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9.11.2004 Georgi Parvanov, Bulgarian tasavallan presidentti: The European prospect of Bulgaria and South East Europe

The European prospect of Bulgaria and South East Europe
Lecture by President Georgi Parvanov
to the Finnish Society Paasikivi
Helsinki, 9 November 2004

Excellencies,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Addressing this erudite audience of the Paasikivi Society is a challenge for me, as well as an honour. Thank you for this opportunity to present to you the European prospect before my country and the region it belongs to - South East Europe.

Ten years ago, in 1994 Bulgaria signed its Association Agreement with the EU. The Agreement came into effect in 1995 after its ratification by all member states. That same year Bulgaria submitted its application for full membership in the EU.

In December 1999 the Helsinki Summit decided that Bulgaria, together with Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Malta would begin negotiations in early 2000.

Two more years went by and in December 2001, in Laacken after a comprehensive review of the course of negotiations with the 12 candidates it was found that four countries of the second group, including Latvia, Lithuania, Malta and Slovakia have caught up with the first group and the newly created group of ten could conclude negotiations by the end of 2002. Regrettably, the other two countries, Bulgaria and Romania, failed to make the necessary progress and dropped to the second group. These were to open all negotiating chapters by the end of 2002 in view of joining the Union in early 2007.

The Irish Presidency of the first half of this year has proved crucial for Bulgaria, as our country succeeded to close its technical negotiations on all 31 chapters. Now we are looking forward to the European Council in Brussels later this year to adopt a political decision for closing the negotiations and signing the Accession Treaty in the first half of next year, so that in early 2007 Bulgaria could join the EU.

So, today Bulgaria is in the final leg of its hard race to membership. The EC 2004 Regular Report on Bulgaria's Progress, that is effectively a final report, is giving a good mark for our country's achievement over the whole period since 1997 by also noting the progress made this year. This Report, together with its accompanying Strategic Paper, contain several key judgments about our country that I wish to go through briefly:

First, Bulgaria has met the political criteria for membership;

Second, considering the achieved progress and the honoring of commitments made, the EC expects Bulgaria to be fulfilling the economic criteria and be ready for membership by 1 January 2007;

Third, the continuing reforms will enable Bulgaria to cope with the competitive pressure and the market forces within the EU;

Fourth, Bulgaria complies with the timetable for the transposition of the European legislation. At this pace, it should be able to complete this task by the date of accession.

Clearly, these assessments, albeit positive, set certain conditions that Bulgaria has to meet at any rate by the date of membership. Besides the main conditions that are directly related to the accession criteria, one has to add a whole range of specific remarks and recommendations that increase the number of tasks our country has to accomplish.

For example, under the political criteria, Bulgaria has to continue the consolidation and modemization of its public administration. It should carry on reforming its judiciary with a special emphasis on the pre-trial proceedings. It must achieve a more tangible progress in fighting corruption and keep up its efforts on respecting human rights, including economic, social and cultural ones. It must also make more visible progress in fulfilling the program of integrating the Roma in the Bulgarian society.

On justice and home affairs: along with the progress found in implementing the Schengen Plan of Action, the protection of internal borders, visa policies and customs cooperation, fighting organized crime is an area that is highlighted as problem-ridden. Concrete measures are recommended for personal data protection, streamlining police organization and more effective anti-fraud activities.

The individual negotiating chapters spell out the specific set of steps and measures that have to be taken by the date of accession. Such steps and measures are to be found in almost all chapters of negotiation, however, extra efforts and attention should be devoted to: Competition, Agriculture, Environment as well as Justice and Home Affairs.

All this shows that Bulgaria has a lot to do by 2007 to prevent recourse to the safeguard clause providing for a one-year delay of accession. I can definitely claim that, unless some dramatic changes occur in the country, the region or Europe, the application of this clause remains a purely theoretical option. Moreover, European integration is the theme that enjoys the greatest consensus among the Bulgarian public, reflected in the over 80 per cent approval according to the polls. No political changes that may result from the parliamentary election next year could deflect the country from its European course. The important thing now is to mobilize all strata of the Bulgarian society and to engage them directly in preparing the country for future membership. And it will be achieved within the time frame approved by both Bulgaria and the EU.

However, we are well aware that Bulgaria's membership in the EU, albeit mostly contingent upon our own readiness, depends largely on external factors and in the first place on our neighbours in the region of South East Europe. The fact that Bulgaria and Romania were the only dropouts from the group of 12 into the second wave of the Fifth Enlargement should largely be attributed to the situation in the region, which is exceptionally dynamic, complicated and at times conflict-ridden.

Bulgaria's accession to the EU on 1 January 2007 will also depend on Romania's state of preparation. The latter is near the end of its negotiations and making every effort to conclude them by the end of this year. We fully support their efforts, because their success would mean that the European Council in Brussels next December can decide on the political conclusion of negotiations with both countries and plan the signing of the accession treaty for the early months of next year. The political conclusion of the negotiations with Bulgaria and Romania will have a positive impact on the entire region of South East Europe. First, it will send an important political signal to the countries of the Western Balkans that their chances for membership are becoming more realistic and, second, this will release EU negotiating capacity that may immediately be redeployed to the start of negotiations with Croatia and Turkey.

Bulgaria supports the beginning of negotiations with Croatia and Turkey, for it has learnt from experience the greatly stimulating and disciplining effect of the negotiating process. What is more, our greatest progress towards membership was made in the past four years of intensive negotiations. Our experience has taught us that the strict timetable and requirements imposed by the negotiating process will drive the two negotiating countries towards the fastest and most tangible achievements in meeting the membership criteria.

This is especially valid for Turkey, which, like Bulgaria and Romania in the 1990s, is now suffering from the fallout of the complicated and dynamic situation in the wider Middle East, and it needs the support of the member states, including in the negotiating process, in order to become established as a reliable bridgehead for the European policy in that troubled region. The alternative of that support is Turkey's isolation from the accession process that may lead to unpredictable developments in that country, endangering even the European prospect for South East Europe.

This prospect was spelled out most graphically and convincingly in the Thesalloniki Agenda for the Western Balkans and the Declaration of the EU-Western Balkans Summit held in Salonika at the time of the Greek presidency. These are two groundbreaking documents that make the Process of Stabilization and Association a key instrument towards the earlier EU accession of the five countries of the region. At the same time, these two documents bind the member states and the countries of the Western Balkans with common goals and priorities by introducing new and effective forms of partnership among them.

Here, I wish to share with you my concern that, under pressure from other dramatic developments, and especially with the focusing of attention on the Fifth Enlargement, the member states seem to have forgotten a little bit the countries of the Western Balkans, putting their European integration on the back burner, except for Croatia.

Let us recall that the Republic of Macedonia signed the Stabilization and Association Agreement early in 2001, however the ethnic clashes that same year delayed the ratification of that agreement by the member states and it only came into effect on 1 April 2004. A week before that, the Republic of Macedonia presented its official application for full membership in the EU. A timely and meaningful assistance from the EU could prevent the resurgence of tensions based on ethnic and religious differences and accelerate the process of European integration for the Republic of Macedonia.

Albania also has aspirations for membership, the way to which necessarily leads trough the signing of a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU. In early 2003 Albania began negotiations with the EU for signing such an agreement however the course of negotiations depends on the fulfillment of a series of requirements set by Brussels. In the meantime, negotiations have been through a number of rounds without making any serious progress. Apparently here, too, the EU will have to provide concrete assistance that would bring about a turn in that country's preparation for membership.

As to Bosnia and Herzegovina, it represents an even more intricate knot of problems, including: the presence there of international peacekeeping forees /SFOR/, showing that the country is still incapable of ensuring internal interethnic peace, resistance to the development of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a unitary state, problems of the return of refugees, high unemployment levels (up to 50 per cent in some cantons) and the great number of minefields (some not yet identified). All these problems distance BH from EU membership. Again, it could not possibly cope without properly targeted EU assistance and support.

In the case of Serbia and Montenegro the main problem lies in the unclear future of the very state community of Serbia and Montenegro and especially its possibie breakup in the coming years after the referendum provided for in the Constitution. The future of Kosovo is even vaguer. Formally, it belongs to the community of Serbia and Montenegro while having the status of a protectorate of the international community. The desire of the Albanian population in Kosovo is for an immediate change of this status and the granting of independence by full secession from the community. However, under UN SC Resolution 1244 a change of status should be preceded by the meeting of certain standards. A timetable for attaining those standards was drawn up recently together with a mechanism of monitoring the progress made. The problem is that achieving such standards requires strong political will from the autonomous government authorities of Kosovo on the one hand and the willingness for compromise on the part of Belgrade, on the other. Yet, both conditions are absent, for the time being. Considering all these challenges, plus the number of queries about the future of the Serbia and Montenegro community, the EU should devise and apply a special strategy for guaranteeing the European future of Serbia and Montenegro.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have tried, albeit briefly, to introduce you, into the present state of the European prospect for my country and the region in which we are destined to live. My views and judgments may have raised questions. I am prepared to answer as well as I can.

Besides, I am sure that you have made a number of analogies between the European path of the countries of South East Europe and that of the Baltic states. I, in my turn, would like to hear from you about these similarities and especially the experience of the Nordic countries in extending concretely targeted assistance to their neighbours who, as of May this year have been EU members.

I would welcome your questions and comments!