: what can happen to the horrible Bulgarian bureaucracy under the leadership of Brussels? It will stay. Maybe it will be less corrupt and a bit more polite, but as inefficient as always. This will further tighten the governmental interference in the economy in "the good old" EU way and result in more irrelevant spending of taxpayers' money, which is scarce anyway.


Unfortunately, the Bulgarians as well as the other Eastern Europeans can't accept only the good part of the EU offer; it's a package deal. What they can all hope for is that the EU, pushed by the global competition, will become more adequate in the years to come. If this doesn't happen, there would be more and more people asking themselves: What about freedom?


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