This project has received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme
(Grant Agreement n. 669194)
(Grant Agreement n. 669194)
The Bulgarian regime perceived the European Economic Community (EEC) as a fact of life and expected West European integration to proceed further. The EEC’s political dimensions were noted in passing but the real source of concern was economic integration and increasing trade discrimination against the socialist countries. All the aspects of the EEC’s customs union and common policies were seen as mechanisms devised with the primary intention of hurting the economic interests of the socialist camp. Even though debates on the EEC emphasised its economic rather than its political integration, there was a strong awareness of the political implications of the economic process. In contrast, in the rare cases when the political dimension of European integration came under the spotlight, it was often highlighted positively – with an emphasis on any signs of a rift between the US and Western Europe.
Regardless of the perception of the EEC as an antagonistic organisation, the Bulgarian regime had a clear recognition of the national economic interest in increasing commercial exchanges with its member states and so of a pressing need to negotiate concessions from the EEC Commission. Therefore, at no point in debates, critical of EEC policies as they might have been, was there any proposal to terminate cooperation with the Western European countries. Often under the pressure of Bulgaria’s increasing trade deficit with the EEC members, the Ministry of Foreign Trade argued for prioritising imports from capitalist countries that were member states of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) over those from the EEC member states. Nevertheless, even this argument took for granted the need for constant increases in the total trade volume with the EEC.
In addition to this pragmatic stance towards the EEC driven by economic necessity, Bulgaria’s opening to the European capitalist countries was also seen positively in a geopolitical sense. Any milestone in this regard proved the country’s growing international prestige and hence served the self-legitimation of the regime. Domestic propaganda along these lines was framed by the party dogma that the Cold War was solely the responsibility of the West due to its antagonism towards the socialist bloc because of it being at the forefront of the struggle for world peace. The socialist bloc, in contrast, was eager to promote peaceful coexistence.
Domestic propaganda about the EEC, moreover, highlighted “sharp contradictions among the members” as evidence of the inevitable demise of capitalist integration. Therefore, news reports on the EEC summits and internal processes gave more weight to confrontational aspects and added a touch of scepticism to any resolution of outstanding issues, treating it as an unstable and transient compromise. When delving into such internal disagreements, correspondents highlighted positions of the member states that were in synchrony with the grievances of the socialist bloc, e.g. France’s desire for a West European union without American tutelage or West German opposition to agrarian protectionism.
However, even in the press, EEC integration was not presented to the domestic public as a capitalist ‘evil plan.’ Apart from subordinating the development of the EEC to the interests of the capitalist monopolies in Western Europe, even the party’s daily often noted the impressive success of the integration, which was turning this alliance into the largest economic actor in the world. It also emphasised that the EEC was a potential counterweight to the American superpower and expectations of mitigation of its anti-socialist thrust thanks to the Helsinki process.
While the desire to expand economic relations and dialogue with Western Europe generally was shared among all elite groups in Bulgaria, the way to maintain them was a matter of more discussion. Recognising the EEC’s authority was not an option for Bulgaria. The Bulgarian elite uncritically accepted the Soviet policy of non-recognition – the party establishment mainly for political and ideological reasons and the economic institutions for rather pragmatic reasons. In their minds, although non-recognition was a politically inspired decision, it also made sense economically. Yielding on this, they thought, would only aggravate Bulgaria’s position regarding the EEC. As part of a bloc engaged in a political negotiation, Bulgaria could hope for better economic results.
Therefore, the Bulgarian elite favoured bilateral relations and tried to limit communication with the EEC organs – mainly because the EEC Commission would use economic negotiations to put political demands for recognition on the table. Already starting in the late 1960s, however, at all levels it was acknowledged that some contacts with the EEC Commission should be forged, as long as they were purely ‘technical’ and did not entail any diplomatic advances.
Regarding trade with the EEC members, what was usually debated was the trade deficit. This fundamental problem in Bulgarian interaction with Western Europe, however, was tackled on a strictly bilateral basis. Even though the Bulgarian institutions involved were well aware of the growing EEC restrictions on bilateral agreements, there was a stubborn insistence on requesting bilateral resolutions. The Bulgarian regime felt too weak to face the EEC as an organisation and to counter its protectionism it preferred multilateral negotiations, either with the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA) addressing the EEC or international trade organisations (UNCTAD, GATT, UNECE) setting up binding rules.
In the second half of the 1970s, the Bulgarian elite, however, realised that their approaches bypassing the EEC Commission or limiting negotiations with it to ‘technical contacts’ were hitting a wall. The shortcomings of this approach led the Bulgarian economic services to refocus discussions with EEC members from trade issues in the narrow sense to options for economic cooperation involving licences, transfers of technology, joint production and joint ownership. The Final Act of the Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) encouraged this strategy: both the party and the state apparatus were quite optimistic about the CSCE commitments to increased contacts and exchanges between East and West in the areas of scientific-technological progress and industrial cooperation. Indeed, economic issues had been at the centre of the Bulgarian position at the CSCE from the very beginning. Expecting a peak in pan-European cooperation, state experts even envisaged an all-European programme of trade liberalisation modelled on that of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) but covering capitalist and socialist states equally.
* All the texts about Bulgaria posted here summarise the research findings of PanEur1970s team member Elitza Stanoeva, which are published as Elitza Stanoeva, “Balancing between Socialist Internationalism and Economic Internationalisation: Bulgaria’s Economic Contacts with the EEC”, in Angela Romano and Federico Romero (eds), European Socialist Regimes’ Fateful Engagement with the West: National strategies in the long 1970s (Routledge 2020).