With the GLOBSEC Forum in Bratislava and the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Sofia just around the corner, our resident researcher Vladislava Gubalova sat down with H.E. Yordanka Chobanova, Ambassador of Republic of Bulgaria to the Slovak Republic, and asked her about what the Presidency of the Council of the EU for means Bulgaria and why the Western Balkans were identified as such an important priority during Sofia’s time in office

Bulgaria is holding the presidency of the Council of the EU for the first time since joining the Union. What do these 6 months mean for the Bulgarian government and for the ordinary people of Bulgaria?

Indeed, after joining the EU in 2007, now 11 years later, Bulgaria is presiding the Council of the EU for the first time. It is a great opportunity, but also high responsibility, as there are so many issues that need immediate actions.  The motto of the Bulgarian Presidency is “United we stand strong”. This is also written on the Bulgarian coat of arms and our national credo. We are trying to implement it also at EU level. The goal of the Presidency is to stay united regardless of the differences that we might have in our perceptions and understandings. It is a very decisive year as next year we have the EP elections and much work has to be completed now. We mean now, not tomorrow. Nobody will be waiting for us. Issues like EU budget, migration, Brexit, posted workers, Western Balkans – to mention just few, have a direct impact on the life of the EU citizens and they expect concrete, timely decisions.

For Bulgarian citizens, the EU presidency is a chance to get to know the EU better. There will be more than 300 events in Sofia, so this is an opportunity for many Bulgarians to learn more about the different issues that are on the EU table. At the same time, we, Bulgarians will show to our guests our hospitality, our ancient culture, traditions, beautiful nature and great cuisine and will hopefully dispel some prejudices towards our country. The presidency is a chance to rediscover each other.

Similarly, Slovakia held in 2016 for the first time the Presidency. Overall, the tenure has been deemed as success with the Bratislava Summit and the Bratislava Roadmap for a new Europe. Have you found some valuable insights from the Slovakian presidency?

One can easily do a parallel between both countries. It is first presidency for both, but also Bulgaria and Slovakia are very similar in terms of size of the countries and administrative capacity. We have done a number of meetings at political, but also at expert level in order to learn from the Slovak experience. We have appreciated very much the open and frank dialogue with the Slovak Presidency team.

What are some of the main priorities of the presidency? Are these a continuation of the Estonian presidency or there are some new priorities?

 I believe that the Bulgarian Presidency will be remembered as the “Balkan Presidency” – without the negative connotation of the word Balkans which is one of the prejudices we would like to eradicate. We are far from shying for being on the Balkans. Being here we know how important it is to give a clear European perspective to the Western Balkans. The ambition of the Bulgarian Presidency is to achieve a clear action plan with each of the countries, without creating unrealistic expectations, but with concrete steps. This is the way to have long lasting peace, security and prosperity in this beautiful region overloaded with history. The goal is to provide connectivity to the Western Balkan countries – transport, air, energy, educational and digital.  Bulgaria invests significant efforts in this direction, for example by promoting the digital policies of the EU among the countries in the Western Balkans through gradual reduction of roaming charges and by increasing the possibilities for broadband internet access.

Indeed, the government has been outspoken early on about the need to bring the Western Balkans closer to the EU. At the end of 2017 Serbia and Montenegro were able to open new accession chapters and just recently the Commission recommended that the Council opens negotiations with the Republic of Macedonia and Albania. But not all Balkan countries have been encouraged in a similar fashion. How can the Bulgarian presidency succeed in persuading Europe that the Western Balkans need realistic and clear European perspectives?

The new realities in the Balkans and Europe, including political tensions, institutional crises, Brexit, social and economic difficulties, migration and organized crime and terrorism, call for a coherent foreign policy and reconsideration of the role of the Western Balkans for building an area of security, stability and prosperity.

The European institutions and the countries of the Western Balkans recognize the value of security cooperation for building a stable and united Europe. The European Union clearly expresses its support for the Western Balkans, as evidenced by the unambiguous messages for credible European perspective sent by Jean Claude Juncker’s State of the Union speech as well as in the annual address of Federica Mogherini to the EU ambassadors.

The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, often stresses in her statements that she refuses to use the expression ”European perspective” for the Western Balkans because “ they are already Europe.”

The realistic progress on the road to European membership is directly dependent on the decisive actions of each country in the Western Balkans to fulfill the necessary criteria and conducting the important reforms in the fields of justice, fight against corruption, rule of law, minority rights, independence of media.

The in-depth knowledge of the specific characteristics and processes in the Balkans defines Bulgaria’s key role as President of the EU Council, which, through a constructive and balanced approach, has returned the focus to the region. The Bulgarian Presidency has a special responsibility as an honest broker to promote a common basis for cooperation between the Western Balkans and the EU and reaching a consensus among member states on the European perspective of all Western Balkan countries.

In February, the Commission presented its strategy for the Western Balkans, and in April the regular Enlargement Package was presented, which will lead to the adoption of Council conclusions in June 2018. On 17th of May, Sofia will host the EU-Western Balkans Summit. This intense agenda will send a positive signal to the countries of the Western Balkans and at the same time creates a unique window of opportunity for the countries of the region to present themselves in a favorable light, demonstrating determination, political will, wisdom and tangible progress in reforms. We believe that this will advance practical cooperation and convince EU partners that the process of integration based on achievement is necessary and irreversible.

There are many disagreements and even conflicts on the Balkans. How can the region work together? What is the way to unite the countries towards a single goal?

The European perspective is a strong incentive for the governments of the Western Balkan countries to conduct a comprehensive economic and democratic transformation of the societies. This is a complex process not only in terms of meeting the criteria, building a country and reforming institutions in line with EU membership requirements, but also because of the need for reconciliation and the overcoming of unresolved bilateral disputes. The Western Balkan countries should be encouraged to identify mutual interests and to work on developing trust and building peace and mutual acceptance and recognition.

A natural instrument for strengthening cooperation and good neighborly relations are the young people of the Balkans – who can be absorbed by the power of European values and the idea of unity. The young generation sees in joining the European Union an opportunity for economic development, growth, education, free exercise of rights and freedoms.

Connectivity in all dimensions – infrastructure, transport, digital, energy, social, etc. is a key factor in stimulating investment in the region and improving relations with neighboring EU Member States.

Bulgaria focuses on expanding European transport and energy network as a way to deepen infrastructure and economic ties between the Western Balkan countries and their EU neighbors.

We expect the financial and political support of the Connectivity Agenda to continue within the Berlin Process. We also welcome the World Bank’s announcement for funding ($ 150-200 million) for projects in the areas of transport, energy, the rule of law, the fight against corruption, investing in the future of young people.

In more realistic, rather than ambitious terms, do you see final decisions to be made and agreed upon during the Bulgarian presidency? Which ones?

Putting the Western Balkans as a key priority on the European Agenda should not send wrong messages. During its Presidency, Bulgaria will make efforts to achieve qualitative steps forward in the following directions:

  • With regard to Serbia and Montenegro, there is an opportunity to open new negotiating chapters.
  • To reach consensus among Member States on the opening of negotiations with Albania and the Republic of Macedonia.
  • With regard to Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, Bulgaria will work to consolidate their European perspective.

The actual results and the achievement of substantial tangible progress depend on each Western Balkan country’s own merits. And this is also a strategic choice for each one of them and its society.

And lastly, what are some of the activities the Bulgarian embassy is involved here, in Slovakia, connected to the presidency? What is the main message?

 The aim of the embassy is to cover the “political” aspect of the presidency, but at the same time to present the cultural richness of Bulgaria. For example, under the Presidency umbrella we facilitated working meetings for all EU ambassadors with the President of the Slovak Republic, H.E. Andrej Kiska in January and with then Deputy Prime Minister Pellegrini in February, where we discussed cohesion policy for the period 2020-2027.