Lilyana Pavlova, minister responsible for Bulgaria's Presidency of the Council of the EU:
Our goal is clear European perspective for the Western Balkans
The focus is on young people: we do not want them to be a risk group and potential emigrants but rather capital that we can develop and keep here
12 January, 2018
Close-up: Born 6 December 1977 in Sofia, Bulgaria, Lilyana Pavlova is a Bulgarian politician, currently Minister for the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU 2018. She has been nominated by Political Party GERB, part of the European People’s Party. Lilyana Pavlova was a member of the Council of Ministers in the other two governments with Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, namely Minister of the Regional Developments and Public Works (2014 - January 2017 and 2011 – 2013). Before that she was a Deputy Minister in the same Ministry. Pavlova has a long experience in the field of management of European funds and projects. Lilyana Pavlova has a PhD in Economics. She graduated from the University of National and World Economy in Sofia in 2000, in International Economic Relations.
- Ms Pavlova, over the last few days you repeatedly called for consensus, dialogue and agreement. Is Bulgaria unified and well-prepared coming into its first Presidency of the Council of the EU?
- For the next six months, Bulgaria will be the engine behind the bloc's tasks and agenda, it will combine the roles of a fair mediator, political leader and coordinator. We take this extremely important mission responsibly and we are well-prepared and committed to the national and European cause that is the Presidency of the Council of the EU. We are going to foster an open debate on the main topics regarding the new multiannual financial framework with a view to facilitate a quicker and more effective negotiation process. The Cohesion Policy is inextricably tied to the future of the bloc, because it helps overcome the gap between old and new Member States, the poor and the rich, the East and the West. This is why it is important that the policy is preserved, finding the right balance between financial instruments and grants. It is the only way to meet the needs of the European Union's less developed regions. We acknowledge the fact that it is not feasible to retain the same Cohesion Policy in light of challenges such as migration, terrorism, security threats and the looming Brexit, which will take nearly €15bn out of the annual EU budget. But we are going to try and find consensus and consider arguments in the undoubtedly lively discussions ahead. The Cohesion Policy is a catalyst for investments, growth and job creation in line with the funding available. As a result of the support that our country has received, Bulgaria's GDP increased from 41% of the EU average (with 27 Member States) in 2007 to 48% as of today. The Cohesion Policy's impact is not limited to overcoming the lagging of less developed regions; it is a strategy to promote innovations, competitiveness and sustainable development. There will be several meetings on that key topic, including a General Affairs Council – Cohesion, set for 12 April, as well as a high-level conference on 8 June.
- Two main narratives have emerged with regard to Bulgaria's role as the country holding the EU Presidency. One centres on it as an opportunity for the country to stand out and help formulate the bloc's agenda. On the other hand, politicians, mainly from parties not represented in parliament, argue that everything is for show and close to nothing will depend on us. What is the truth?
- The Presidency is a task in which all Bulgarian institutions must take part and its success hinges on how involved our whole society will be. Our country will follow the principles of transparency and accountability and will strive for a Presidency that is open to the citizens.
In performing their duties, the Bulgarian representatives who will be leading the sessions of the Council of the EU and its lower-level bodies in the first half of 2018 will be guided by the principles of neutrality, impartiality and search for balanced solutions in a bid to maintain the unity of the EU Member States and reflect the bloc's strategic priorities. By speaking on behalf of all EU citizens, our EU Presidency will effectively speak on behalf of the Bulgarian citizens too, because we are an indelible part of Europe and a worthy member of the European family.
- Bulgaria has identified four priorities for its Presidency - the Western Balkans, young people, security and economic growth with a stress on the Digital Single Market. But how many and what are the ongoing topics that we are taking over from Estonia, and are six months enough to close a huge topic like the Western Balkans, for example?
- Before they were identified, the abovementioned priorities were discussed for months during public discussions throughout the country with the participation of representatives of NGOs, the academic community and businesses as well as many social activists. The first one is called Future of Europe and Young People. It is important because young people should not be the losers of the redirection of European Budget funds towards the new challenges facing the continent, so we need to have the right tools to address problems such as youth unemployment, slow rise in salaries, investments in education and equal opportunities.
The second priority is Security and Stability of Europe, with the negotiations regarding the Dublin Regulation, or the system for redistribution of refugees and migrants, being the big challenge here. This priority also covers security, the common defence and efficient control of external borders, without erecting walls between Member States, in addition to topics related to fair and effective adjudication.
The third priority, and herein lies the answer to your question, is European Perspective and Connectivity of the Western Balkans. Our goal is to help provide clear European perspective and connectivity to the Western Balkans - in terms of transport, communications, energy, education and digitisation. Once again, the focus is on young people. We do not want them to be a risk group and potential migrants due to the unemployment rates and conditions in the region but rather capital to be developed and kept here on the Balkans. This is why we need urgent European-level measures and reforms with which to adjust education appropriately and invest in our children and ongoing education. Our fourth priority is Digital Economy and Skills for the Future, transformation and the Digital Single Market.
From the very beginning, we have been working in close cooperation with Estonia and Austria, with which we are in a trio, because we approach the fulfilment of the priorities on the EU's strategic agenda with great responsibility.
The Presidency will work diligently to achieve progress on the adoption of crucial legislative acts. We are taking over a number of files from Estonia, but there are others that will be opened and/or proposed in the first half of 2018.
As far as the Western Balkans are concerned - no one knows the region better than us. We want to provide a clear plan for each of the six countries, without creating false expectations. Even before we assumed the rotating presidency, we scored a point for our neighbours - we put the topic on the EU agenda. On 17 May 2018, we are welcoming the leaders of the EU and the Western Balkans in Sofia for a summit. The European Commission is expected to present a strategy on the Western Balkans in February 2018 and then its regular “Enlargement package” in April, paving the way for conclusions to be approved during the council in June.
- There were expectations that the Presidency will be used as an opportunity to raise the issues of Bulgaria's Schengen area membership and the lifting of the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism for the country and Romania. Why are they not on the list?
- We want to take part in the talks on the new legal framework for the Schengen area, even though we are not yet members. We serve as an external border of the EU, and we protect that frontier more successfully than some Schengen members. I would like to cite the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, who in his last annual State of the Union Address said that the Schengen area of free movement should be opened to Bulgaria and Romania immediately. The fact that we are still left outside is an injustice that I hope will soon be rectified, as Bulgaria met all technical requirements a long time ago. Comments by other European leaders, as well as the recent debate in the European Parliament, are reasons for optimism.
- Some members of the European Parliament said that Bulgaria will serve as the EU's launch vehicle in a difficult time of many challenges. Decisions must be made on issues such as Brexit, the negotiations over the next multiannual financial framework loom large, etc. Are we prepared for this?
- On 19 December, I got the chance to congratulate on the conclusion of the first stage of the EU-UK talks the EU Chief Negotiator for Brexit Michel Barnier, who was on an official visit to Sofia on the eve of Bulgaria's EU Presidency. I assured Commissioner Barnier that the Bulgarian Presidency will provide the necessary support to the negotiating team and make efforts to preserve the unity of the 27 remaining Member States. Because unity makes strength, as is the slogan of our Presidency. For his part, Mr Michel Barnier stressed that the Bulgarian Presidency will be extremely important for the Brexit talks, which must take place in an environment of trust, dialogue and transparency.
- The opposition parties have already indicated that they will not abandon the motion of no confidence they are planning and may introduce to parliament as early as January. Is this a concern for you?
- We live in a democratic country and every citizen is free to express their opinion or protest. History remembers EU Presidencies during which the opposition stirred up antagonism between parties, political instability, early elections, but these are not examples of successful Presidencies of the Council of the EU. We must use the EU Presidency as a unifying cause and move forward, close the book on political disagreements and come together in the name of the national interest.
- Is the ruling coalition stable at the start of 2018?
- It is normal for differences of opinion in the coalition government to exist, but the cabinet is stable, and the parliamentary majority is stable and working to implement the cabinet's programme.
- Do you anticipate attempts to create tension? Parties that were left out of the National Assembly have already called for protests several times.
- Taking advantage of the fact that Bulgaria is the centre of attention is nothing but an attempt to create tension and political instability. Such a situation would reflect badly on Bulgaria.
- Will we be able to provide the guests' security and at the same time avoid disturbing the capital's citizens' everyday life with closed roads and police blockades?
- The law enforcement and the security services must take all necessary measures to ensure the security of all of us. This is why we urge the citizens and visitors of Sofia to show understanding. There will be traffic restrictions due to the transportation of various delegations. Different security zones will be imposed for the area surrounding the National Palace of Culture, the main venue for the events of the Bulgarian Presidency's calendar. The measures to be taken by the responsible security agencies will be announced in advance.
- Besides Sofia, what other cities will host meetings?
- Plovdiv, Varna, Burgas, Veliko Tarnovo, Rousse, Kozloduy, Borovets and Dimitrovgrad.