IBNA Interview: Zaharieva: Bulgaria’s EU presidency ‘fully in focus’ of all ministries

IBNA Interview: Zaharieva: Bulgaria’s EU presidency ‘fully in focus’ of all ministries

“In the forthcoming Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU, one of our main focuses will be to enhance the European perspective of the Western Balkans”, Bulgaria’s Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva stated in an exclusive interview to IBNA during the 2nd Rhodes Conference on Security and Stability.

Read the full interview below

Minister, first of all I would like to congratulate you for taking up your duties. How important for you is the Rhodes Conference for Security and Stability?

Thank you very much. This is my second visit abroad in my capacity as a Minister of Foreign Affairs. The first one was for the Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels. The fact that my participation in the Rhodes conference is among my first visits as a Foreign Minister illustrates its importance to us.  We are not exactly an Eastern Mediterranean country, but at the same time it is in our interest to keep a high-level of dialogue and contacts with our neighbours. Moreover, Bulgaria, like Greece, is an external border of the European Union. Therefore, just like our hosts, we see the merit of creating a positive agenda and shifting the focus on soft security measures when discussing the challenges in the Eastern Mediterranean. Security does not only mean military actions, exchange of information among our security services, but also prevention. I mean conflict prevention through diplomacy. By creating an enabling environment for young people through education, culture, science, research, and connecting people-to-people, we can work for preventing radicalization.   A positive agenda can be created  using all levels of exchange of experience, contacts, between our universities, between our academies of science, between young people, between young diplomats. A good example is the School for Politics that was set up with the assistance of Bulgaria in Tunisia. Such institutions can contribute for tackling the root causes of the contemporary challenges in the Middle East and North Africa. Apart from that, regrettably, last night’s terrorist attack in Manchester shows very clearly that the problems are not just in the frontline states but have a wide impact on all other countries.

I am delighted that during this second conference we came up with practical actions that will facilitate the work of the conference from now on. Thеse practical actions are defined in the declaration that was adopted by all participants.

Relations between Greece and Bulgaria have been greatly upgraded. What are the next moves in this collaboration?

The excellent level of cooperation that we have achieved despite previous historical difficulties between Bulgaria and Greece can serve as an example to other countries. This is an observation that I and my Greek colleague share. And that is how one should operate in the world of today, in contemporary diplomacy. We have agreed to continue coordination and discussions at every level on all issues that are important to Europe and to our two countries, such as: the future of Europe,  Brexit, our region, the Balkans and their future. I can only add that relations at all levels are good and we are preparing a visit of the Bulgarian President to Athens in June while a meeting between the two Prime Ministers is to be scheduled in due course. We have to meet the expectations of our peoples: we know that nowadays Bulgarians and Greeks are very close  friends. Greece is the most popular destination for Bulgarian tourists: 1.2 million Bulgarians visited the country last year and Greece was number one  destination for Bulgarians in the first few months of this year. There are no unresolved issues and I am sure that this will continue for millennia ahead.

What are Bulgaria’s expectations for the NATO conference on May 25?

We expect to reconfirm the commitments undertaken at the NATO Summit in Wales, and there will be a very important discussion on the participation of NATO as an Alliance in the Global coalition against Daesh and against terrorism as a whole. Bulgaria adopted its National strategy on defence, undertook the commitment, for investing 2 percent of its GDP in defence by 2020. We expect an important political sign, most of all to people, to our citizens, and to people living in conflict zones, that NATO will continue to devote every effort in the fight against terrorism. And that is important because it is apparent that terrorism knows no borders. Those will be the most important decisions, and messages from, at the Summit on May 24 and 25.

What is your assessment of the current situation in the Western Balkans, and in particular, the continuing political crisis in Skopje?

I am delighted that, last week, there was the handing over of a mandate, from President Gjorge Ivanov to Zoran Zaev. This provides the opportunity for a resolution to a political crisis that has been continuing for almost two years. It is in the interest of Bulgaria to have stability in all its neighbouring countries. From that point of view, both the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and  I , –without ever intefering in domestic politics,have expressed concern about the violence that took place in Skopje and called for a solution through the means of democracy. Behaving in a way that is against the Constitution will not lead to a solution. And we hope for the formation of a stable government, which will create prospects, most of all for the people of that country. We expect to have a partner with whom we can continue to hold discussions on the Good-neighbourly relations treaty  based on the Declaration  signed by the two Prime Ministers in 1999. I would like to emphasise once again, we hope for a stable unified state with which to have  good neighbourly relations, as with all other states in our region.

In the light of the above, need we assess the prospects for EU expansion in the Western Balkans as effectively moribund?

In the forthcoming Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU, one of our main focuses will be to enhance the European perspective of the Western Balkans. I know that, unfortunately, this is not a popular topic at the moment, among member countries. Moreover at the start of his term in office European Commission’s President Jean-Claude Juncker said that during his term, there would not be further enlargement. But especially for Bulgaria and Greece, we have an interest in stability, democratic institutions, and the prosperity of our neighbours. We shall work, we shall assist them with practical experience to meet the membership requirements. A European future should be the prospect as soon as possible, when our neighbours are ready. The difficult history of the Balkans is also a reason for European prospects and a European future. We should give motivation to the people living in those countries and it is really in our interest, to have a clear plan when this can happen.

Are you optimistic that Bulgaria’s policy priorities regarding the Brexit negotiations, in particular the safeguarding of the rights of EU citizens in the UK, will be realised?

It is very important for us to continue along the approach of the European Commission, the phased approach, and to remain united in the negotiations with the UK. At our meeting with the other EU foreign ministers in Brussels on the 15th of May, we discussed the safeguarding of the rights of citizens of the EU Member States, and the financial commitments. I am an optimist that this can be achieved, if we remain united and in solidarity regarding these negotiations. At the time of the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council, it is highly probable that the negotiations will reach a critical phase, and we are ready to be a constructive Presidency, to listen to the UK, the Commission and the member states. I hope that the tone will ease after the elections in the UK and I am convinced we will reach an agreement that is in the interest of both sides. You know that we did not want this outcome but we have to respect the decision of the British people in the referendum.

Do you agree that Brexit is likely to overshadow all other issues during Bulgaria’s holding of the rotating presidency of the EU in the first half of 2018?

That will be one of the main challenges facing our Presidency, because genuinely the negotiations will reach a critical phase. Certainly, we will be highlighting some priorities, and with certainty, we will be dealing with important dossiers during the time of our Presidency. This is our first Presidency, that has been  brought  six months ahead of the planning, which was a challenge in itself. Moreover, you know that we had a political crisis, the resignation of the government, which made things more difficult. In the new government, we have a minister responsible for the EU Presidency and  it is  also fully in the focus of all ministries, the whole cabinet, of all experts. I am convinced we shall be ready, and we will have a good and successful Presidency, that will lead to a stronger EU, an EU that fairly deals with all issues  important to the member states.

What is your view on the future of the Eastern Partnership and what points will you be making at the upcoming ministerials in June?

At the most recent Council on the 15th, we discussed the Eastern Partnership, and preparations for the General Affairs Council, as well as the preparations of the Eastern Partnership Summit, which will be held in November. Member states are united that partner countries should be differentiated, each to its own merits. We had great success with this approach especially regarding the Association Agreements or the visa-free travel for short term stays for example with Ukraine. I am happy to say that the visa-waiver to Ukraine was granted some 10 days ago. The relations with the partner countries should be also based on the level of their ambition vis-à-vis the EU. The political association and economic integration with Ukraine, for example, is already very advanced and we are very near to signing a partnership agreement with Armenia as well. We should advance with the talks with Azerbaijan and Belarus. So the approach is different according to the degree of interest on the side of these countries. Our call to them is to continue with the reforms because the reforms are done to benefit the citizens of the respective countries and not just to benefit the EU and Brussels.

The relations between Bulgaria and Turkey, there was some unpleasantness lately, unpleasantness in relation to the election and to some parties. How are the relations now?

Turkey is our ally in NATO, a very important trading partner, an important ally in the security domain, and a country that is a friend. And precisely because of that, every attempt to interfere in our domestic affairs is deemed absolutely inappropriate. Regrettably there were such attempts before the elections. Such interference is unacceptable, no matter its source. We have asked the Ambassador of our friendly neighbour to be careful about his public statements and messages. I hope that relations will be back to normal and the calmness will prevail./IBNA