On the sidelines of the 2nd Ministerial Meeting in Thessaloniki, the Bulgarian Minister of Interior, Valentin Radev, spoke to Spiros Sideris about how united a front the Balkan countries that participated present (Albania, Bulgaria, fYROMacedonia, Greece) and their common efforts to work even closer. During this particular period, the main issues concerning all four states are immigration, organised crime and the unity which needs to be cherished and preserved, not only among the four, but across the Balkans.
How important is this meeting between these countries for the security and stability of the Balkan region?
That’s what we have discussed, that this meeting – the second, by the way – is very important to us for information exchange. On principle, we know each other or meet in Brussels, and discuss issues specifically related to these topics -immigration, terrorism- where there are good examples of dealing with it, where there are problems. We talk about organised crime, about wildfires, which is also a problem in the region. Everyone shares their experience and along with that, we cite good examples, because up to now, these four countries -Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, and fYROMacedonia and Albania- are helping each other. Recently we had a problem in Bulgaria, a very big fire in the Kresna Gorge. For dozens of years we had not had something of this scale, and (thus) we made some calls. The colleagues were ready to send a helicopter immediately. The colleague who is hosting us, (Greek Foreign Minister) Nikolaos (Kotzias), recommended that we carried out joint training exercises. Joint activities that would involve Bulgaria and Greece, and in that way, when action is required, it will go smoothly. Of course, the main topics were migration, terrorism, and organised crime. Just to exchange information, just to discuss matters of common interest to all the countries, that was sufficient.
Which is the most important of those three topics – terrorism, migration, organised crime?
The most important, I think, going by what I heard from the colleagues during our meetings, was migration. That is the most important topic for Greece, above all. And certainly among the concerns of fYROMacedonia and Albania, and for Bulgaria, least of all. We (Bulgaria) raised the point that as far as we are concerned, it is resolved to a large extent, with a decrease of 70 to 80 per cent between 2015 and 2017. Thanks to the building of the fence throughout the border with Turkey, the pressure of migration has lessened considerably but as we tell our friends in Europe, there is always the potential danger of it. Because in Turkey, near the Syrian border, I have information (based on data) that there are about four million refugees who are trying to move our way and this worries us. We fear that in the case of some political instability (in Turkey), or other problems that appear, all these people may head to Bulgaria and, (perhaps) the route through Bulgaria, Serbia and Europe may be re-used. A route, which I believe that at the moment we have closed. Our Greek friends are very worried about this possibility and our friend Nikolaos has given us numbers of how many refugees arrive daily in Greece. Needless to say that the assistance from Europe to us and to Greece is continuing. For example, Bulgaria was given 160 million euros, to enrich the fence with cables and radars. Greece is also receiving financial help, as it should, because this is European solidarity. And that is only fair, because as I said, the migrant pressure is continuing and migrants are arriving every day in Greece. Macedonia and Albania did not give numbers but it is clear to me that migrants continue to pass through their territories as well. Migration of course, is the main problem, but let us not forget terrorism.
As far as I know, there’s been information from other countries that there are terrorists among the migrants. Is there a plan to identify who they are?
Yes, of course. The special services are working all the time. That is why it is a good thing that we, the interior ministers, meet, just like the foreign ministers do. We are all trying at fora, such as this, to provide precise data. But let me say that the greatest threat to our countries, that we have identified here, is that members of the Islamic State who are European passport-holders -and we understand that there are about 5000 of them- will try to get back to Europe, because the territory of the Islamic State is constantly shrinking. This is the biggest problem, and as the Albanian foreign minister repeatedly said, we should try to exchange information on this matter as much as we can. We also discussed, apart from these terrorists, the problem of organised crime. People-trafficking, drug-trafficking, and everyone of us gave as much information as is possible to share in such an open forum. So, for yet another time, we emphasised the importance of exchanging information and exchanging it fast. We discussed this with the Albanian and Greek ministers. It has to be rapid because the organised crime people react very quickly to events. We should even call each other directly, so that we can deal with situations immediately when they arise. That is why meetings like this are very helpful because we talk to each other directly. Because, if we are strong and manage to maintain the stability that we have in the Balkans right now, it will be obvious to Europe that there is no terrorism in our territory. What we have, is human-trafficking. It is important for us and for Romania especially, to continue to talk to Europe about how important it is that we become Schengen members, because we are good at guarding our borders and we are good at shutting down the people-trafficking channels. I asked all my colleagues to help each other to convey this message to Europe, in a way that we are heard.
We understand that you have very good co-operation with Greece. What about Turkey? I know you have had a lot of contacts with Turkey lately.
Obviously, you have noticed, we are very happy with this. For many years now we have been saying that we should have a special relationship with Turkey because they are our neighbours. Yes, Turkey has a more complicated relationship with Europe, but Bulgaria and Greece are its neighbours and we, in Bulgaria, are happy that so far this special relationship is working, the diplomacy is working, and presumably the agreement that Europe signed with Turkey is actually working. The border services are in contact with each other and when there is information about the migrants, they tell us, thus we can return them. This is working very well in combination with the fence that we have built and we have promised our Romanian friends, as well as Greece, that in future meetings we will discuss our experiences. But all this is a matter of bilateral relations. This has been instrumental in stopping the migration route; the migration route through Greece, Serbia, occasionally Romania and Bulgaria, to central Europe. The EU is seeing this and is appreciating it. I believe that our Prime Minister is the person who is actually managing to represent Europe (in Turkey) before the Turkish President and, for now, this diplomatic policy is working. To reiterate, this is how we reached a point where migration pressure is minimised and we have only to consider the potential dangers to Bulgaria.
What should we expect about the Bulgarian Presidency of the EU from the beginning of 2018?
Only good things.
My question is particularly about your ministry.
Thank you for that question. Bulgaria takes over the presidency from Estonia, and Austria will be the one after Bulgaria. I hope that we will manage to put on the table the important issues of the region and of the Western Balkans, and we will do this with neutrality, without bias, because we are being guided by the European Council. We want to remain neutral but we also want to persuade our partners that the Balkans is a good place, and will only become better. We are good guardians of the European borders. We are managing the migration flows well. Yes, we are using European money for this, and we are using it in the way that it is intended to be used. We will try to put on the table all the questions regarding the Schengen and Dublin Agreements, but that will be done under Balkan the prism, as far as possible. Our priorities for the presidency of the Council on Justice and Home Affairs, which I will be chairing, have three main objectives: Firstly, to increase security for European citizens -this is actually the strength of our region because some of the migrant routes start here; secondly to control migration more effectively. Here, also, we can demonstrate very good examples, show what we do and ask the others to follow suit; thirdly to ask the others to repeat it (our positive example) in the region of the Mediterranean and Malta, where there are big groups of migrants, and naturally, the border security, where we are doing very well -as I said already- with European help. And of course, we will try to help the Western Balkans – Serbia, fYROMacedonia, and everyone else, should one day be members of the EU. The ambition is that the Balkans will be a good example for European citizens. You can see what is happening in Spain now, Brexit… while at the same time, we in the Balkans are trying to unite…/IBNA