In Davos: Bulgarian Foreign Minister Makes The Case For EU Enlargement

EU |Author: Iveta Cherneva | January 17, 2024, Wednesday // 09:09|  views

Mariya Gabriel

Bulgarian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister, Mariya Gabriel, addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos yesterday on the topic of EU enlargement.

Speakers on her panel included the Prime Minister of Montenegro, the CEO of Scania, and the Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine. Participants discussed "the business case for EU enlargement", or how enlargement will benefit countries economically and financially in tangible ways.

Mariya Gabriel said that "we should make an additional effort not to separate the different arguments for enlargement because when we talk about solidarity and the transformative power of enlargement, that means business case; that means new opportunities for business, for investment, how we can increase the attractiveness."

"For me, enlargement in that case is always about shared values. We need to talk about this because it's something that we share in this difficult world: rule of law, democracy. It's also our capacity to respond to global challenges. That's enlargement. That is what we need to address. Okay, what are those global challenges? How can we tackle them? I think we immediately have some examples; it's not only digitalization, it's not only climate. It's energy; it's infrastructure; it's young people. It's the region's development. And of course, for me that means concrete benefits for citizens."

Addressing Davos, Gabriel stressed the need to make an additional effort to give much more visibility to the success stories. "If we show to our citizens that in their daily life there are benefits, we will be much more able to convince them", she said.

"So, I think on one side we have to always put a little bit more visibility on the strengths. On the other side, of course, there are challenges. Because what is the alternative? I think there is no alternative but we need to address the challenges and those challenges are internal – both for the EU and the countries that would like to be members of the European Union. In that case, I must say that we need to address some of the internal reforms that we need in the European Union but please don't start again talking about changing the treaties before answering what we would like to achieve because there will be change", Bulgaria's foreign minister said.

Gabriel said that there is a need to change the approach, as she remembered some EU discussions many years ago. At the same time, we need to show our partners that we can be there to support them. "I think we need show the concrete benefits to our citizens", Gabriel stressed.  

"That is the best way for me to convince them. And we have examples. When I was digital commissioner, that was the regional roaming agreement. That was such an important step. Now we have the innovation agenda. There are so many young , talented people in the region, digital innovation hubs now working in deep tech or in fintech. I think we need to talk a little bit, or much more, I must say, on the positive side", Mariya Gabriel told Davos.

Gabriel also tackled the perception that the EU hurried on Western Balkans enlargement only because of Russia and the war in Ukraine.

"I don't agree that we are talking about the Western Balkans only because of Russia. It's simply not true. Remember the Bulgarian presidency of the Council and the Western Balkans Summit in 2018. For a first time, the Western Balkans were on the top of the European agenda. And after that, we have seen the digital agenda, the innovation agenda. We have a huge investment now", Gabriel explained.

"I must say that in my personal experience, when we have our foreign affairs ministerial meetings, it is always Central and Eastern Europe that are talking about the enlargement, the Western Balkans and Ukraine. It's me, it's my colleagues from Slovenia, from Croatia. I think that even sometimes when we have some tensions it's important to discuss. Some of the reactions are because we had our own experience and we don't want to see other countries being treated as a second category of citizens. And I think we should learn from the previous enlargement. I am giving the example of Bulgaria: the mechanism of cooperation verification for more than 10 years that was ended last year. The rule of law, democracy. But let's work from the very beginning. Bulgaria and Romania are not in Schengen. Why? All the technical criteria are fulfilled for 11 years now. Sometimes we should take a little bit of time to discuss this. Some of the reactions are not only internally motivated. We would like to somehow anticipate and not have the same attitude that we already felt somehow over the years", Gabriel stressed.

"The other argument I would like to use is we must stay much more focused on how we can transform the challenges into opportunities", she told Davos.

"Bulgaria stopped the ban for the export of Ukrainian grain. That was not an easy decision. Three days farmers on the street. But we managed to explain to them that this was an extraordinary opportunity to increase the connectivity in this part of Europe, to talk about infrastructure and roads. And that means more benefits for markets, for companies, for citizens. It's not easy. That's why I am not sure that we started to talk about the Western Balkans only because of the Russian aggression in Ukraine. I think that we started finally not to talk about chapters, but we started talking about competitiveness, infrastructure, regions, young people, perspectives, security, independence, sovereignty, strategic choice. I think that's why we now have change of the agenda. That's the right way. We should continue in this direction. Otherwise, we will not be able to convince our citizens and their citizens that we are together because we will become much stronger if we are together", Mariya Gabriel said.

She took a question from a WEF Global Shaper from North Macedonia who said that young people in the region are afraid for the future. Does the EU promise a bright future?

Gabriel said that as EU Commissioner she created Erasmus Plus, which gives the opportunity to students from candidate countries to go on student exchange with the same rights of students from EU member countries. More examples like this one are needed, said Gabriel.

Mariya Gabriel concluded the enlargement business case discussion with the example of Austrian businesses in Bulgaria.

"Austria is the second largest direct investor in Bulgaria, more than 5bln per year. But it's only now that companies started saying that they are doing good business and that it's important to have Bulgaria in Schengen. I think we need more examples such as this one", Gabriel concluded the Davos discussion.

Ms. Maria Gabriel is expected to assume the position of Prime Minister of Bulgaria in March this year. She is set to become the first woman Prime Minister of Bulgaria.

/Iveta Cherneva

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Tags: Gabriel, Bulgaria, EU, Davos


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