At the official launch of the Council presidency in Brussels, you said, “The Bulgarian presidency is important not only for the Bulgarian people but for the whole Balkans and the whole of Europe.” What do you mean by this?
The Balkans have always been part of Europe, we share the same culture and the same values. This why it is important that the six Western Balkan states have a clear perspective on joining the European Union.
For a long time, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania were left off the EU agenda. They are now a Bulgarian Presidency priority and - for the first time in over 15 years - we have organised a summit dedicated to the region.
We want to encourage each of these countries. The accession of the Western Balkans is important to the security of the entire EU; no one has an interest in having gaps on the map of Europe. I am pleased that, in only a few months, my colleagues across the EU has realised just how important the issue is.
The Balkans are already a priority for the European Commission’s diplomatic service, and only a month ago the six Western Balkan states finally received a clear timeline for accession - 2025.
Of course, only those who have fulfilled the criteria will accede. However, Bulgaria will help these countries by providing expertise, because their EU accession is in line with our national interest. No state can be stable, rich and prosperous if its neighbours are not.
Bulgaria has been calling for Schengen area membership since becoming an EU member state a decade ago. Why do you think EU member states are still hesitant over Bulgaria joining and what work will you be doing during the presidency to help bring Sofia into the Schengen area?
It is clear to everyone in the EU that Bulgaria fulfilled the technical criteria for Schengen membership back in 2011. So the decision is political.
However, Bulgaria is doing well in securing its stretch of the Union’s external border and there has been minimal pressure on the Bulgarian-Turkish border for several months now. I understand that people in Western Europe are still worried about migratory pressure and I do recognise some of their concerns, but there is no reason why Bulgaria should not currently be part of Schengen by air and sea. Then, when their concerns recede - as they will - we could join Schengen by land.
You said recently that it was “time to talk about numbers and deadlines” regarding infrastructure investment in the Balkans. In what areas is investment needed?
For a long time, the Balkans have been cut off from the rest of Europe. Emergency measures and investments are needed because if these countries are not connected by modern highways, railways, gas pipelines and power lines, people cannot communicate and businesses cannot develop.
I hope that the €500m worth of projects, within the Berlin Process and earmarked at last year’s Western Balkans Summit in Trieste will be launched quickly. The talks on specific projects in this format will continue in July in London. At the same time, last December we organised a meeting of our partners from the six non-EU Western Balkan countries with the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the European Investment Bank.
Last February, we also held another meeting in London to look for joint solutions on how to fund connectivity projects. We must continue to work on the economic development of the region.
Let me give your readers a Bulgarian example: After the signing of the Friendship Agreement with the Republic of Macedonia, trade with our neighbour increased by 11 per cent and the number of tourists by 10 per cent.
I believe that the main areas for concentrating investment must be in energy and infrastructure. If we connect our countries, we can become a significant common market that can more easily fight for diversification of energy supplies and attract more investments to improve people’s lives.
Just delivering many of these projects will have a positive impact; the construction of corridor number 8 infrastructural project linking Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania will, in itself, create thousands of new jobs.
You have called on the EU to speed up the membership process for the Western Balkan states, warning that “If there’s no enlargement now, there’ll be no other time for enlargement.” What do you mean by this?
If the people of the Western Balkans do not receive a clear European perspective now, this could have severe consequences for the entire Union. Believe me, there will be no vacuum in the region, there are other geopolitical forces willing to step in there quickly.
These six countries have some of the youngest populations in Europe and many have huge youth unemployment rates of up to 65 per cent. When a young person doesn’t have a job, they have little choice for securing a good future apart other than emigration. These young people are easily vulnerable to foreign influences. We cannot allow the Western Balkans to continue to be a source of instability.
Delivering a secure and stable Europe is a key Bulgarian presidency priority. What is the purpose of the upcoming Varna summit with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan?
Both Turkish and European leaders have exchanged some heated statements via the media. But we cannot break our relations with Turkey without due consideration of the fact that the security of the entire continent depends on this to a certain extent.
Turkey is fulfilling its EU migration commitments. We need to communicate all our problems in an honest dialogue with Turkey and this should happen in a constructive tone. This is why we have planned the Varna meeting. There are a number of topics that need to be discussed, such as cooperation and human rights violations as well as Ankara’s European perspective.
Ratification of the Istanbul convention has caused controversy in Bulgaria and raised concern in Brussels. What’s the current situation?
The government decided to withdraw the ratification bill for the Council of Europe convention on the prevention and combatting of violence against women and domestic violence. There have been serious reactions to the convention both from the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the Grand Mufti of the Muslim denomination in Bulgaria, as well as from various political forces with huge fears planted in society.
We are a government elected by the people - more than once - and we are obliged to comply with what the people want. The Constitutional Court is due to rule on the convention. However, now that the ratification bill has been withdrawn, there will be more time for wide-ranging debates. This way, we can weigh all the opinions on the topic in a more relaxed political and social atmosphere.
You have said that Bulgaria may apply, before the summer, to the EU exchange rate mechanism (ERM II). What is driving this push towards joining the euro and how realistic is the summer deadline?
The adoption of the euro is an obligation of the Bulgarian state, deriving from the treaty of accession to the EU. In more than 10 years of membership, we have proven to be a loyal and disciplined country, one which strictly respects the Maastricht euro-convergence criteria.
Currently, the country meets all the membership criteria on inflation, budget deficit, government debt and long-term interest rates. The expected benefits of euro area membership are increasing the trust of foreign investors, achieving a lower and steady level of interest rates as a result of a single monetary policy. Increasing the trade integration of the country would also lead to higher economic growth.
Currently, Bulgaria consistently meets the criteria for entry into the euro area with a relatively high economic growth, which is expected to continue in the medium-term. It is precisely for these reasons that the moment is right for Bulgaria to take the next step towards the adoption of the single European currency.
Balkan connectivity and digital skills are priority issues for the Bulgarian presidency. In what ways will you drive these issues forward during your six-month stint at the EU’s helm and what goals have you set for these two issues?
Connectivity and digitalisation are indeed among the priorities of our presidency and we are also pleased to see that they are covered by the flagship initiatives of the European Commission strategy for enhanced engagement with the Western Balkans, adopted in February.
We will not spare any time or effort; we will start working with the EU institutions and the member states and we will do our best to implement these initiatives as early as possible. What we want to achieve is increased connectivity both within the Western Balkans and between them and the EU in all possible aspects.
This has been an important part of the negotiations that I have been holding with EU and Western Balkans leaders - in London during the recent EBRD Western Balkans Investment Summit and in Sofia at a lunch with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and leaders of the region.
Strengthening the relationship between the EU and the Western Balkans is not something you can achieve within a day or even in six months, but we can start laying the foundations now by carefully planning, prioritising and by securing funding, while at the same time paying special attention to the development of transport and energy connectivity.
By implementing the digital agenda, we would like to achieve some immediate and tangible results that will be appreciated by all citizens, such as reducing roaming costs and facilitating access to broadband. In the long run, developing digital skills - inherent in the agenda - will help improve people’s lives in so many ways.