'Her only crime is that she was caught' - Bulgarian farmer attacks EU over plan to put down Penka the stray cow
Hidden in the alpine meadows of the western Bulgarian highlands, the village of Kopilovtsi is about as far from Brussels as it is possible to get.
But Ivan Haralampiev, who has spent most of his life and raised his family in this remote frontier village, says he has a blunt question for the EU’s leadership.
“I’d like you to ask them, if they kill my cow are they going to give me a new one?” he said, addressing the European Commission.
Look, she’s crying,” he said, changing the subject in front of Penka, the five-year-old bovine facing possible execution. “The stress has been terrible for both of us.”
The tale of Penka the cow, who was sentenced to death by over zealous border officials, is a tale of mendacious bureaucracy that has caught the imagination of politicians and media across the continent.
Bulgarian television crews have been regular visitors to Kopilovtsi for the past few days, and Penka’s docile face and blunted horns have made the front page of newspapers as far away as Germany.
Politicians in Sofia, Brussels and even Norfolk have attempted to intervene, calling on officials to spare her.
But Penka’s fate also touches on complex and fundamental questions about the European project and its future.
Her troubles began early last month, when one night she wandered out of her mountain pasture in Bulgaria’s Kyustendil region.
“I think she was probably being chased by something. Wolves perhaps,” said Mr Haralampiev. “We couldn’t find her anywhere,” he said.
About two weeks later, a “very good guy called Nikol” found her grazing outside the town of Bosilegrad, 40 kilometres away in Serbia, and traced her owner via the the tags in her ears.
But when Mr Haralampiev drove over the relatively open border to pick her up - after picking up a clear bill of health from a Serbian vet - his problems began.
“It’s not a Serbian problem. It’s a Bulgarian problem,” he told the Telegraph. “The veterinary officer on the Bulgarian border said she’s entering the EU without the proper paper work so she must be put down immediately.”
“I honestly don’t understand what that rule is for. It happens all the time. There is no border for animals, and cows, cats, dogs, they’re always wandering in and out of Serbia and Macedonia ,” he said.
“The only problem is that she crossed where she could be seen,” Mr Haralampiev said.
He is even more indignant because, he says, border guards saw her entering Serbia two weeks ago but could not be bothered to try to catch her at the time.
The Telegraph could not immediately verify the claim that she had ambled unchallenged down a road past both Bulgarian and Serbian customs officials.
For now, Mr Haralampiev’s intransigence - and the attention of the Bulgarian and international media - has won Penka a stay of execution.
Rather than putting her down, officials have ordered him to keep her in quarantine from other cattle.
She has spent the past several days in a small barn shaded from the hot Balkan sun by a tattered tarpaulin.
On Monday, vets took blood samples for analysis in Sofia (for a 90 Euro fee Mr Haralampiev grumbles he had to pay himself).
The results of those tests, expected before the end of the week, could decide her fate. It could also settle another question. Mr Haralampiev had previously told reporters Penka was three months pregnant, but one of the vets who inspected her said she was not.
Penka’s fate has been seized on by Brexiteers as an example of why Britain was right to quit the EU.
But the truth is much more complex - and touches on several key challenges facing Europe's leaders.
For a start, it raises obvious questions about the future status of the Northern Irish border. Will British and Irish cows who take a stroll face a similar absurd fate?
Then there is the fact that Penka - or her owners - are not only victims of Brussels red tape, but significant beneficiaries of European largesse.
Mr Haralampiev 60, retired to farm in 2012 after two heart bypasses and a gammy leg made continuing in his old job as an electrician impractical.
He says he would like to run a “big farm”. But in reality, agriculture for many in this in this remote corner of Europe is a matter of simple subsistence.
His seven cattle are being raised for meat, and may be either sold or slaughtered to keep the family through the winter.
But their real value lies not in their diet on the lush highland meadows of the west Bulgarian frontier, but in a Brussels spreadsheet.
Mr Haralampiev calculates his tiny herd (as long as Penka remains alive) should bring in about €7,000 a year in EU agricultural subsidies.
He previously raised a handful of horses under another subsidies program that has since ended.
“There is no other income around here,” he said when asked if he and his family could survive without such subsidies. “It is really important.”
That rural poverty is replicated across many of the EU's formerly Communist member states, and is a major element in the economic imbalance that drives internal European migration and to a degree informed the Brexit vote.
Thirdly, the confusion over Penka’s fate also says something about European strategy - or the lack of it - in the Western Balkans.
Serbia has long been on the path to European Union membership. But disagreements over Kosovo and internal European “expansion fatigue” have conspired to push the date of accession ever further down the road.
The current joining date is pencilled in for 2025. But with French president Emmanuel Macron making clear his opposition to further expansion, many Serbs now joke that by the time they join the EU, everyone else will have left.
But the right of stray cows to wander where they wish is only one victim of the resulting unsatisfactory fudge.
The other is European influence in the Balkans. And in Brussels, those paying attention are worrying that Russia, China, and Turkey are moving to fill the vacuum.
When push come to shove, Mr Haralampiev said he wanted more Europe, not less.
“We need subsidies to have proper farms, to grow proper food. I want 70 cows, not seven,” Mr Haralmpiev said when asked if he had a message for Brussels.
“Lots of people eat terrible food around here full of chemicals. We need help to raise our own local produce."
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