A strong emphasis on the Western Balkan countries and their European integration: it’s a priority of the Bulgarian presidency of the EU Council of Ministers. Despite its various problems, Sofia wants to show that Bulgaria is on the same standing as the major European member Countries. As of January 1st Bulgaria assumed the rotating presidency of the EU Council of Ministers. The Balkan Country that joined the EU in 2007, will be inaugurating the rotating presidency today and tomorrow – January 11-12 – welcoming EU top brass to a set of official ceremonies and working meetings on the program for the next six-month period.
The thorny issue of justice. The official inauguration is scheduled to take place today in the presence of the College of Commissioners, chaired by the President of the EU Commission Jean-Claude Juncker. Among the dignitaries attending the event figure the President of the European Council Donald Tusk and the president of the EU Parliament Antonio Tajani. “A lot has changed in Bulgaria since it joined the EU ten years ago, although not enough.”
Europe “contributed to economic development and the standard of living improved, although the population had great expectations”,
Ralitza Kovacheva, Professor of International Journalism at Sofia’s “St. Kliment Ohridski University”, expert of European affairs, told SIR. In her opinion, “justice remains the most problematic area, and the measures taken so far are insufficient. This fact was noted also by the European Commission.” In fact the so-called cooperation and verification mechanism was created to monitor Romania and Bulgaria’s judicial reforms and their fight on corruption. For Professor Kovacheva, “unlike Sofia, Romania has proved that in a short period a Country can stop being the symbol of corruption and become the symbol of the fight on corruption.”
Thorny files. In the meantime the atmosphere in Europe is growing tense: populism is gaining grounds in many Countries while problems linked to Brexit and immigration linger on. By the end of June European leaders are expected to reach an agreement on the so-called Dublin Regulation establishing that the responsibility of migrants’ management is of the first Country on which they set foot. In the coming six months the Bulgarian presidency will address this and other thorny issues.
Continuity and stability. The priorities of the six-month Presidency draw inspiration from the motto “united we stand”, an expression that is dear to Sofia, depicted on the national coat of arms and on the Bulgarian Parliament building. “As member of the group of three Countries – Estonia-Bulgaria-Austria (Countries holding the presidency cooperate in groups of three for the achievement of middle- and long-term goals) continuity and stability was the preferred option in setting out the priorities, within the framework of the Commission’s programme”, said Professor Kovatcheva.
The Bulgarian presidency will focus on four key areas:
The future of Europe and young people (economic growth and social integration), Western Balkans (European perspective); security and stability (including migration); digital economy. “Europe today needs greater security, solidarity, stability”, reads the website of the presidency www.eu2018.bg. For Bulgaria, this goal can be achieved through consensus, competitiveness and cohesion.
Summit meeting in Sofia on the Western Balkans. “A Balkan Presidency” is the goal set by the minister in charge of Bulgaria’s Presidency Liliana Pavlova, who believes that Europe’s image of the Balkans can be changed. Over the past months Bulgaria’s government has taken important steps: a bilateral cooperation treaty with Macedonia was signed after years of friction between the two Countries; important meetings were held between Balkan leaders, while on May 17, under the Bulgarian presidency, heads of government and State of EU Countries and of the Western Balkan region – Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia – will convene in Sofia for a summit meeting. They are all at a different stage of EU adhesion; in February the EU Commission will release its strategy for the Western Balkans that is set to include also a draft timeframe. In the meantime Bulgaria has promised to abolish roaming taxes with Serbia and Macedonia, while the European Commission will examine the issue in June 2018. “We need to overcome clashes in the region and focus on the present problems instead of trying to divide the territory and rewrite history”, claimed Ralitza Kovacheva.
Russia’s influence. The European perspective of the Western Balkans is considered important also because various interests are intertwined in the region, such as those of Russia at geopolitical and economic level and in the area of energy. “The abolition of sanctions against Moscow was a major item of debate during the past election campaign in Bulgaria for as many as four political parties, three of which entered Parliament, and one of which, the Patriot Front, is the government’s main coalition partner”, explained Ralitza Kovacheva, who authored a survey on the subject. “In the light of the above – concluded the European affairs expert – the presidency is an opportunity for Sofia to show and make understood that the EU is our natural environment and its benefits must be shown to all citizens.”