Ognian Zlatev, Head of the European Commission's Representation in Bulgaria:
The future of the EU is a collective choice
Debates on the White Paper have been productive so far, many young people are involved, it is important to hear the citizens
19 May, 2017
Close-up: Ognian Zlatev has been Director of the Information Centre for the Open Society Institute and Manager of the BBC Centre in Sofia. He was founder of the Media Development Centre in Bulgaria and a founding member and President of the South-East European Network for Professionalisation of the Media. He has worked as a consultant for UNESCO, World Bank and OSCE and served on the Managing Board of Bulgarian National Television. From 2011 to early May 2013, he was Head of Communication at the EC Directorate General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion. He has extensive professional experience in communication, media development and NGO management.
- Mr Zlatev, Bulgaria will assume the presidency of the Council of the EU in January 2018 for the first time ever. How does the country plan to combine Bulgarian priorities with pressing issues for the EU such as Brexit, reforms, youth unemployment, etc.?
- In terms of procedure, priorities set out by the Bulgarian presidency are part of the priorities in the trio’s programme, which we share with Estonia and Austria. How much the Bulgarian government will influence the hierarchy of the agenda depends on how politically active it is. Of course, we cannot avoid the hot issues that the EU will have to deal with during the first half of 2018, but the Presidency will offer Bulgaria a chance to directly influence the agenda of the Union, including through the priorities the country will define.
- Have national priorities already been identified?
- Normally, national priorities are officially formulated close to the actual data of assuming the presidency given that we live in a very dynamic global environment. For this reason, the upcoming Estonian presidency said that it will announce its priorities next months, shortly before the beginning of its term on 1 July. My expectations are that once they are announced, Bulgaria will be ready to finalise the work on its own priorities.
- Arguably, the hot potato will be Brexit. Is there a danger of negotiations regarding the UK’s exit of the EU supplanting the other major issues and decisions for the bloc?
- I would not say that there is such a danger. Keep in mind that this is just one of the many challenges facing the EU right now. There are many other and just as significant topics such as improving productivity, creating jobs and ensuring the bloc’s security. So Brexit is just one piece in the overall landscape of goals - negotiations will proceed but we have to also work hard and address the other challenges that the EU is facing.
- How is the debate on the White Paper on the future of the EU presented by EC President Jean-Claude Juncker going? Which of the five scenarios will Bulgaria support during its rotating presidency?
- From our perspective, the debate has been progressing well in the roughly two months since the White Paper was presented. The European Commission Representation in Bulgaria has taken part, be it as a guest or as an organiser, in nearly 25 events of various formats across the country. They were all attended by young people (which is always crucial) and representatives of the academic community, businesses and employers’ associations. In some cases, we also had Bulgarian politicians among the participants. I really hope that this debate picks up even more and attracts more Bulgarian politicians because it is important for them to hear what the citizens think. When the time comes for the country to assert its stance, it should reflect the hearts and minds of Bulgarian citizens.
- Comments made by Bulgarian politicians seem to indicate that the country is against the option for multi-speed Europe.
- I cannot really comment on this because the whole gamut of opinions has been expressed at the events that I have attended. The important thing is that at the end the national position is the product of an exhaustive consultative process. Meanwhile, in addition to the White Paper, the European Commission is working on and has already started publishing reflection papers that would feed-in to the much more in-depth discussions of certain policies regarding the EU’s evolution. One such document on the social dimension of Europe was released at the end of April. Another one, dedicated to taking maximum advantage of globalization, was released on 10 May. These are additional elements that will facilitate and enrich national debates on the future of the EU.
- Last week the Progressive Caucus of the European Parliament presented a more detailed version of its proposal for a sixth scenario for the EU’s evolution, which puts the focus on a socially stronger Europe. How is that proposal being received?
- It is an open process and the five scenarios outlined by the President of the EC Jean-Claude Juncker are far from set in stone. They could easily become six or more. What is important for us that the White Paper presented by President Juncker has triggered a wide debate on the future of Europe. The final outcome of the debate will depend on what kind of a national consensus individual Member States reach.
- The leaders of the Visegrad Group are having regular meetings now, mostly to build a united opposition against Brussels. The new Three Seas Initiative is set to have its first summit in Warsaw in July. Are these not steps towards a greater division of the EU?
- I would not say so. Let us not forget that leaders of Member States gather in all kinds of formats every week so I see no reason for concern here. What is important is that we have an ongoing debate, a dialogue. Ultimately, the final decisions are made when the leaders of all Member States gather at the European Council.
- As a country holding the rotating presidency, Bulgaria is expected to promote the European integration of countries in the Western Balkans. Can we expect a breakthrough during Bulgaria’s term regarding the enlargement process, which seems to be stagnating?
- The part of the Bulgarian presidency’s programme that is already available features an EU summit dedicated to the Western Balkans. It remains to be seen what kind of results it could yield. It is in Bulgaria’s interest that this process speeds up. In all the years of its EU membership Bulgaria has stood in support of the European future of the entire region and has been committed to working towards that goal.
- How will the rotating presidency be felt by the regular Bulgarian citizens who ten years ago had high hopes that the EU membership will bring them more prosperity?
- I think that the positive effects of the EU membership are quite visible and tangible to Bulgarian citizens. As to what the Presidency will bring, for one thing, improved national self-confidence by demonstrating that Bulgaria is an equal participant in addressing the issues on the EU agenda, along with the other members of the EU family. Moreover, the presidency will make Bulgaria more visible to the other EU citizens in the best sense of this word. We will have the opportunity to show Europe and the world our culture, customs and nature. The presidency will also have a positive impact on the Bulgarian economy and tourism in particular.
- A week ago, Bulgaria nominated a strong candidate for European Commissioner in MEP Mariya Gabriel and just days ago the President of the EC Jean-Claude Juncker revealed that she would be in charge of Digital Economy and Society. What is your take on this area of responsibility?
- It is an extremely important portfolio. Not only is digital economy the future but it is among the ten priorities set out by the Juncker Commission. The EC devotes serious resources to this policy as a driver of growth and employment. Several days ago the Commission presented a review of the work done on the digital single market since 2015. It shows that the EC has proposed over 35 legislative and other changes and measures to accelerate the digital single market. So this is a key portfolio and it is an extreme honour for Bulgaria that its European Commissioner will get it.
- Bulgaria protects one of the most important external borders of the EU and yet its Schengen area membership has been repeatedly pushed back for what seems like subjective reasons. Is there a chance that this issue is resolved before Bulgaria assumes the rotating presidency?
- The European Commission has long stated that Bulgaria meets all technical criteria for Schengen area membership so it is up to the Bulgarian government to convince those Member States who for some reason have reservations about supporting Bulgaria’s Schengen candidacy to change their position.
- A group of Bulgarian MEPs insist that the Dublin Regulation should be replaced entirely instead of simply tweaked. Who should hear that call?
- The Dublin Regulation is a matter of European legislation and as such is decided by Member States. Discussions about its amendment are indeed in progress. Similar calls have been made not only by Bulgarian MEPs but representatives of other countries too. It remains to be seen how it will all develop.