Statement made by President Rumen Radev at the opening session of the conference “The Bulgarian Presidency of the EU Council – time to take stock”

2018-07-03 12:22:00

Esteemed organizers of the conference,
Esteemed Mrs. Deputy Prime Minister,
Your Excellencies,
Esteemed Assembly Deputies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would first of all like to thank for the invitation to open this conference which has set itself an ambitious goal – to take stock of the Bulgarian EU Council Presidency. Three days have passed since it ended and the media have already started to produce tons of analyses. However, some analyses may prove to be short-lived, considering that during Bulgaria’s first presidency of the EU Council, events critical for the EU took place, the time itself was critical. There are centrifugal forces within the Union which call into question its architecture. And, according to some European politicians, the EU's very existence has been questioned.

I would like to avail myself of the opportunity to thank all Bulgarians who put efforts into the organization. In logistic terms our administration managed to tackle all problems and meet their commitments. Even though we have been given the standard compliments for any EU Presidency, we should not be misled by them. The EU is currently in such a situation  that Brussels can afford only positive evaluations. I am not saying this accidentally. Of course, you will read in many media that during the Bulgarian EU Council Presidency 78 dossiers were closed. Without downplaying these achievements, I would say that anyway this is ultimately mere statistics. The number of kisses and hugs, the number of European leaders that pose at the Lovers' Bridge, the hundreds of meetings and prepared documents ultimately remain statistics.

What will go down in history is what happened with the Union during the Bulgarian Presidency. Therefore I am reluctant to divide my assessment into positive sides and negative sides or take up criticism or praise. In the context of the priorities of Bulgaria's presidency of the EU Council, we should disregard the fanfares surrounding the Western Balkans and not let them dissolve into those typical of all EU presidencies such as economic growth, employment, connectivity, digitalization, security, and we should seek other answers. To what extent were the priorities selected and promoted in a way that they can solve the problems critical for the unity and solidarity in Europe, and for Europe’s future? To what extent are these priorities important in regional and national terms? To what extent did Bulgaria adequately respond to important events during the Bulgarian EU presidency?

The Western Balkans priority is undoubtedly important. It was consistently pushed forward. However, in the course of time it was “left behind” in the EU agenda and by the critically important problem about united Europe, its unity, solidarity and future. Therefore today Europe speaks about migration, which puts to the test the EU values and future, as well as entire countries. We are keeping track of what is happening this morning in Germany, the leading country in the EU. Migration caused great disparities within the Union which threaten its unity and expose a lot of institutional weaknesses. Hence although the Western Balkans remained a priority for Sofia, they shifted away from the focus of united Europe, namely because of its topical agenda.

Events today unfold so quickly that Europe alone cannot “manage” to follow its agenda. What happened to the White Paper on the Future of Europe, which should come up with a decision in 2019 at the latest? Where is Europe headed and did we manage during our presidency to seek answers and a find a solution to this fundamental problem? Alas, we did not. This problem requires real leadership. The race between the rotating presidents of the EU Council to mechanically close dossiers in conditions of lack of ideas may lead to closing the EU itself.  

It is no accident that during our discussion with Romania’s President Klaus Johannes of the priorities of their EU presidency, he was adamant that Romania’s top priority will be the EU’s future. Unfortunately, this “evaded” from our presidency. When we analyze the priorities in regional terms, in my opinion a great omission is that the Danube strategy failed to find the place it deserved. I have been raising this issue for quite some time because it is crucial for a more united, connected and prosperous Europe and above all because of its importance for Northern Bulgaria. In my opinion, we missed a great chance, given that Bulgaria, Austria and Romania, which are holding the presidency for three consecutive terms, are Danube countries and are interested in this issue.

I also organized a special meeting of the three presidents in Ruse on this topic. I strongly hope that Austria and Romania, at least this is what we agreed on with the presidents, will have a more responsible attitude to this region that is so important for Bulgaria. Practically along the “Danube vector” are the most important economic, transport and cultural connections between Bulgaria and Europe. Unfortunately, it was somehow underestimated and overshadowed by the Western Balkans.

Another priority that Bulgaria identified was security and stability. However, I think that events unfolded which Bulgaria failed to find an answer to and failed to put to debate during our EU Council presidency. You are all familiar with the great number of political declarations on the state and future of the transatlantic connection, with the growing economic tension between the US and Europe, which sent a clear signal that the European security system is facing a new turning point. What is more, a lot of European leaders made dramatic statements, which were unacceptable until recently, that Europe can no longer rely on others and should take security into its own hands.  

Bulgaria somehow failed to take into account these declarations and to categorically raise the issue of the future of European security and particularly the European defense capacity and the topic was left to be discussed in a different, much narrower format, which by the way facilitates the development of centrifugal forces in Europe. In this respect I can say that Bulgaria alone narrowed its horizon and failed to see what was happening to the west of the Western Balkans. It was namely during our EU Council Presidency that, without our participation, a new group for military intervention was set up, which includes only nine countries. Bulgaria should have raised the question about the group's real goal, the criteria a country should meet to be invited for membership and the principle on which countries invited to join were selected.

Now you can say, yes but this is a group for intervention outside of the European Union, acting in critical points outside of the Union, a new coalition of those willing to join. This is not the case. If we carefully read the non-paper of this new initiative, we will see that it has been developed wholly outside the common EU security and defense policy. We are speaking of much deeper things, of forming a new strategic European culture, of exchanging intelligence information within this new framework, of making statistical analyses and planning within this new framework, of exchanging directives and doctrines again within this framework and of a joint preparation inside it. The issue should have been raised about how this will affect NATO, PESCO and above all the countries that remain outside of this group.

And currently when the euphoria surrounding the EU presidency is subsiding, concerning the Western Balkans, I think that new issues and concerns are surfacing related to the Kosovo - Serbia relations, the situation in the Republic of Macedonia, the real value of the Sofia declaration. As we remember, a handshake between the presidents of Serbia and Kosovo, not without help, of course, was presented almost as a solution to the problem between Kosovo and Serbia. However, a mere couple of weeks later on, President Vucic clearly said that a new approach should be adopted in the negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia and that without the direct commitment of the US and Russia this problem will not be resolved. And this is an eloquent assessment of the European mediation. Unfortunately, controversies persist and there is no guarantee when they will be resolved.

I also think that one of the weaknesses was the ambition to use the EU Presidency for domestic PR purposes with all the ensuing consequences. The ambition to present Bulgaria in the media as the leader of the Western Balkans and as an intermediary in all relations, to push forward and highlight during Bulgaria’s presidency the Republic of Macedonia's progress on its accession path to the EU and NATO resulted in some serious compromises that will affect the relations in the Republic of Macedonia-Greece-Bulgaria triangle.

In my opinion, when we analyze these relations, we should seek the genesis of the new relations between these countries. And here we should give full credit to the Prime Minister of the Republic of Macedonia Zoran Zaev, who really initiated the new positive processes. Of course, Bulgaria correctly assessed and embraced this new moment, and responded to the willingness to drop the language of hate and confrontation and to be open to the integration processes. However, Bulgaria was quick to sign the long-expected Friendship, Good-neighborliness and Cooperation agreement between Bulgaria and the Republic of Macedonia. First the current state of the bilateral relations should have been assessed and it should have been noted that, sooner or later, the Republic of Macedonia and Greece would reach an agreement in the new spirit of relations. And analysis should have been made of what the parameters of this agreement are, taking into consideration the issues at stake between the two countries.  

And instead of preparing an agreement that takes account of the current conditions, we were somehow quick to resort to the declaration of 1999 between the Republic of Macedonia and Bulgaria, and change it into an agreement with minor amendments. And if we now compare the two agreements – between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia and between Bulgaria and the Republic of Macedonia, we will see considerable differences. In the first place, the agreement between Bulgaria and the Republic of Macedonia is subject to change and denunciation, which opens up the possibility to reverse the processes. While the one between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia has no time limit and is not subject to change. Greece solved the problems pertaining to national identity, history and language at a high political level stipulated in the agreement with uncompromising terms and conditions. In our agreement we left these problems to be solved by the commission that has powers only in the sphere of history, with no powers to address political processes.

During our presidency Brussels identified four conditions for assessing Macedonia’s readiness to launch negotiations in June 2019. One of these pertains to implementing the agreement between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia, and not a single word about Bulgaria. What also raises concern, in my opinion, is that the Bulgarian side uncritically and without objections accepted the new name Northern Macedonia. This is something that contradicts the positions voiced by the Bulgarian government some time ago. Therefore I continue to insist that additional guarantees should be sought and above all the commitments laid down in the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and Bulgaria should be entered in chapter 35 of the future agreement framework of the process of negotiations between Macedonia and the European Union. The agreement we signed should provide the fundament to build on and rule out any possible speculations regarding our history, territorial integrity, identity and language. And Bulgarian diplomacy should take into account these issues in the talks on the Republic of Macedonia’s EU accession. After all, Bulgaria and Macedonia are the closest countries in the Balkans and we should not create any conditions for an artificial division between the two countries.     

I can say that one of the greatest achievements of our EU presidency, together with all the positive events that took place – shifting the focus back onto the Western Balkans - is the fact that our administration acquired knowledge of the mechanisms of the EU's functioning and decision making. Yet, did Bulgaria become more European in terms of integration in the European institutions and structures, in the decision making mechanisms, in terms of embracing and reaffirming the European values in managing society and in the functioning of the state?

My estimation is that Bulgaria confirmed its position of a peripheral, the most peripheral country for the EU both with respect to the structures and with respect to holding the major debate. It is normal that during the preparation and holding of the European presidency, Bulgaria should become a more democratic European country with independent and efficient institutions and with a clear division of powers, with established rule of law and freedom of speech. However, this failed to materialize largely because the Bulgarian government somehow seemed to be focused on foreign policy and dedicate itself to the Western Balkans and turned a blind eye to important and highly explosive processes taking place inside the country. It is in times when leadership and responsibility are required that such behavior may bring about institutional paralysis. We see that the judicial reform was not carried out. The reform in education includes school repair and pay increase for teachers, the healthcare reform – making appointments and dismissals. It was during the European presidency that a considerable withdrawal of foreign investments was registered. The general public accepts the new anti-corruption mega body and its actions with irony and mistrust.   

So, did we manage to use all this experience with the work with the European institutions to prepare and pursue rational policies in Bulgaria? I do not think so and the reason lies in the fact that the European presidency was systematically used for domestic PR purposes, moreover in times when public protests are gaining momentum and the power holders fail to respond. Furthermore the European presidency became an alibi for the indifference towards these problems and even public discontent was presented as attempts to undermine the European presidency. This is unacceptable. This is the easiest way to cause disillusionment with the European idea among the Bulgarians.    

Therefore I think that foreign policy issues cannot possibly legitimize the lack of action regarding the critically important for the Bulgarian society topics. The European idea cannot be used to pursue narrow partisan goals and cannot be privatized. The power holders in Bulgaria should get rid of the euphoria of this artificially created image as soon as possible and should promptly, body and soul, get back to the harsh reality in Bulgaria.  

Thank you for the attention. I wish a meticulous and deep analysis of the first Bulgarian EU Council Presidency be made.


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