Bulgaria is dynamic, innovative and entrepreneurial, has a higher percentage of women working in ICT than any other EU member state and is at the forefront of Europe’s digital transformation.
That was the message emerging from the Parliament Magazine’s recent Bulgarian EU Council Presidency reception. The event in the European Parliament was hosted by Bulgarian EPP group deputy Vladimir Urutchev. Opening the reception, organised with the assistance of Microsoft’s EU office, Urutchev, said it was an opportunity to show how his country was helping to “open up digitisation possibilities”.
He added, “We hope that this will help raise awareness about our dynamic economy and the innovation and entrepreneurship taking place in the country. This is the true face of Bulgaria. For Bulgarian entrepreneurs, there are no borders that cannot be crossed and no obstacles that cannot be overcome.
“Despite this yet most people, here in Brussels and in the member states, don’t really know that Bulgaria is an innovative country, with highly motivated entrepreneurs running successful, often global businesses.”
Urutchev also highlighted Sofia’s presidency focus on the Western Balkans, saying, “Bulgaria is, of course, part of the Balkans and we feel a sense of responsibility for the countries in this region. So we decided to use the Bulgarian presidency to put the western Balkans’ EU perspective high on the EU agenda.
“Three months in, I think we have succeeded in this, as we the issue on the agenda of every EU institution at the moment. We hope this will bring a fresh impetus to discussions on the EU perspective of the western Balkans.”
John Frank, Vice-President of EU government affairs at Microsoft, spoke of the “digital transformation” taking place globally and added, “this is something that is affecting all our lives”.
Frank, who heads the company’s government affairs team in Brussels, welcomed the 300+ audience, saying, “Tonight, we’re celebrating the first half of the Bulgarian presidency and of course
Bulgaria is playing an important role on major issues affecting the digitisation of our society. We are all working on the same issues, we share the same broad goals of bringing forth a digital society and a digital single market to benefit Europe.”
Keynote speaker Lilyana Pavlova, Minister for the Bulgarian presidency spoke about Bulgaria’s “dynamic face”, adding, “Bulgaria is the unknown treasure of Europe but is one that I hope others will share, both as tourists and as investors.”
The focus and priority of the presidency - and the Austrian presidency to follow - she said, was on completing the digital single market by the end of the year.
“This is something that can change our lives and, in many ways, is already a reality. Digitalisation is both a great opportunity and also a challenge, as we have seen most recently with the Facebook data scandal and the fact that surveys show 80 per cent of citizens are concerned about the potential misuse of their personal data.”
She said that around 80 per cent of those employed in the ICT sector in Bulgaria are under the age of 35, adding, “I hope that with the support of other Balkan states we can become the ICT hub of Europe and of the western Balkans. This is a good way for us to stop the brain-drain of our young people. It is a great opportunity and we have already seen results in this area, with young Bulgarians that went abroad to find work and study, coming back to work in our ICT sector”.
On Western Balkan enlargement, Pavlova said that Bulgaria’s position as both a Balkan country and an EU member state place it in a unique position to assist neighbouring states in the region on their EU perspective.
“Enlargement is obviously important to the Western Balkans. But at the same time, we have to be frank with those countries that for most of them there is still much hard work to be done. MEPs and EU policymakers however have to understand that without the Western Balkans the EU project is incomplete.”
Lora Borrisova, head of cabinet for Bulgaria’s European Commissioner Mariya Gabriel, said member states’ investment in R&D lags behind that of the US, Japan and South Korea. Greater investment was needed in areas such as cyber security, connectivity and innovation, she argued.
Borrisova said that the EU had “delivered” in several related areas, such as roaming, but meeting future digital needs was not something the European Commission could do alone. “It will need a collective effort.”
Under-investment in R&D should be taken into consideration in the ongoing negotiations on the EU’s post-2020 multiannual financial framework, she argued.
Kalin Tomov, head of competition at Bulgaria’s Permanent Representation to the EU, also highlighted the “entrepreneurial spirit” in Bulgaria. “We pay a lot of attention to developing entrepreneurship and to giving priority to growing Bulgaria’s economy as well as to reaping the benefits of the single market”.
Tomov said the second half of the Bulgarian EU presidency would continue to focus on industry and innovative policy with the aim being to “help European companies to meet digital challenges now and in the years to come. We are still in the middle of our presidency, so it is important to continue this work.”
The reception also sought to highlight Bulgaria’s innovation and digitalisation achievements through presentations by some of the country’s leading entrepreneurial experts.
The Bulgarian European Circle, an initiative run working within the Brussels EU Bubble, ensured that several Bulgarian organisations had the opportunity to address EU policymakers and stakeholders at the event.
Sasha Bezuhanova, founder of MOVE.BG, an organisation that works with over 400 companies in Bulgaria said, “We are living in a new reality, a digital world that has implications in so many ways. These companies are a true asset because they are developing ideas and innovating on a daily basis. It is a great way of expanding geographical borders,” she added.
“In Bulgaria, people are developing cybersecurity solutions, big data analysis, cloud computing and blockchain-based solutions. This is happening in Bulgaria but serving the whole world.
“Today, Bulgaria has the highest percentage of women working in ICT - 31 per cent - twice as many as the EU average. We are working on supporting, stimulating and motivating young women and girls to choose engineering careers and to follow an entrepreneurial path.”
Bulgarian EPP group MEP Eva Maydell said her country was helping to provide “ICT leadership” and was at the forefront of a “technological revolution. This event today is important in highlighting our vision for a digital future. When it comes to technological innovation, Bulgaria is a leader. Indeed, innovation in this field is, I believe, evolving. The centre of gravity is moving eastwards and Bulgaria can become a regional centre in the ICT industry.”
Maydell also commented on the link between connectivity and Balkan enlargement, saying, “One of the presidency’s most important priorities is to provide a clearer EU perspective and connectivity around the Western Balkans.
“The idea is to put this issue back on the table here in the EU institutions and to provide a practical guide to where this perspective could focus. This is why the topics of digital connectivity, infrastructure connectivity, railway connectivity, educational connectivity are extremely important for the presidency in providing concrete, practical aspects.”
Irina Staneva, investment manager at Bulgaria artificial climbing wall manufacturers Walltopia highlighted that the company, created by a pair of entrepreneurial climbers is the biggest manufacturer of artificial climbing walls in the world with projects in more than 50 countries, said, “I’m really glad to be here in the European Parliament to be able to share our success story with EU policymakers.”
Evgeni Angelov, Chair of the Bulgarian private equity and venture capital association said the event was an opportunity, “to share some of the success stories that we’ve had in Bulgaria over the last six years. We’ve created several venture capital seed growth equity funds with structural fund money. We believe this is a better way to fund innovation, using investments rather than grants.”
Angelov added, “We have one of the largest structural fund programmes that uses money in this way and so we are here today to share our positive experiences.”
Entrepreneur Peter Statev, of the Bulgarian Association of Software companies and chair of the ICT Cluster foundation, said high-tech business in Bulgaria were growing rapidly and the country had become a leader across South-Eastern Europe.
“Today high-tech and innovative SMEs from Bulgaria are operating all over the world, addressing the global market. There are a lot of innovative and creative people in Bulgaria and South East Europe.”
Bringing the evening to a close, Jeremy Rollison, director of EU government affairs at Microsoft, said the reception had been a chance to hear about the innovation taking place in Bulgaria and its entrepreneurial spirit.
He said, “We’re really happy to be part of an event that has such a positive message around entrepreneurship and start-ups that are happening in Bulgaria, particularly around digital transformation. We’re happy to be a part of that, with some of the software solutions we’re providing with our involvement with the ICT cluster in Sofia and at the policy level here in Brussels. As we saw this evening, there are a lot of positive and exciting things happening in and coming out of Bulgaria.”