Ekaterina Zaharieva: “The Western Balkans need hands-on support”
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“The subject of the Western Balkans and their European perspective is a key Bulgarian foreign policy priority. This is a far longer-term priority and is not confined to the six months of our Presidency,” Deputy Prime Minister for Judicial Reform and Minister of Foreign Affairs Ekaterina Zaharieva said at a discussion on “Western Balkans’ European Integration, Regional Cooperation and Connectivity: the Bulgarian Presidency Contribution.”

The forum, which took place at the National Assembly, was organised by the parliamentary Committee on European Affairs and EU Funds Oversight and the Foreign Policy Committee. Deputy Prime Minister Zaharieva took part in the event’s first discussion panel, on “The Western Balkans’ Future in the EU: a Priority on the Bulgarian Presidency Agenda”.

In addition to being in the focus of our Presidency, the subject has also been included among the main priorities of the Trio. “I am glad that other Member States, too, even such outside the Trio have also declared and demonstrate their commitment to further the European perspective of the Western Balkan countries,” Minister Zaharieva told the panel.

She pointed out that the European Council agenda is already clear and its President Donald Tusk has extended an invitation to the Summit in Sofia in May 2018, which, too, is devoted to the Western Balkans.

Zaharieva added that, apart from the Summit, representatives of the countries in the region will be invited to the various formats that will be organised within the framework of the Bulgarian EU Presidency.

In her statement, Minister Zaharieva dwelt on the reasons why until recently enlargement was not in the EU focus. Among these reasons, she outlined the series of crises that confronted the Union, starting with the financial and economic crisis and proceeding with a security crisis and migrant crisis, as well as Brexit. In her words, the second important reason is the probably insufficient focus and progress of the countries in the region.

“Recent months, however, have witnessed a change in this trend. Thanks to Bulgaria’s efforts, a number of other Member States have assumed a stronger commitment to this policy. Quite a few international forums are organised with a focus precisely on this matter,” the Bulgarian Deputy Prime Minister stressed. As an example, she cited the position and willingness clearly stated by Romanian Foreign Minister Teodor Meleşcanu that his country will keep the subject of the European perspective of the Western Balkans during the Romanian Presidency.

“When we all pool our efforts and are motivated, we can achieve progress,” the chief Bulgarian diplomat emphasised. In Zaharieva’s words, the countries of the region have a long way ahead of them and each one of them will be judged on their own merits. “I have visited all Western Balkans over the last couple of months, and I saw for myself that they are willing to carry out reforms and to take the road of European integration, and I call on them to carry out the reforms for the sake of their own citizens,” the Bulgarian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister said.

According to Zaharieva, the enlargement subject is related to the debate on the new budget framework, which is expected to start during the Bulgarian Presidency, as well as the review of the pre-accession policy instruments. “We would like this assistance to be channelled into connectivity, convergence between the countries, into tackling youth unemployment, which exceeds 50 per cent in some countries of the region. The programmes and the funds that are allocated should be targeted at the people, and they should feel it,” the Bulgarian Foreign Minister emphasised.

“I hope that the Strategy for the Western Balkans and the next Enlargement Package, which are supposed to be published within our Presidency, will provide a point of departure and a prerequisite for agreeing on a realistic declaration of the Western Balkans Summit in Sofia,” Zaharieva added.

These are all initiatives specifically implemented to help the Western Balkans.

We have good cooperation at the expert level as well. “Bulgaria must be more ambitious in providing expert assistance. We can send experts in particular sectors and ministries to those Western Balkan countries that want this, and they all want it. We can offer tangible, hands-on support, we can share the Bulgarian experience of the pre-accession process and the negotiations, and of our already ten-years-long membership,” Ekaterina Zaharieva said further during the discussion.

In her opinion, efforts in the area of the energy system are just as important for connectivity as work on infrastructure projects. This will enable us to expand the markets of the countries in the region.

“The Western Balkans priority is also associated with the Cohesion Policy topic. We are working for convergence and job creation. This topic is important not only for the countries of the region but also for the Member States of the last three enlargements,” Zaharieva said.

In her words, the future of enlargement depends on whether the individual countries will make progress and on what their governments should do.

In conclusion, Minister Zaharieva stressed that discussions like this one are exceedingly important. “I remain open to your suggestions for organising such forums during the Presidency as well.”

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