Ognyan Zlatev, Head of the European Commission's Representation in Bulgaria:
Western Balkans have historic opportunity
We are trying to suggest to EU membership candidates that it is time for them to step up and start reforming their countries
17 April, 2018
Close-up: Ognian Zlatev has been Director of the Information Centre for the Open Society Institute and Manager of the BBC Centre in Sofia. He was founder of the Media Development Centre in Bulgaria and a founding member and President of the South-East European Network for Professionalisation of the Media. He has worked as a consultant for UNESCO, World Bank and OSCE and served on the Managing Board of Bulgarian National Television. From 2011 to early May 2013, he was Head of Communication at the EC Directorate General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion. He has extensive professional experience in communication, media development and NGO management.- Mr Zlatev, Bulgaria's Presidency of the Council of the EU is already halfway into its term. What is the European Commission's assessment of the work done so far? - EC President Jean-Claude Juncker noted during one of his most recent visits to Sofia on 1 March that Bulgaria has been impressive with the quality of its work during its first ever Presidency of the Council of the EU. Let me point to several examples of what has been accomplished by the Bulgarian diplomacy and administration. An agreement in principle was reached between the two co-legislative institutions in the EU ( European Parliament and the Council of the EU) on the content of the Posted Workers Directive. It is among the Juncker Commission's social area priorities and will provide social protection to people employed in the sector, regardless of their location, on “equal pay for equal work” basis. In addition, a set of rules aimed at removing obstacles to e-commerce was adopted, banning the so-called “unjustified geo-blocking”. EU Member States adopted a roadmap for the implementation of the Permanent Structured Cooperation as an important step towards joint defence capabilities and a common policy on the defense front - another high priority identified by President Juncker. The Council also agreed on measures against avoiding corporate taxation in the part regarding tax intermediaries. On 26 March, the Bulgarian EU Presidency also reached an agreement with the EP on the new regulation on monitoring CO2 emissions and fuel consumption of new heavy-duty vehicles, a crucial step in meeting our joint commitment negotiated at the COP21 in Paris. These are just some of the legislative results of our Presidency. - Did the EU manage to achieve its goals at the summit with President of Turkey Recep Erdogan in Varna? - This meeting was in the interest of both sides. We, the EU, clearly communicated to the Turkish president the issues that are causing differences and that go against our values. These include subjects like respect of fundamental rights and freedoms, the rule of law, in addition to good relations with neighbouring countries like Greece and Cyprus, and adhering to international law. On the other hand, we discussed topics on which we have a shared interest with Turkey like migration, combating terrorism, and the energy sector. We highly appreciate the efforts made by the government in the organisation of that meeting. Turkey is a strategically important neighbour, ally and partner of the EU - the fact that we do not agree with some of its government's actions does not mean that we should discontinue our dialogue. On the contrary, it is important that the lines of communication remain open and we continue to cooperate. It is in the interest of our citizens that we protect our borders, track travelling terrorists effectively and secure alternative routes for energy supplies like the Southern Gas Corridor, which runs through Turkey. Regarding migration and the refugee problem, the EU and Turkey continue to be very close partners. The EU has provided significant support for the improvement of the quality of life of over 3M Syrian refugees on Turkish territory, and in Varna we reaffirmed our unwavering commitment to continue this support. - Sofia's optimism that the process of the Western Balkan nations' accession to the EU may be accelerated does not seem to be shared in Brussels. How far is the EC willing to compromise on this issue, because it is clear that not all countries meet the requirements? - Moderate optimism is always a good ally to success. In February, the EC adopted a strategy for “A credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans”. This document spells out the ways to accelerate not only the accession process but also the economic progress of the region with concrete initiatives even before the countries officially join the EU. The new element is that we are creating a historic opportunity for Western Balkan countries to take advantage of, a gesture that was not extended to Bulgaria and Romania back in the day, for example. This strategy is not intended to guarantee the leading candidates accession in 2025. It is not intended to give false hope or create unrealistic expectations. Neither is the goal to change the accession criteria, they remain in the spirit of “you get what you have earned”. We are talking about a period of about seven years, over which many other events will happen that will decide the European future of Serbia and Montenegro, and the other four countries in the region, for that matter. Their governments are facing a long and hard road in not only opening and closing negotiation chapters, but implementing effective and irreversible reforms in key spheres such as rule of law and combating corruption and organised crime. In other words, we are trying to suggest to our Balkan partners that it is time to step up and accelerate the pace of reforming their countries. On the other hand, we want to show Member States that the enlargement process is not an end in itself but a critical factor to the bloc's prosperity. It is not about the EC making compromises but about whether the candidate countries have the will to meet the requirements. - How is the public discussion on Europe's future going? What have people, mainly young people, been saying about the kind of Europe they want to live in? - The EC regularly organises citizens' dialogues with the participation of EC and EP members and representatives of national governments, local and regional authorities, and civil society. This direct interaction with people is very important, so they can feel that their voice is heard in Brussels and that their opinion matters. Since 2012, there have been nearly 500 such public discussions in 160 locations. Over 88,000 people from all social spheres have participated in these sessions held under the Juncker Commission. In 2017 alone, five prime ministers, 53 national ministers or secretaries of state and regional politicians, and 34 members of the European Parliament, including its speaker, took part in the citizens' dialogues organised by the EC. These discussions allow us to get a clearer picture of what people's concerns are and how they see the evolution of the EU, which is why the EC will make these dialogues a more frequent event in the time remaining until the EP elections in May 2019. The latest such discussion in Bulgaria featured Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Vytenis Andriukaitis and Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmstrom. To a large degree, my impression so far aligns with what Eurobarometer surveys show - young Bulgarians have a positive view of both the present and the future of the EU. But they want even more effective and concrete steps from Europe towards solving their problems - in areas like finding a job, education, the social aspect. In order to address these expectations, we proposed the establishment of a so-called Pillar of Social Rights. But this project, along with the others aimed at reforming the EU, must first be discussed with citizens and we have to convince them that this is the right path.- Are you concerned by the rising populism in Europe? As evidenced by the latest elections in Italy, Eurosceptics are more flexible and able to manoeuvre better in achieving their goals.- Concern and fear cannot be a solution. Political courage is needed to tell people the truth, even when unpopular measures are necessary. Eurosceptics exploit our inability to clearly and consistently explain and defend the benefits of united Europe. Anti-European parties rely on people not being well-informed and therefore being afraid from the unknown. This strategy fails the moment some courage in defending the EU is demonstrated. We saw this with the success of Emmanuel Macron in the French presidential elections. The conclusion is that Eurosceptics and populists should not be ignored - quite the opposite, their arguments must be refuted. - Migration remains a sore subject for the EU. Bulgaria vowed that the Dublin Regulation will be amended during its Presidency. Will this come to fruition? - We, in the EC, are confident that an agreement for the overhaul of the common migration policy will be reached between Member States. We have made a comprehensive proposal that would ensure predictability and good management of migration, a long-term and often unavoidable phenomenon. We have already fulfilled some of our priorities on external border protection through a new and already operating European Border and Coast Guard Agency. We are also actively working with countries of origin of illegal migrants by providing them with additional financial aid for development. The idea is to examine root causes of the migration problem and give these people future in their own countries. We are also signing new readmission agreements. The other aspect of the issue has to do with solidarity within the EU. It is unacceptable for countries on the first line of defence of the bloc's external borders to handle the consequences of a sudden migration wave alone. The care for people with right to a refugee status should be shared and this is exactly what our proposal envisions. We are trusting in the Bulgarian EU Presidency and we appreciate immensely the valiant effort it is making to achieve a compromise. - The new Multiannual Financial Framework of the EU is being drafted. Is there any threat of policies important to Bulgaria, such as the cohesion policy, being sacrificed at the altar of more pressing issues like compensating for Brexit, defence, etc.? - No, it is true that with the UK leaving, the EU budget will lose a significant chunk of its money, the one the British contributed. But we already have several alternative options. The EC presented to Member States three different scenarios of how to distribute the joint funds over the financial period starting in 2020. They give EU leaders a clear idea of what we want and what we can achieve. For example, if the bloc's leaders agree to adhere to the often repeated promise to improve the protection of the EU's external borders, it will cost between €20bn and €25bn for a period of seven years, while the entire border management system will cost up to €150bn. The final decision on the overall sum of the budget will be made by the 27 Member State governments. They may decide to stick to the same amount as before by raising the proceeds from national contributions or other potential sources, including some type of a European-wide tax. Of course, they may opt to reduce the amount of the common budget, which will inevitably affect all policies funded by the EU. At this point, the good news for Bulgaria is that neither of the EC's three scenarios is set to cut down funds under the so-called cohesion policy for countries with GDP under 75% of the EU average (like Bulgaria). Funding for Bulgaria will not be stemmed in neither of the three scenarios, but countries like Italy and Spain are in danger of seeing the money for their poorer regions reduced. The talks are yet to be held. On 2 May, the EC will announce the content of the Multianual draft budget, which will be the starting point of discussions between Member States. - Is it paradoxical that it has been such a long time and yet EU Member States are still not responding to the EC clearly stating that Bulgaria is ready to be a member of the Schengen area? - EC President Jean Claude-Juncker personally stood up for Bulgaria and Romania last year. Many of the Member States share the EC's view that these two countries meet all requirements for joining the Schengen area. Not long ago, Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos expressed confidence that Bulgaria and Romania will soon be part of the Schengen area.