H.E. Anzej Franges: Integration of Western Balkans is in EU's interest

We need to improve on our strengths as well as reduce our dependencies

Photo: BTA

One of our main goals will be to work with all Member States towards a more resilient Europe, better prepared to meet future challenges, says H.E. Anzej Franges, Ambassador of Slovenia to Sofia, in an interview to BTA at the start of Slovenia's presidency of the Council of the EU.

Your Excellency, what are the most ambitious goals of Slovenia's upcoming presidency of the Council of the EU? In your opinion, what type of results over the next six months would make the presidency a success?

The Covid-19 pandemic affected not only Europe but the entire world and changed our everyday life, economies and social interactions. It also impacted Slovenia's preparation for the presidency. The programme is the culmination of all the work that was done and the cooperation between the current trio members - Slovenia, Germany and Portugal.

We should keep in mind that most European dossiers are processed by multiple presidencies, which makes coordination, cooperation and effort to secure enough support for moving the most important dossiers forward crucial to the success of Slovenia's presidency.

Four key areas outline the Slovenian presidency's priorities - resilience, recovery and strategic autonomy of the EU; Conference on the Future of Europe; a union of the European way of life, the rule of law and equal criteria for all; a credible and secure European Union, capable of ensuring security and stability in its neighbourhood.

As you can see, one of our main goals will be to work with all Member States towards a more resilient Europe, better prepared to meet future challenges. It is our hope that we can contribute to a more effective response to various crises, especially ones that overwhelm the capacity of individual Member States or have significant cross-border effects. Our focus will be on improving preparedness, especially when it comes to pandemics and cyber resilience. Of course, the task of ensuring a resilient Europe will be closely tied to the successful recovery of the Union, rooted in the digital, green and just transition.

We live in unpredictable times; at any moment, we could face challenges that we cannot currently foresee. This is why, a key element to improving EU resilience is the bloc achieving open strategic autonomy, while observing the rules of free trade. We need to improve on the strengths of the EU as well as reduce its dependencies. We need to be able to maintain the integrity of the single market during a crisis.

Among the Slovenian presidency's priorities are strengthening the resilience of the EU as well as promoting green and digital transition. What are the main aspects you will be working on in this regard?

Europe's economic recovery is based on green transition and digital transformation. Our expectation is that during our presidency the NextGenerationEU and the Recovery and Resilience Facility will be operating in full swing. Member States have prepared their recovery and resilience plans, with a minimum of 37% earmarked for green transition and 20% for digital transformation. We will work towards swift approval of national plans by the Council in order to allow for the implementation of projects to start.

It is in our common interest that the process runs smoothly and that implementation decisions are adopted within the stipulated timeframe. The Slovenian presidency will be working in close cooperation with the European Commission and the other Member States to ensure that the process is reliable and transparent and that all procedures are conducted in accordance with the regulation on the Recovery and Resilience Mechanism.

As for green transition, the emphasis will be on the Fit for 55 climate and energy legislative package. The main goal is to graduate from announcing the ambitious goal for a 55% reduction in emissions by 2030 to enshrining it into EU law. Let us also not forget the international agenda, especially the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow.

On digital transformation, we will focus our attention on the regulation on digital services and markets. This legislative package will be a priority and we will try to bring the different positions closer so that the Council position can be prepared by the end of the year.

During its own presidency, Bulgaria identified as a priority the European integration of the Western Balkans, a question that has been included in the programmes of the ensuing presidencies. How do you see this topic developing during Slovenia's presidency of the Council of the EU?

Slovenia has always supported the EU integration of the Western Balkans. We see the enlargement process as one of the EU's most successful policies, critical for the region's reforms and development. In our view, it would be a strategic mistake to leave the region behind. The integration of the Western Balkans is in the interest of the EU. After all, we are talking about our immediate neighbours, who are surrounded by Member States.

For all those reasons, Slovenia will strive to support and contribute to the reliable continuation of the EU enlargement process. In this regard, we will also support the political dialogue among and with the countries in the region.

Our plan also includes focusing on the socioeconomic recovery of the Western Balkans. I am referring to economic convergence and integration into EU policies in the fields of transport, energy connectivity, scientific research and innovation, decarbonisation, digitalisation and cyber resilience, with a special emphasis on ensuring a positive perspective for young people in the region. Slovenia will also host an unofficial EU - Western Balkans summit in October.

What are your expectations from the Conference on the Future of Europe, which will also take place during the Slovenian presidency, and what are the main solutions that it can give for the future of Europe?

We are pleased that the Conference on the Future of Europe has already begun. During our presidency, Slovenia will have an additional responsibility for representing the Member States in the three EU Institutions of the conference. We recognise also the importance of promoting the conference and actively discussing the future of Europe with respect to meeting the expectations of its citizens. Slovenia finds this “bottom-up” approach of the conference as an opportunity for the European citizens to identify their everyday problems which can be solved at EU level.

The conference must be dedicated to the European citizens who have the opportunity to honestly express their views on Europe - what Europe they wish to live in, both in the near future and after 10 years.

What are the most important lessons that Europe has learned from the Covid-19 pandemic?

The pandemic has affected us all. There is not a single country in Europe that has been spared. There cannot be effective solutions only at national level. Even if one of the countries does everything properly, it would not mean much if others do not do it. The most important lesson is that solidarity, cooperation and coordination were crucial in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. The EU has changed and achieved much since its beginning. We should not forget that we managed to reach an agreement on the Recovery and Resilience Facility and the NextGenerationEU instrument, and now is the time to implement them. The common purchasing of vaccines was also extremely important, as was the application of the EU Digital Covid Certificate, which will facilitate our safe free movement inside the EU.

Citizens are sometimes critical of the effectiveness of the EU, and yes, that is something we need to focus on. But let us not forget that despite certain problems, we have shown that we can be united when needed. We can continue building on this foundation.

Bulgaria hosts the Summit of the Three Seas Initiative on 8 and 9 July, in which Slovenia also participates. What will be the role of this Initiative for Europe?

The Three Seas Initiative is a flexible political platform at the presidential level. It is becoming more successful and significant not only because it offers an opportunity for summits, but also because it is growing and deepening in terms of practical cooperation. In parallel with this Summit, business forums are being organised, where companies and institutions can meet together. This fact gives the Three Seas Initiative an important additional dimension.

We also see great potential in the Three Seas Initiative Investment Fund, which will enable the countries in the region to work on key infrastructure projects based on mutual interests.

Tourism is among the most affected areas by the pandemic. Can we expect Slovenian tourists in our country this summer? And is Bulgaria popular for holidays among Slovenes?

Yes, indeed, tourism was among the economic sectors which were most affected by the pandemic. Slovenia, like other countries, has introduced measures to support tourism. But it seems that one year will not be enough for full recovery.

We hope that the introduction of the EU Digital Certificate will make travelling easier, because tourism cannot recover without foreign visitors. However, there is uncertainty about the Covid-19 pandemic, and travellers should keep in mind that the pandemic is not over yet.

I had many opportunities to get to know Bulgaria not only as an ambassador, but also as a tourist together with my family. It is a wonderful country with amazing history, beautiful nature and very nice and hospitable people, which I can truly recommend to everyone to visit. I am glad that before the pandemic many Slovenes were happy to come to your country and enjoy your hospitality. I hope and at the same time I am confident that this summer we will be able to travel freely and safely again.

The interview was originally published by BTA.

Similar articles