INTRODUCTION

 

Over the past two decades, regional cooperation has become a major priority of the Bulgarian foreign policy and Sofia has won recognition as a foreseeable and purposeful partner in South-Eastern Europe. In the same period, Sofia has also been a decisive factor in the development of multilateral cooperation in this region as it has been instilling pro-European aspirations in the Western Balkans and has also been instrumental in the establishment of stability and good-neighborly relations. Sofia managed to achieve all this by standing up for its own national interests and skillfully employing the tools and principles of regional cooperation. Today, at a time of an increasingly higher number of challenges to security in South-Eastern Europe and a need for more effective regional cooperation, which the SEECP Participants have been getting more aware of.  Sofia is going to assume, for the third time, the rotating Chairmanship of the South-East European Cooperation Process (SEECP) in the period July 1, 2015 – June 30, 2016.

All regional initiatives are based on the assumption that cooperation within a region is a means of integrating this region while the close economic links between the Participants inevitably lead to the establishment of lasting security and political stability. The first regional initiatives date back to the late 1940s while the aftermath of World War II and the bipolar model of international relations in the Cold War period resulted in the natural formation of individual regions that were to maintain the equilibrium in the fragile world security. The new geopolitical set-up in the wake of the Cold War period was conducive to the formation of new economic configurations that were meant to promote competitiveness and sustainable development. In the late 1980s and the early 1990s, all this gave rise to a wave of regional initiatives, most prominent among which were the Central European Initiative (in 1989), the Central European Free Trade Agreement (in 1992), and the Organization of Black Sea Economic Cooperation (in 1992). On the other hand, the region of South-Eastern Europe had its own specificities due to the disintegration of former Yugoslavia and to the resulting power vacuum that was left in the Western Balkans. These political specificities necessitated the initiation of some regional formats that had to involve a lot more than mere economic cooperation.    

The Dayton Agreement (the Dayton Peace Accords) of 1995 was the first indication that the situation in the Western Balkans was starting to become a little more stable. This agreement was followed by the Royaumont Process (in 1995), the “Shifter” plan (in 1996), the Stability Pact (in 1999), and the South-Eastern European Cooperative Initiative (in 1999).  

In the 1990s, however, the European Community was still looking upon South-Eastern Europe as an unstable periphery of Europe. It was only after the conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina (in 1992-1995) and in Kosovo (in 1998-1999) that the European Union contemplated launching some initiatives that were to stabilize the South-East European region and persuade this region to adopt the European values. All these initiatives, however, were inspired by external factors that were alien to this region and were the result of the Western countries’ foreign multilateral policies, rather than being authentic products jointly initiated by the Balkan countries. Therefore, the South-East European Cooperation Process (SEECP), which was launched on the Bulgarian initiative in 1996, was the most eloquent example of cooperation inspired by the SEE region and aimed at the further cohesion and future prosperity the people of the region.

 

Process of cooperation in South-Eastern Europe

The cooperation process in South-Eastern Europe that has been serving as a political dialogue forum of the SEE region is one of the major achievements of the Bulgarian foreign policy over the past two decades in the area of multilateral cooperation.

This process was initiated in Sofia, the Republic of Bulgaria, in July, 1996, with the idea of promoting stabilization, of winning back the confidence of the people, and of developing good-neighborly relations among the Particiapants. In actual fact, the Sofia meeting had been prompted by a higher awareness of the need to consolidate peace in this region, as well as to restore South-Eastern Europe as an integral part of Europe. The declaration of good-neighborly relations, stability, security and cooperation was signed by the eight co-founders, namely Tirana, Sarajevo, Sofia, Athens, Skopje, Bucharest, Belgrade, and Ankara. A little later, the success of this initiative attracted some new participants, namely Zagreb  (in 2005), Chisinau (in 2006), Podgorica (in 2007), and Ljubljana (in 2010). Prostina was a rather peculiar case because its participation was initially blocked by a couple of other SEECP Participants. Availing themselves of the consensus decision-making principle of this initiative, Belgrade, Athens, Bucharest, Chisianu, and Sarajevo deprived Pristina of the opportunity to join the SEECP. A little later, in 2014, Prostina became part and parcel of this process on an equal footing. It was in this way that the number of the SEECP Participants became thirteen, while the SEECP as a regional format was getting more comprehensive and was turning into a common platform of the region of South-East Europe as a whole.

In addition to being comprehensive, which was in essence a valuable characteristic feature of the South-Eastern European Cooperation Process, we need to underline here that the SEECP was a local, ingenious idea of cooperation and stabilization, rather than the result of the intervention of some external factors. This characteristic feature, which was based on the principle of regional affiliation, made it possible for the SEECP to successfully play the role of an authentic representative of the SEECP Participants. In this way, it managed to guarantee both the legitimacy of its own actions, as well as its own decisiveness in the dialogue with the European Union. Today, the SEECP, along with its operational unit, the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC), can be considered to be the most successful initiative in South-Eastern Europe. This is also attested by the fact that this format has turned out to be a durable mechanism, unlike the South-East Europe Cooperative Initiative that wound up its activity in 2006, or the Stability Pact that followed suit in 2006. In addition, we need to underline the fact that the SEECP has been gradually turning into a platform for preparation for EU accession of the participants.  

The SEECP cooperation-building mechanism is based, first and foremost, on a multilateral formal and informal dialogue. The operations of this process are managed by one-year rotating Chairmanships held in succession by the individual SEECP Participants. The SEECP operates on the basis of annual summit meetings held for the heads of state, foreign ministers, line ministers, Speakers of Parliament, etc. The first SEECP Annual meeting was held in Crete in 1997 while the SEEC Process was eventually consolidated by virtue of the adoption of the Charter of Good-Neighborliness, Stability and Cooperation in South-Eastern Europe that was signed at the Bucharest meeting, held in 2000. This Charter has become an underlying SEECP document that has been specifying the main areas of cooperation. Three years later, the annual meeting held in Belgrade set the ultimate SEECP objective, i.e. the integration of all SEECP Participants into the European Union. This was bound to produce an effect on the accession geometry of the European Union as the EU had to lay down additional rules with respect to its future enlargement process.

 

The role of Sofia

Bulgaria’s accession to NATO in 2004 and, three years later – to the EU, gave a fresh impetus to the Bulgarian foreign policy. The activation of the Bulgarian foreign relations became particularly visible during the Sofia’s Second SEECP Chairmanship in the period 2007-2008. The major SEECP priorities during this period focused on the Western Balkans integration into the EU and NATO, on seeking an acceptable solution to the Pristina issue, as well as on the affirmation of the regional affiliation principle that was meant to encourage the SEE representatives to take the initiative, and the responsibility, to promote the stabilization of this region and further develop cooperation in South-Eastern Europe.  

 In this context, the meeting of the SEECP Ministers of Foreign Affairs, which was held in Sofia in 2008, set up a Regional Cooperation Council (RCC). The RCC had been conceived as an institutional operational arm of the SEECP and, therefore, it was decided that the RCC Secretariat should be based in Sarajevo – a capital city that symbolizes the modern development of the Balkan Peninsula. Adhering to the principle of regional affiliation, this format also managed to succeed the achievements and the activity of the Stability Pact and the South-East Europe Cooperative Initiative. The Stability Pact and the SECI had terminated their activity during the second Bulgarian SEECP Chairmanship, bequeathing their objectives and their missions to the newly established Regional Cooperation Council. It was in this way that the last “regional round table” of the Stability Pact, which was held in Sofia on February 27, 2008, merged with the first Regional Cooperation Council meeting.  

Unlike the South-East European Cooperation Process, the Regional Cooperation Council was given the status of an international organization. Among its members one can notice not only the SEECP Participants, but also the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo, the European Union Trio, the European Commission, the Secretariat of the Council of Europe, as well as a number of varied international organizations and financial institutions that have been having an attitude towards, and an interest in, South-Eastern Europe. Moreover, the RCC has a bureau liaising with the Euro-Atlantic units in Brussels.

The main RCC objectives involve rendering assistance to the SEECP operations, liaising with the European Commission, coordinating the financial assistance rendered to South-Eastern Europe, and encouraging the participation of civil society in the regional cooperation for the purpose of achieving the common ultimate objective, i.e. the accession of all Western Balkans to the EU. In the meantime, because of the changes occurring in the specificities and the needs of the region, in 2013, the RCC had to amend its Articles of Association. In addition, the RCC adopted a SEE 2020 Strategy and a 2014-2016 Action Plan which were in line with the Europe 2020 Strategy of the European Commission.

The South-East European Cooperation Process is multifaceted in nature because it also embraces the cooperation carried out between the Parliaments of the SEECP Participants. The acquisition of this parliamentary dimension by the SEECP can be attributed to the second Bulgarian SEECP Chairmanship. In 2007, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed on the future parliamentary cooperation between the SEECP Participants and a decision was made that Sofia was going to host the newly set-up Regional Parliamentary Cooperation Secretariat in South-Eastern Europe. As the SEECP parliamentary dimension has to be further improved, this is going to be one of Sofia top priorities during the present Third  Chairmanship of the SEECP because this dimension is considered to be an indispensable mechanism for reinforcing the dialogue and promoting the political openness of the SEE region.

SEECP – a key to regional cooperation over the past 20 years”: the Bulgarian SEECP Chairmanship (July 1st, 2015 – June 30th, 2016)

            In the period July 1st, 2015 – June 30th, 2016, Sofia assumed, for the third time, the Chairmanship of the South-East European Cooperation Process. Under the motto of “SEECP – a key to regional cooperation over the past 20 years”, the future SEECP Chairmanship going to concentrated on the promotion of a constructive dialogue and cooperation between the SEECP Participants with a view to improving the effectiveness and the visibility of this regional initiative, particularly with respect to the European institutions. At the same time, this is going to make this region more attractive to the foreign investors and foreign tourists. The 20th SEECP anniversary, which will be marked during the Summit in 2016, is a symbolic event as it is going to coincide with the Bulgarian SEECP Chairmanship. This is going to emphasize once again the role of Sofia in the successful development of the regional cooperation in South-Eastern Europe over the past two decades. It is also going to lay emphasis on the future deepening of this cooperation in areas of mutual interest.

The recognition of the SEECP as an effective initiative that has been seeking specific outcomes is a key to the future successful cooperation in South-Eastern Europe. With this leading principle in view, Sofia is laying emphasis on the project-oriented interaction between the SEECP and the EU, as well as on the SEECP cooperation with some other international organizations and regional formats. It will be particularly important for the future beneficial development of cooperation in this region that the SEECP should further deepen its synergy with the RCC Secretariat in its capacity of an operational arm of the Regional Cooperation Council.

Also, special emphasis is laid on the SEECP continuity policy because this policy is an important step towards the establishment of this format as a reliable, consistent, and foreseeable initiative. Bulgaria is prepared to carry on the efforts that have been put forth by the previous Chairmanships of Bucharest (July 2013- June 2014) and Tirana (July 2014 – June 2015) in particular areas of cooperation, such as stabilization and economic development, security and the rule of law, preservation of the environment, fighting the climate change, youth and sports regional policies, human potential development, culture and education.

In its capacity of a major driving force of parliamentary cooperation in this region, Sofia is going to concentrate on the further development of the SEECP parliamentary dimension as a key factor in reinforcing stability and promoting cooperation in South-Eastern Europe. After the newly established SEECP Parliamentary Assembly (set up in Bucharest on May 10, 2014) has marked a new stage in the deepening of parliamentary cooperation in South-Eastern Europe, Sofia is going to concentrate on the election of Sofia as a host-city to the Permanent Secretariat of the SEECP Parliamentary Assembly.

The Bulgarian candidacy has a number of advantages, both political and economic ones. There is no doubt that, for the purpose of accommodating the Secretariat of the future SEECP Parliamentary Assembly, it will be most efficient economically to put to the best use the experience and the facilities of the regional SEECP Secretariat that has already had its headquarters in Sofia for over five years. In addition, as the relations with the European Commission and the European Parliament need to be further extended, the accommodation of the SEECP Parliamentary Assembly headquarters in an EU Member State is going to be an advantage and could even be referred to as the most logical development in terms of the EU-orientation of the region. The security and stabily facto should not be left aside as well. Also, as the public attention needs to be focused on the process of parliamentary cooperation in South-Eastern Europe, the Bulgarian Chairmanship is planning to convene an international conference on “Synergy of the activities of the individual parliamentary formats in South-Eastern Europe”. This conference is going to be organized jointly with the National Assembly of the Republic of Bulgaria.

In the area of sectoral partnerships, the Bulgarian Chairmanship is going to concentrate mainly on the following three priority areas: transport nad energy connectivity; media freedom and the freedom of expression; migration and dealing with the refugee influxes.

The first priority area is going to streamline and coordinate better the efforts made by the SEECP Participants to build a transport infrastructure focusing on the projects that have the highest added value with respect to South-Eastern Europe. Sofia is going to put forth an effort with a view of achieving visible progress in the construction of a modern transport network that should be able to intensify the commercial and economic cooperation among the SEECP Participants to the extent that this could produce a positive impact on the living standards in these countries.

Notwithstanding the fact that South-Eastern Europe is criss-crossed by transport corridors of key significance to the Old Continent, the condition of the transport infrastructure in the SEE refion is far below the levels that have been achieved by some other EU-members. This is particularly due to the shortage of financial resources; nevertheless, the Bulgarian side is going to do everything within its powers to identify and employ alternative funding methods for the transport sector, particularly in the area of public-private partnership. Also, some options are going to be discussed for raising the quality and increasing the efficiency of the transport services. This is going to involve renovation of the available infrastructure, introduction of modern transportation systems, enhancement of the transport companies’ competitiveness, reducing the harmful impact on the environment, etc.

Energy security has been acquiring much greater significance in the context of the modern challenges to security in South-Eastern Europe. Therefore, during its rotating SEECP Chairmanship, Sofia is going to encourage the SEECP Participants to pursue a consistent energy policy aimed at guaranteeing the energy supplies, at diversifying the energy suppliers and the energy transport, at increasing energy efficiency, at developing a competitive energy market, and at satisfying the consumer energy needs and protecting the end-user rights. The provision of a reliable infrastructure in this context is a conditio sine qua non for the energy security in one of the most vulnerable European regions in this respect. Therefore, the future Bulgarian Chairmanship is going to scrutinize closely the implementation of all major diversification projects in this region and will also submit this topic for discussion on a top and summit level.

One of the main areas will involve interconnection between the separate energy systems of the SEECP Participants as an element of the creation of an integrated, liberalized and competitive regional energy market that will be able to function in a satisfactory manner even in the event of unexpected interruptions of the energy supplies. Bearing in mind that the development of energy security on the basis of a well developed natural gas transmission infrastructure is of primary significance to the European Union, too, all this could be considered to be an additional element of the Western Balkans preparation for the achievement of their ultimate objective, i.e. a full-fledged membership of the EU. 

In implementation of the above mentioned priorities, the relevant Bulgarian agencies and institutions are going to take an active part in the organization and staging of various events that will be stipulated in the Programme of events of the Chairmanship. For example, the Bulgarian Chairmanship is going to organize, jointly with the Ministry of Energy, a regional conference on energy efficiency and sustainable development. While in the area of transport interoperability, it will convene a conference on “the transport infrastructure as a factor in encouraging and improving the economic links in South-Eastern Europe” jointly with the Ministry of Tourism, the Ministry of Regional Development and Public Works, and the “Bulgarian Transport Infrastructure Forum” Association.  

The powerful influence of the mass media in the modern world presupposes a great deal of abuse of media freedom and freedom of expression. Therefore, Sofia has selected this topic as one of its three major sectoral priorities and, as a SEECP Chairmanship, it is going to concentrate on the creation of a multifarious, independent and sustainable media environment in South-Eastern Europe, as well as on inspiring respect for the regional and international instruments that guarantee media freedom and freedom of expression. The ultimate objective will involve the provision of well-balanced, precise and impartial information reflecting the entire spectrum of multifarious views and opinions and taking account of the ethnic, language, religious, political and societal diversity in South-Eastern Europe. Adequate measures should be taken for the purpose of counteracting the non-democratic trends in the development of the media environment, especially in the area of concentrating media property in the hands of a handful of oligarchs – a phenomenon that is still widely spread.

The access to the entire spectrum of information sources and, more particularly, to the Internet and the new IT technologies, is also among the priorities of the forthcoming Bulgarian SEECP Chairmanship. The idea is to guarantee an equitable position of the electronic and the print media with respect to the effective regulations, as well as to encourage the use of electronic services not only in the public, but also in the private sector. One of the ideas of the future SEECP Chairmanship concerning the future development of this sector is to help introduce an on-line regional media platform. Therefore, a meeting has been planned for the SEECp Participants mainstream media which is going to discuss the challenges faced up by the media in South-Eastern Europe.

The Bulgarian SEECP Chairmanship is also going to lay emphasis on cooperation in the area of migration and dealing with the migration influxes, which is a major problem both in this region, as well as in a broader context, caused by the latest developments in the Middle East, Northern Africa and Afghanistan. The close connection between the political instability in these regions and the migration flows that have been crossing the South-East European region makes it essential for the SEECP Participants to cooperate actively in rendering assistance to the international efforts aimed at finding a lasting solution to the situations that have given rise to these migration flows. In order to adequately respond to the challenges resulting from the migration flows, detailed analyses are going to be made of the situation in the affected participants, as well as of the migration flow sources and their final destinations. These analyses are also going to cover the people’s attitudes in these participants, as well as the domestic and foreign political actions that have been taken.

It will be a priority task of the future SEECP Chairmanship to map out and adopt a regional strategy for successful integration of the persons who have been given international protection in the SEECP Participants, drawing on the experience and the good practices of some other countries that have already been faced up with the same challenge. This policy could produce the desired result only if it is coupled with adequate measures aimed at curtailing the hate speech, the xenophobia and the intolerance that still exist in some SEECP Participants. 

In a broader context, in its capacity of a EU Member State, Sofia is going to seek “thematic coalitions” not only within the framework of the EU, but also of some other international organizations, so that it could be able to defend particular regional interests and needs from the intensified migratory flows. With this end in view, Sofia is going to establish active relations with the relevant EU agencies and units, among these the European Commission, EASO (the European Asylum Support Office), FRONTEX (the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the EU), the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, UNICEF, the International Organization for Migration, etc.

The international commitments and obligations that the SEECP Participants have taken on in connection with dealing with the refugee flows call for well-coordinated and concerted action. The efforts are going to concentrate on the formulation of an effective regional policy that should be based on solidarity with the most affected Participants, as well as on close cooperation with the countries of origin and the transit ones within the framework of a comprehensive global approach. All this is going to require enhanced diplomatic contacts, as well as close cooperation with the countries that have been most affected by the migratory flows. Last but not least, the future Bulgarian SEECP Chairmanship is going to assist in the allocation of financial assistance by both the EU and the international community for the purpose of dealing with the refugee influxes.

The agenda of the future Bulgarian SEECP Chairmanship abounds with multifarious initiatives and events. The ones connected with the above mentioned priority areas of cooperation will also involve activities in the spheres of common interest that have already been targeted by the two previous SEECP Chairmanships held by Bucharest and Tirana. For example, cooperation in the stabilization and economic development of South-Eastern Europe, security, the rule of law, preservation of the environment, the climate change, a youth and sports regional policy, and the development of human potential, especially in the area of culture and education.

 

Conclusion

The twenty years that have passed since the establishment of the South-East European Cooperation Process have managed to help this format win recognition as a leading platform of political dialogue and Euro-Atlantic integration of the SEECP Participants in the context of the ever increasing role of regional cooperation in international relations. On the eve of the 20th anniversary of the first SEECP meeting in Sofia, the Republic of Bulgaria is going to assume the SEECP Chairmanship again, thus getting an opportunity to steer the further development of regional cooperation in a period of dynamic changes that have been taking place in the global geopolitical and geo-economic environment.  The major priorities that Sofia has set itself to achieve have taken the form of clearly formulated aspirations that have been seeking an answer to the most pressing and serious challenges in South-Eastern Europe. All this is yet another attestation of the efficiency of the South-East European Cooperation Process which is something more than a mere beautiful phrase; it is a flexible mechanism for successful cooperation among the SEECP Participants.

In its capacity of a present SEECP Chairman , Sofia is going to further consolidate its role of an active participant in international cooperation, along with its position of a key factor in the stability and security in South-Eastern Europe. The forthcoming one-year period of preparation, that is going to involve dynamic domestic and foreign political initiatives, will also contribute to the acquisition of additional experience that Sofia will need during its forthcoming Presidency of the EU Council in 2018.

            * This publication has been provided by the Southeast Europe Directorate at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Bulgaria.

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