Ekaterina Zaharieva: Three Seas Initiative is open to the future

Crucially, it has the support of such partners as the US, Germany and the European Commission

Europe today has no doubts about whether the Western Balkans belong in the EU, but it needs to be made clear that this process (of accession) depends primarily on the work that each of the six candidate countries does. Their progress is assessed on the basis of the reforms they implement and the individual achievements they accomplish, says Bulgarian Vice PM and Minister of Foreign Affairs Ekaterina Zaharieva.

Minister Zaharieva, what is Bulgaria's vision for the Three Seas Initiative (3SI), which it is hosting this year? What are the country's concrete proposals?

The biggest added value that this initiative brings is that it is open to the future and affords young people the opportunity to grow, it will also be helpful in convincing them to remain residents of our region. In a very direct and practical way, the Three Seas is geared towards regional cooperation and connectivity, in all its aspects, between the Eastern European Member States located along the north-south axis. Crucially, the initiative has the support of such partners as the US, Germany and the European Commission.

Bulgaria has proposed four projects to be funded by the Three Seas Initiative Investment Fund: restoring the railroad connecting Rousse and Varna, digging a tunnel under the Petrohan Pass, expanding the capacity of the gas storage facility in Chiren and constructing the Varna-Burgas highway.  

What is the geopolitical significance of 3SI and what does the US' support mean?

The United States is a strategic partner of the EU and Bulgaria in particular. From the very beginning, this initiative benefits from the strong support of the US, and it has been developing within the framework of the transatlantic partnership. The support of the new US administration was personally expressed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a special video address during the meeting of the foreign ministers and the national coordinators of 3SI, which I hosted on 11 February.

Last year, the US undertook to support the Three Seas Initiative Investment Fund with $1bn for energy projects, and in December, the US International Development Finance Corporation has taken the decision to make the first contribution to the fund amounting to $300m.

How do we help the Western Balkans get closer to the EU?

Europe today has no doubts about whether the Western Balkans belong in the EU, but it needs to be made clear that this process depends primarily on the work that each of the six candidate countries does. Their progress is assessed on the basis of the reforms they implement and on their individual achievements.

What does Bulgaria do? We give an example with our good neighbourly policy, we encourage our friends to work for better connectivity between people and businesses, to overcome the historical contradictions from the past that have been smouldering for decades. More and more students from the Western Balkans study in our country. However, there is still much to be done in order to get to know each other better: to build good roads and railways, which will help both the business and people-to-people contacts. Bulgaria also supports the development of civil society on the Balkans, as well as media, education and science by grant financing of projects. Our country allocates the most funds to the Republic of North Macedonia.

Last year, for the first time the presidency of the Berlin Process Initiative for the Western Balkans was jointly held by two countries - Bulgaria as an EU Member State and the Republic of North Macedonia as a candidate country. This was another step towards achieving the goals of the EU-Western Balkans summit held in Sofia in 2018 for acceleration of regional cooperation and support of the European integration of the Western Balkans' countries through more connectivity in the economy and all other aspects of life.

During the pandemic, the EU mobilised more than €3.3bn for recovery and the fight against the coronavirus in the Western Balkans, which is an expression of the Union's commitment to the region.

Is there external pressure on Bulgaria to give the green light for starting EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia?

No. If some of our neighbours really think that, I can tell them that the EU does not work in this way, and they should not rely on someone waving a finger at us. On the contrary, the position of most Member States is that unresolved bilateral issues must be resolved before joining the EU, as we have enough bad examples of how this can hinder taking decisions when we all gather at the round table in Brussels. Sure, all Member States have national interests, but our goal is to reach consensus solutions, which requires a political culture of conducting dialogue. Our goal is through enlargement to make the EU stronger not weaker.

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Ekaterina Zaharieva was born in Pazardzhik in 1975. She specialised at Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA) in Paris. She speaks German and English. Zaharieva has been serving as a vice PM for judicial reform and minister of foreign affairs since May 2017.

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