Which are the main priorities of the Bulgarian presidency of the EU Council 2018?
The priorities are based on the EU Council’s program for the Bulgaria-Estonia-Austria trio and will be finally determined in December to fully reflect the progress made by the current presidency. Logically, they reflect long-tem European priorities. As a future president of the EU Council, Bulgaria prioritizes measures in the area of security and migration; the European future of the West Balkans and their connectivity; the sustainable integrated approach to the Danube and the Black-Sea region; efficient, fast and fair justice; competitive EU single market with a special focus on the digital economy; encouraging entrepreneurship and social innovation; reform of the economic and monetary union; sustainable and future-oriented environment; stable European energy union; labor mobility; the new multiyear financial framework and the cohesion policy of the EU after 2020; simplification and modernization of the common agricultural policy of the EU.
Following are several concrete targets we set in line with these priorities:
– completing the reform of the Common European Asylum System based on the principles of responsibility and real solidarity;
– improving the interoperability of the EU information systems and data bases;
– stage-by-stage adoption of the EU roaming rules in the West-Balkan countries, including gradual reduction in the roaming fees and improving the possibilities for broadband internet access;
– improving the connectivity of the Danube and the Black-Sea region and implementing the EU environmental preservation policies there;
– setting up and launching the European public prosecutor’s office;
– removing the obstacles to cross-border trade and removing the regulatory barriers that hamper the establishment and cross-border provision of services in the EU;
– fair and efficient taxation of corporate profits and preventing the possibilities for tax evasion and tax avoidance;
– mitigating the risks in the banking system, completing the banking union and setting up a capital market union;
– increasing the potential of regional cooperation by encouraging the construction of infrastructure with a view of overcoming the isolation of some member states from the European gas and electricity transmission systems.
What will be the key messages of the Bulgarian public and the political elite to the representatives of the single European family?
There will be three key messages of the Bulgarian presidency: consensus, competitiveness, cohesion. What does it mean? Seeking consensus on EU’s future is crucial in the light of Brexit. Based on the lessons learned from the crises, Europe should “re-establish” itself as a more united, powerful, digital and democratic union. The role of the presidency in that process is that of an honest broker. The EU summits in Bratislava in September 2016, in Rome in March 2017 and in Tallinn in September 2017 demonstrated the will of the 27 member states to remain united around the principles and values that underlie their union. The question is how the consensus about general principles and values can be achieved in relation to concrete institutional and legislative issues e.g. the future form of the economic and monetary union, the new multiyear financial framework of the EU and the development of its cohesion policy and its migration and asylum policy. It is not a secret that discussions are taking place on each of these issues. A large part of them will be held during the Bulgarian presidency. For instance, the 2019 agenda adopted by the heads of state at the summit on October 19 and 20 envisages that agreement on the reform of the economic and monetary union, on migration and on the composition of the European Parliament after Brexit should be reached until the end of the Bulgarian presidency. Those discussions will not be easy: there are opposing views on some of them. But that is nothing new for the EU. It is based on negotiations and compromises. There is no reason why we should expect anything different now. Sometimes it takes time for Europe to reach a consensus but in the end it always does, because it is well aware of what is at stake: the peace and prosperity of more than 500 million European citizens. Therefore we should not be surprised by the unity of the 27 member states in the negotiations with Great Britain. Each of us realizes that we weigh and are able to do much less on our own than together. One of Europe’s founding fathers, Paul-Henri Spaak, said there were two types of European countries: those that were small and knew that and those that were small but had not yet realized it. Today I think the second category is almost empty. Therefore we had no hesitation whatever to choose the motto written on the building of the Bulgarian parliament, United we stand, for the motto of the Bulgarian presidency of the EU Council.
Our second message is competitiveness, which is also extremely important with a view of the global challenges facing Europe. There is not a single EU country in the top three positions in the 2017 global competitiveness ranking of IMD World Competitiveness Center and there are only four (the Netherlands Ireland, Denmark and Luxembourg) out of 28 member states in the top ten positions. Countries that appear in the first 15 places include Germany (13th) and Finland (15th). Bulgaria takes the unenviable 49th place out of 63 countries in the ranking. There are no EU countries either in the first three places of the 2016-17 global competitiveness index of the World Economic Forum: the top positions are held by Switzerland, Singapore and the United States. The Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom are ranked 4th to 7th and the last of them is negotiating to leave the EU. Bulgaria is 50th. The European Comparative Analysis of Innovation Performance shows that the EU is less innovative than Australia, Canada, the United States, South Korea and Japan. While performance differences with the United States and Canada have become smaller for the past seven years, those with South Korea and Japan have increased. Europe remains a leader in areas such as automotive production, machine building and some subsectors of agriculture where it has traditional quality products but, regretfully, it is not among the leaders in the digital world. If the EU member states are together to do what they cannot do alone, that means they have to complete their single market, especially in the digital and the energy areas, and invest more heavily in research, development and innovation.
Concerning our third message, i.e. cohesion, it is in EU’s DNA. Social and economic cohesion is the basis of its philosophy for achieving lasting peace and stability. Increasing GDP and the purchasing power of the poorer member states is economically and politically important for all of them. It is another question that the traditional cohesion policy cannot but be impacted by the crises and challenges of the past few years concerning the euro, migration, terrorism and the threats to peace and security. The EU will have to allocate funds for new priorities too, while its budget revenue will decrease by 12 to 15 billion euro a year after Great Britain leaves it. Therefore we expect a lively debate on the future priorities and rules of the cohesion policy and we will work to achieve a balanced approach.
What are the biggest challenges when organizing such a large-scale event?
Hosting the EU presidency for the first time is a challenge for any national administration. I think that after ten years of membership Bulgaria already has the staff, institutions and experience necessary to cope with such a task. We have won praise from the European Commission for the preparation of the presidency. We have the support of the secretary-general of the EU Council. The real challenges are not organizational and technical; they are in the agenda for the six months of presidency. Let’s take migration. Three presidencies already have failed to reach agreement on the reform of the Dublin Regulation, which regulates the asylum regime in the EU. Or take the reform of the economic and monetary union (EMU): some countries speak of a eurozone budget and “finance minister”, others of the reforms that need to be implemented before it is made possible. It is evident that every country sees the EMU in a different way. Bulgaria realizes that the EU cannot keep on moving at the speed of the slowest, because thus consensus is reduced to the lowest common denominator, the lowest ambition. At the same time we caution against ideas that could be a constant source of disagreement and divide the EU into a nucleus and periphery or into interest clubs.
What are the expected benefits for Bulgaria and for the Bulgarian public and businesses from the Bulgarian presidency of the EU Council?
By definition, no EU country can expect unilateral benefits from its presidency of the Council. But if Bulgaria is a good broker ensuring that tomorrow the EU will be more united, powerful and democratic, it will be one of the big winners from that. Because the European project is of strategic national interest and that holds true not only for Bulgaria but also for the other 12 countries that joined the EU during its 2004-13 expansion. The presidency of the EU’s legislative body during such a crucial period for the EU is a chance for Bulgaria to enhance its influence and international prestige. It automatically makes it the center of international media attention, which countries of its category rarely attract. That is a golden opportunity for the world to hear Bulgaria’s messages. When speaking of businesses, I am sure they need a stable and predictable Europe most of all. The presidency has an undoubted role in preparing such an agenda. Europe is not just Brexit. Europe is most of all beyond and after Brexit. We will try to underscore that as presidents of its Council.
What other topics give important opportunities to a country like Bulgaria during the upcoming meetings? Large countries have their own agenda, while Bulgaria will be president of the Council for the first time and it will have to prioritize…
Frankly speaking, even a large country cannot change a lot the agenda at this time of the institutional cycle. One of our messages and priorities that I want to underscore is that the West Balkans should not lose their European prospects. The investment in those prospects is an investment in the peace and stability of our continent and a guarantee that there will be no blank spots in it to accommodate powers that are contrary to everything that Europe and the free world as a whole are. I am confident that the West Balkans have a huge potential for investment, provided they develop as part of an expanding Europe. International companies will not stop seeking its guarantee for the quality of the environment. Besides economic, social and infrastructural development, the West Balkans need deep reforms too. The European prospects will ensure that they are carried out. It would be paradoxical for Europe to have commitments to oversea territories to which it is connected through the history of some of its member states and stay indifferent to countries and people on its own continent that are an organic part of its civilization. The European home will be incomplete until there are countries from this continent standing on its threshold. Bulgaria has both historic connections and expertise in the region to offer to the European policy towards it. We firmly believe in the European added value of the improved infrastructure connectivity of the West Balkans, the possibility of their citizens to use European advantages such as visa-free travel or international calls without roaming fees. This Bulgarian priority has no specific political addressee. It is open to the common people in the West Balkans, the majority of whom want to have a European future. I cannot see what more attractive prospects they can be offered by anybody else.
Interview by: Marina Tsvetkova