The ongoing negotiations between Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) offer “a window of opportunity” to resolve the decades-old name dispute in a way that will be acceptable to both countries, Bulgarian MEP with EPP, Andrey Kovatchev, told the Athens-Macedonian New Agency (ANA) in an interview published on Sunday.
Speaking over the phone from Strasbourg, where he participated in a European Parliament debate about the EU’s strategy in the Western Balkans, Kovatchev urged both sides to ignore nationalistic voices in their countries and stressed the importance of a European perspective for the region.
He also presented Bulgaria’s priorities during its presidency of the EU, which include the European future of the Western Balkans, the EU budget post-2020, the digital economy, competitiveness and the future of the EU, as the next European elections in 2019 loom.
ANA: Bulgaria took over the EU’s six-month rotating presidency in January 1. What are its priorities and what is its view on the future of the EU?
AK: This is the first presidency of Bulgaria since its accession into the EU in 2007. For us it is very important to present our expertise in the EU on topics we know best, and this is in our region. This is why one of our main priorities is the future of the western Balkans and their European perspective, because we think the instability in this region and the lack of EU presence is giving a lot of space to other geopolitical players like Russia, or Turkey, or even Saudi Arabia to increase their influence. This is why we think we should give the citizens of the region positive signals that the EU didn’t forget them. This is the one point. The second priority of the Bulgarian presidency is for sure the EU budget post-2020 and especially how this budget will be composed after Brexit; the cohesion policy needs to continue. One other policy is the digital economy and the investment we need for the competitiveness of the European economy and the big point is the future of Europe and the young people. What we can expect after the elections of 2019, how we will prepare ourselves after the elections, how we give to our citizens a positive signal for the future of Europe. Adapting to the changes in the world, what is EU?s answer to migration.
ANA: What are, in your view, the key challenges for the Balkans in 2018? Do you intend to take joint initiatives with your Greek colleagues in the European Parliament to address the issues of the region?
AK: We think that the EU needs to be much more visible in the Balkans and give not so much to the political classes in the different classes but to the citizens of these countries the confidence that they are not forgotten, they are not second class Europeans. We in the EU are going to invest in concrete projects. This is also an idea of the Bulgarian presidency: to invest in concrete projects. Here we are working also with my colleagues from the Greek delegation, from the EPP group but also from other groups, like [MEP] Mr. [Dimitris] Papadimoulis, on infrastructure, digital issues. It is absolutely unacceptable that we have very high roaming charges and megabyte charges in this region, which is something that Commissioner [for the Digital Economy and Society] Mariya Gabriel will [tackle] by presenting a roadmap for decreasing roaming charges in the Western Balkans. For us it is important that after the Sofia Western Balkan summit on May 17 with all the leaders of the region and the member-states we give a strong signal -after the Thessaloniki summit of 2003- that we re-engage and reassure these countries that when they are ready with their reforms and the adoption of all the necessary criteria, they will become members of the EU.
ANA: There is a new round of negotiations between Greece and FYROM on the Name issue. How do you see the issue being resolved?
AK: The last government of Skopje was not very cooperative and created – not only with Greece but also with Bulgaria – a lot of problems. Now, with the new government of Zoran Zaev, we see windows of opportunity. As you know, Bulgaria signed a good neighbourly relations treaty, which was ratified by the two governments and this was very well received in Bulgaria. We can overcome our divisions with the motivation of European integration. We need to learn from the past because our history in the region is full of cruelty. The idea of EU integration after the WWII is not to repeat this dramatic history […] This is why I hope there will also be a mutually acceptable solution for the issues with Athens. We are not part of this dispute, so I don’t like to give advice but we hope very much that soon this possibility will become a reality. We [in Bulgaria] also didn’t like the politics coming from this country [FYROM] in the past and this is why we insisted on signing this treaty. We don’t like falsification of history, we don’t like what the communist dictatorship has done in former Yugoslavia with the influence of Stalin […] I hope there will be a braveness in Athens and Skopje not to follow nationalistic and populist voices but to find a mutually acceptable solution which should not allow nationalistic aspirations.
ANA: What is your opinion of adding a geographical or other qualifier to FYROM’s name?
AK: We don’t have preferences. For us is fine whatever is agreed between the parties concerned. We don’t like them to have any aspirations towards Bulgaria for sure, which is why the name “New Macedonia” is good, but I do not like to say that Bulgaria has a list of preferences. A geographical or other qualifier is something acceptable. We need to see the whole package.
ANA: Are you optimistic about a solution?
AK: I hope that both foreign ministers will be brave enough not to become hostages to populism and party nationalism from both sides and prevent them from reaching a mutually acceptable solution. We have a window of opportunity and I don’t like that parties outside the country are trying to destabilize the situation, increase fear in citizens in both sides and try to organize protests.