Ognian Zlatev: Recent years are unique in Europe's modern history

The very existence of Euroscepticism means that the Union is based on democratic values

The vote of European citizens will show what Europe we all want to live in, what route we want to follow. We should not miss the point that all regulations and directives coming from the EU are legal acts adopted and approved by the European Commission and the MEPs. When we cast our votes, we must know that who will represent us in the European Parliament depends on our decisions, said Head of the European Commission's Representation in Bulgaria.

Mr Zlatev, the European Union has seen off a hard year. In your estimation, what are the major challenges ahead of us - Brexit, migration, issues like security and terrorism?

We can say that the past 7-8 years were a unique period in the modern history of Europe, as it abounded with dynamic challenges. So many events have happened within just several years: refugee and economic crises, the crisis in Greece, new threats to security. The major challenges that we have been overcoming were exactly those. One of them is the persistent migration and the reluctance of some Member States to go ahead in reforming migration policies.

Have we resolved the migration issue?

The problem has not been resolved for good. Only inasmuch as the current statistical data evidence that the influx of immigrants has abated significantly. Set against the migration rate of the first crisis year - 2013, it marked a steady drop, down to 97% of the number of migrants who are trying to enter the European Union. On the other hand, however, we cannot reach consensus yet as to how to cope with people who have already arrived and are on our territory. There are Member States which still oppose the European Commission's proposal for relocation and integration. Opinions are voiced about the necessity of reforming the so-called Dublin Regulation. Unfortunately we again are faced with a political issue which has to be solved by consensus. Hopefully, our Romanian colleagues will be able to conclude the reform of the migration policy on the basis of the agreements reached. Brexit was also one huge issue.

Are there winners and losers in this deal?

Certainly, it is not good when a Member State leaves the EU. This is bad for both parties. On the other hand, though, after the citizens declared their will in a referendum, we must show respect to their decision. Under the circumstances, the agreement we reached is the best. Henceforth we will see what decision will be taken as well as when and if it will be implemented at all. But this is again a hypothetical assessment. The European Commission announced it had something like a Plan B in case the British parliament votes down this deal. In this event, on 29 March - the day when UK's EU membership is to be terminated - Britain will leave without a deal. To us the most important thing is that our future relations are built on a sound foundation. There are fields of cooperation that are equally important to both sides, e.g. security, migration, etc. Another important issue is boosting the digital economy, the economy of the future that will ensure new jobs. With this in view, we have to appreciate the efforts of Bulgarian EU Commissioner Mariya Gabriel. The adoption of the next EU budget after 2021 is also very important to us. We hope it will become a fact next year. To us it is a vital event because otherwise we cannot talk of any perspective. We all want to see the EU even stronger and hope the Union will reinforce its role of a global leader.

Don't you see Euroscepticism as a cause for concern?

No, not at all. The fact that Euroscepticism exists means that the Union is based on democratic values. Anyone can voice their opinion. Giving ear to criticism and looking for constructive elements in it is helpful. However, I don't see how Euroscepticism could provoke a further rift. If you trace back the trend you will see that exactly after Brexit the European Union as a whole was gaining stronger support. And this is very good because the EP elections are forthcoming. I think that the citizens of Europe are increasingly aware that the only viable option is to go ahead together. None of the Member States would be able to cope with the abovementioned challenges alone. That is why I believe that there's no risk of a split. As for those who forecast the EU collapse, for them I would like to quote Mark Twain who said, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” It would be better to concentrate on how to make our European Union even stronger and more successful.

In a nutshell - what was the year that the EU saw off?

It was complicated and difficult but it made us more stalwart. We were up to the challenges. I would say that the EU has asserted itself as a global actor on the world scene. We have managed to reach agreements on duty-free trade with Canada and Japan. Currently negotiations with Latin America are underway. The claims that the EU is no longer an attractive and coveted partner are ungrounded.

Will Europe be able to fight off terrorism?

Terrorism is not only a European problem. It is a global issue, therefore global efforts are needed to counter it. The EU offers new solutions and seeks partnership with the world democratic community in order to join efforts in opposing the terrorist threat. This is the aim of proposals for boosting cooperation between intelligence services, for instance, or exchange of information and policing of borders. Special attention is paid to the so-called cyberterrorism because, as you know, within the past couple of years we have witnessed what can be done via the internet.

The elections to the European Parliament are looming large. As citizens of Europe, what should Bulgarians know about them?

This is an important event because the vote of the Bulgarians and the other European citizens will show what Europe we all want to live in, what route we want to follow. We should not miss the point that all regulations and directives coming from the European Union are legal acts of a kind. These European rules and laws are adopted and approved by the European Commission and the MEPs. And these MEPs are precisely the people whom we elect. So when we cast our votes, we must know that who will represent us in the European Parliament depends on our decisions. The MEPs are empowered by us, and we vest this power in them with our vote. It means that we have to take responsible and well-grounded decisions.

For all that, do you expect that the Bulgarians will be more active this time as compared to the previous election?

I think that in the past year and a half or two the Bulgarian MEPs demonstrated a more active image. The European Parliament as an institution is more familiar to the Bulgarian citizens now. In my estimation, the citizens of Bulgaria are conscientious enough to realise that each voter has to take a stand on the issue of challenges we are facing. My expectations are that the voter turnout will be higher this time, which is good for the entire democratic community. We are doing our best to contribute to it. We take part in various information campaigns and explain to people why going to the polls is important.

The latest monitoring report on Bulgaria was assessed as rather positive. What do we have to work on further?

From the viewpoint of the European Commission, the report, as always, was objective and to the point. Of course, all kinds of interpretations are possible. In fact the Commission gives an account of what has been achieved within the established parameters. In our case it was reported that Bulgaria is doing well, the country has met part of the 17 recommendations set out in the previous report. It gives grounds for the Commission to announce that three out of six benchmarks can be considered provisionally closed. Yet, there are still certain things required. Our achievements have been assessed highly, but at the same time we are told that Bulgaria has some more work to do and was encouraged to accomplish it.

Was it really the most favourable report for our country?

The fact is that for the first time the Commission said that the monitoring on three out of six benchmarks will be provisionally stopped. To me it is a positive assessment. Henceforth we should not slow down the pace, thinking that the work is done, and we should go on working hard. This is to the benefit of the Bulgarian citizens.

And could we hope that next year the Commission will make its last monitoring report on Bulgaria?

Everything depends on the Bulgarian authorities which have to finish the work on the three remaining benchmarks and thus to convince the European Commission that the reforms are irreversible. We would also like to conclude the CVM process successfully. I wouldn't dare making prognoses, but we are optimistic. We see that we have taken the right course.

You said that we still have further work to do. Another big topic is Schengen. Will Bulgaria enter the border-free zone in the nearest future?

In the opinion of the European Commission, the Schengen issue was already closed back in 2011. Since then, the institution every once in a while announces that Bulgaria and Romania have met all the technical requirements. The European Parliament every so often also comes out with resolutions insisting that Bulgaria and Romania be acceded. From this point on, the question is political rather than juridical. Everything depends on the Member States and on the extent of their reservations regarding the Schengen membership of these two countries. From our viewpoint, Bulgaria and Romania have to join the Schengen area, but I cannot say when it will happen. We would like it to happen as soon as possible, but we are not those who are to take the decision.

How would you explain the delay?

I explain it by the political status quo in those Member States which show reservations. I can see no other reason. Elections are held throughout Europe and this is a good pretext to divert the public attention from the problems at home or to seek some form of support. That is why I say that the question is not juridical.

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.

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