INTERVIEWS

Rumen Radev for EURACTIV: Bulgaria is not the Showstopper in the EU Enlargement Process; We Safeguard the very Principles and Values of our Union

2021-12-16 16:41:00

Georgi Gotev, journalist, EURACTIV:  EURACTIV, for more than 20 years has been trying to help the better understanding between the stakeholders. Many people in Brussels do not understand the Bulgarian veto, which prevents The Republic of North Macedonia from starting accession negotiations. Could you please explain the Bulgarian position for our international audience?  

Rumen Radev: First, thank you for your invitation. Of course, this issue is very complex. That is why the communication between stakeholders is vitally important. To explain better the problems, we need to position them on a broader European landscape, as Europe is a complex mix of past and present, of common goals and divisions and the resulting problems are difficult to be understood. Some of them are related to the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia, but not only. Take a look at the consequences of Brexit, and all the issues across the Union. As you know, a small group of EU member states still do not recognize the independence of Kosovo.

We respect the interest of each individual member state, as we cherish the cohesion and the very foundations of our Union. Bulgaria, as indeed many other countries, has undergone the sometimes painful process of joining the European Union and I do believe that no candidate country should feel privileged in this regard. 

EURACTIV:  So you think that the current approach puts North Macedonia in a privileged position with respect to previous enlargements.

Rumen Radev: Can you remember the process of accession of other countries before?

EURACTIV:  It was very difficult, I remember Bulgaria.

Rumen Radev: Do you feel a difference in the approach, because we do feel that difference, we do feel a difference in methodology?

We are highly motivated in Bulgaria to see all the countries from the Western Balkans as members of the European Union in the near future. That is why Bulgaria has been a driving engine for this process of joining the European Union, providing European perspective for all the countries in the Western Balkans.  

You are right - we have special relations with the Republic of North Macedonia. We are much more than neighbours and friends. As the people on both sides of the border are bound by common history and culture, and the wind of historical events has separated many families. That is why Bulgaria first in the world recognized the independence of this country back in 1992. We have always been there in difficult moments like political and economic isolation, regional and internal conflicts, recent migrant crises and natural disasters.

Driven by geopolitical considerations Bulgaria unconditionally supported the process of accession of The Republic of North Macedonia to NATO. These facts are well-known, but still some of our EU partners do not understand why we continue to withhold our “yes” to open the door for the Republic of North Macedonia. Let me be crystal clear: Bulgaria is not the showstopper in this process. It entirely depends on the candidate country. We rather safeguard the very principles and values of our Union: human rights and non-discrimination as clearly stated in the Copenhagen accession criteria, as well as good neighbourly relations as one of the EU principles.

Culture, heritage, history, language are the pillars of each EU member state national identity, these are the pillars of the integrity of our societies. It is of our common interest, for our historical and cultural achievements to be well respected. As a responsible EU member we shape our policy toward Republic of North Macedonia based on those principles and values. A simple example of our reluctance to open the door for the Republic of North Macedonia for the beginning of the accession talks is that there has been no implementation of the Treaty we signed in 2017. Today the situation is even worse.

Four years ago, it was believed that this Treaty would become a “problem solver” of our complex relations the same way as Prespa Agreement was in the case with Greece, but today we witness setbacks in almost all the provisions in this Treaty. Four years after the Treaty signing, the hate speech against Bulgaria has been intensified. We do not see political will to remove insulting text in the schoolbooks and media. We do not see a political will to stop the falsification and annihilation of Bulgarian historical and cultural legacy in this part of Southeast Europe.

There is a kind of understanding that we have been in a process of renegotiating the Treaty, but we are not. We are in a process to find out how to better implement that Treaty, it makes ? difference. The treaties should be respected and this is a major precondition to be EU member. You should respect also The Treaty of the European Union the same way. It is just an example what is going on. Our most serious concern however is that the Republic of North Macedonia doesn’t comply with the very fundamental principles and values of the European Union, talking about human rights, talking about non-discrimination. The discriminatory treatment of the Macedonian Bulgarians has been going for decades and this must stop. Today more than 120,000 Macedonian citizens have also Bulgarian citizenship. They are not just citizens of Bulgaria, they are EU citizens and this means a lot talking about human rights.

EURACTIV: You basically say that the Republic of North Macedonia needs to deliver on this bilateral Treaty, but at the same time there is pressure on Bulgaria to find a solution to the problem. Is there a realistic timeframe in which a solution could be found?

Rumen Radev: We can talk about this timeframe a little bit later. The Macedonian Bulgarians should receive equal treatment with all the rest parts of peoples, mentioned in their constitution. And the equal treatment and protection of the human rights of the Macedonian Bulgarians should find the same constitutional guarantees and guarantees in the institutional architecture of this country before we open the door. This is a matter of principles, it is not a matter of negotiation.

EURACTIV: So do they need to change their constitution?

Rumen Radev: You gave the answer. We have listened to many, many declarations for those four years since we signed the Treaty, but there are no results. We want to see irreversible, sustainable results, legally bound. And what more than changing the constitution?

EURACTIV: But this takes time.

Rumen Radev: This is not a time-driven, this is a result oriented process. The duration of the process entirely depends on the candidate country, it is entirely in its hands. For example, do you remember that it took RNM less than six months to implement the Prespa Agreement, including the process of profound change in the Constitution? They even changed the name of the country. Here comes the question: why it should be difficult to add one word, one single word, “Bulgarians”, on an equal footing with Albanians, Serbs, Bosniaks, Turks and all the rest.

EURACTIV:  And that will open the door for them?

Rumen Radev: This is one of the factors to open the door. Who could be against including the Bulgarians in the constitution? I have heard the argument that they will not be able to get majority in parliament for this. But why? Can anybody explain the problem? Each candidate country should show commitment with all its institutions to the integration process.

As I said, without constitutional and all other guarantees for the equality of the Macedonian Bulgarians, the door will stay closed. Off course, the process could be much faster provided the leadership of the North Macedonia is committed to undertake bold decisions and steps to accelerate the process. In fact, we can use the time in parallel so that the negotiators could finalize all the modalities and timetables of the other requirements.

EURACTIV: But maybe Bulgaria should have found these solutions years before, don’t you think?

Rumen Radev: Bulgaria has always believed that we are brothers with RNM and as brothers there will be mutual respect of human rights, as brothers, there will be equal treatment. Four years after we signed the Treaty in 2017 we witness that there is no progress. That`s why, this time we insist on specific results.

Back to your question about the accession process and the methodology. I would like to use this opportunity to drive the attention of our EU partners on the very process and methodology, applied specially to the Republic of North Macedonia. I do not believe that exerting mass pressure on the member state country, in our case – Bulgaria, instead of the candidate country – the Republic North Macedonia, is a working solution. Instead of trying to extract unilateral concessions from Bulgaria it is much better for our EU partners to encourage the Republic of North Macedonia to work more seriously on the accession criteria and on implementing their treaty obligations towards Bulgaria.

Rushing is another reason. Rushing the accession process only to prevent the influence of other strategic actors in the Western Balkans for sure is going to cost unacceptable compromises of the very values and principles of the European Union and would inflict more serious and heavy problems for the Union in the future. Moreover, trying to press us to accept unacceptable for Bulgaria compromises, could inflict heavy political instability in a member state like my country, as the majority of Bulgarian people support a fair solution of the process.

After very intensive communication with our EU partners, they finally started to understand that this problem goes far beyond any local quarrel between two neighbours on history. That this problem touches the very foundations of the Union. If we do not provide European vector and shape of this process, it could easily go beyond control in the years to come. That is why we strongly insist to have European guarantees in the negotiation framework so that the problems, generated by the legacy of the former Yugoslavia, will be not infiltrated in our European family. That is why we insist that our Treaty as well as the Prespa Agreement become an integral part of the negotiation process, to guarantee its irreversibility and sustainability.

EURACTIV:  I am trying to imagine how your words would be perceived in Skopje. It looks like in the Republic of North Macedonia they expected a change in Bulgaria with the new government and so on, but if I understand correctly the position vis a vis North Macedonia has not changed?

Rumen Radev: I am optimistic because we have now new government. We, as responsible EU member, as the closest friends to our Macedonian brothers, are ready and willing to help them to cover the accession criteria as soon as possible. All of us have that interest. I am sure that we will find the right solutions, but again – the main criteria remains the Copenhagen criteria, respecting human rights, respecting history, culture, rooting out hate speech. This should be done. Rooting out insulting texts in schoolbooks and media should be done.

Now we know each other, we know each other’s requirements. They know exactly the Copenhagen criteria. My advice is instead of looking for international support and lobbying, I will repeat this again: “Please talk to us”. We need intensive bilateral dialogue. I will take my obligation and I will convene the Consultative Council on National Security so that I want to provide impetus to this process at the highest political level in Bulgaria to find the necessary course of action between all the political parties in the Parliament.

The new government is ready to work to facilitate the process, to come to much better understanding, to support the efforts of the Republic of North Macedonia to join the EU as soon as possible. They are going to establish different working groups on subjects of mutual interest. It is vitally important to establish effective dialogue between the two Parliaments. It is vitally important for our lawmakers to have this constructive approach and to sit down together to understand all the problems and to support the government in finding the best solution. If we do this, if we are committed enough, if we adhere to the Copenhagen criteria, I am sure we can be successful and that this will be a historical act both for Bulgaria and the Republic of North Macedonia.

EURACTIV:  Loud and clear. Thank you very much for this interview, Mr. President.

Rumen Radev: I appreciate it, thank you!

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