European Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighbourhood
Public Lecture, Aula Maxima, Sofia University
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Demosthenes, that great orator of ancient Greece, liked to say that “small opportunities are often the beginning of great enterprises.” Bulgaria regaining its rightful place in the family of European nations is more than just a small opportunity. It brings new and exciting options for Bulgaria and the Union alike. I am convinced that a reunited Europe, building on the combined intellectual and creative forces of all its people, will indeed be the birth place of great enterprises. Even greater than those we have already known. And I know the Union can count on the Bulgarian people to play their part.
But before I come to that let me first say how delighted I am to be back in Sofia after my last joyous trip here in July when my dear friends returned from Libya after their terrible ordeal. I was deeply moved to receive the great honour bestowed on me earlier today by your President. But I must tell you, the biggest reward I could ever have hoped for was to see the relief and deep smiles on their faces as they were reunited with friends and family.
I witnessed some of their profound moments of terrible despair and hopeless sorrow – scenes which motivated me to work tirelessly for over two and half years to secure their release. Which made it even more rewarding to witness their joy and happiness that day in July. Indeed, it was really one of the most emotional moments of my life. I feel enormously privileged to have played a decisive part in solving this very human drama, of course with important contributions from ministers of other EU countries, especially Britain’s assistance in setting up the Benghazi fund, the enormous efforts from German and Italy, and France’s intervention through Cecilia Sarkozy.
And I would like to pay tribute again to the courage and strength of all six. I am extremely happy to see them here again today, in such changed circumstances, and from the bottom of my heart I wish them every happiness as they set about rebuilding their lives in the months and years to come.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Whilst of a very different nature, the tremendous change in their circumstances in some ways mirrors the tremendous changes which Bulgarian society as a whole has experienced in moving towards and then finally achieving membership in the European Union. Let me renew my congratulations to you for the Herculean efforts I know this has taken and repeat again my immense personal satisfaction that you are today a full member of the EU family.
I know Bulgarian citizens are very sensible of the great benefits which membership of the EU can bring. EU membership means EU solidarity – solidarity in our relations with the rest of the world, as you experienced with Libya, and as others like Poland are experiencing with Russia. Solidarity in times of unexpected natural disasters, like the forest fires in Greece this summer. And solidarity in meeting economic and social challenges, for example through the EU’s structural and regional funds.
Membership also means freedom – the freedom to travel freely around our continent; the freedom for our young people to study wherever they choose across Europe; and the freedom to do business without borders. These personal freedoms, which mean Europeans can make connections and build friendships as never before, are enhanced by the new opportunities opening up in your economy. Just driving around Sofia today I was struck by the obvious boom your country is experiencing. The dynamism and spirit of free enterprise which is driving Bulgaria forward is an impressive testimony to your ability to seize new opportunities. Together we must direct this energy to the cause of making the European Union the most competitive and most dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world.
As a member of the European Union you are already part of the largest trade bloc in the world, and a vast internal market of over 500 million citizens. The EU is also rapidly becoming a significant political force on the world stage; not only because we are the world’s biggest donor of development assistance, but also because we are engaged at the heart of resolving some of our planet’s most intractable problems: from peace in the middle east to dealing with the consequences of climate change.
But the EU is not just about bringing benefits to its members. It’s also about the contributions individual member states make to its development. Bulgaria has a great deal to offer the EU, and I see that particularly in one of the key areas of my portfolio, the European Neighbourhood Policy.
The European Neighbourhood Policy was born of a vision first articulated five years ago. On the eve of the biggest enlargement in its history, the EU dreamed of a zone of stability, prosperity and co-operation shared with all its 'new' neighbours-to-be.
Building on the great success of the EU’s enlargement process, the idea was to deepen our relations with our neighbours and in so doing to encourage them to strengthen their own political and economic reforms.
That vision has today become a reality. We have opened the policy to all eastern and southern neighbours who share our commitment to democracy, open society and economic prosperity - 12 countries around our borders, from Georgia and Ukraine in the East to Jordan and Morocco in the South.
Through ENP the EU offers to those partners who want it more financial support, integration with the EU’s internal market and participation in the EU’s policies and programmes. It’s a policy of more for more: as countries go further down the reform path, more possibilities for closer cooperation with the EU open up to them. Every country individually determines the nature and strength of its relationship with the EU.
We have already seen ENP’s first results: a border monitoring mission in place along the Moldovan-Ukrainian border to help address the frozen conflict in Transnistria; an agreement on easier visa procedures for Ukrainian citizens and others in the works; and a large number of twinning and TAIEX projects in place with countries across the neighbourhood.
But we have even greater ambitions and so last December the Commission proposed strengthening ENP still further. We offered our neighbours more opportunities to integrate into our internal market and more possibilities to travel freely to the EU. We also offered more opportunities to build people-to-people contacts, through scholarship programmes and exchanges between all levels of society – local government, civil society, academics, journalists, businessmen and more.
We have just had an extremely successful international conference in Brussels to discuss these proposals with our partners, and I was very satisfied with the response we received. There was a very good representation of Ministers from across the EU and our neighbours, showing their support for this important EU policy. I would like to thank again Minister Koldanova for her participation. Now is the time to put the recommendations and ideas into practice and I hope the Bulgarian government will be a strong ally of the Commission in pushing these ideas forward.
Another of the new initiatives we proposed was to develop a regional dimension of ENP for the Black Sea area.
With every expansion of the EU we gain new neighbours and a slightly different perspective on our relations with the outside world. That is equally true for Bulgaria’s accession, as for the first time the EU now borders the Black Sea. This has brought us direct access to an area of great strategic importance - given the region’s geographic location; its role as an energy transit corridor; and the unresolved or ‘frozen conflicts’ around its shores.
The proposals we tabled in April this year – for what we call Black Sea Synergy – were designed to focus political attention on this region and to capitalise on the new opportunities we gained from Bulgaria and Romania’s membership.
The objective is to develop cooperation within the Black Sea region and between the region as a whole and the EU and our proposals build heavily on Bulgaria’s experience and policies.
We suggest focusing the EU’s attention on five issues: good governance, transport, energy, environment, and the fight against cross-border crime. These are all areas where it makes sense to tackle the problems at a regional level.
Indeed in a recent survey the overwhelming majority of Europeans stated that forging closer relations with the countries with whom we share land and sea borders, whether that be on crime, trade, energy or migration, brings tangible benefits for ourselves and our neighbours.
We have already started work on transportation, focusing on the Danube-Black Sea connection. And we have launched a new cross-border co-operation programme working with civil society organisations around the Black Sea. Other current areas of work are on fisheries, migration, the environment and energy.
I am personally committed to exploiting our potential to help resolve the frozen conflicts around this region. Too many people’s lives have been marred by the hatred, the poverty and the hopelessness which are the legacy of these conflicts. It is unacceptable that the European Union of the twenty-first century should turn a blind eye to this suffering on its doorstep. We can and must play a role in finding sustainable solutions to these black-holes of despair.
This is an ambitious objective but I believe it is one we must set for ourselves. I have called for a Ministerial conference to take place in January between the EU and our Black Sea partners to discuss this and our other proposals for the region. I hope my Ministerial colleagues will agree with me that we must set our sights high to answer our citizens’ hopes and desires for the EU.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The Black Sea synergy’s genesis and development are very much a result of the new perspective Bulgaria brings to the EU and its relations with the outside world. I know that many of our neighbours are anxious to learn from Bulgaria’s experience of transition and you have an enormous amount to contribute. ENP and the Black Sea synergy provide new opportunities for us all, and I count on your government’s support and determination to make it the great success it deserves to be.
Let me close my remarks by saying once again how happy I am to be here today with you, and how appreciative I am of the tremendous honour your government has bestowed on me.
The European Union is a unique and wonderful organisation, which is glad to have Bulgaria as a member, and to which Bulgaria is fortunate to belong. Bulgaria has a lot to offer the EU, and I would particularly encourage you, from my own perspective, to help us make a great success of the European Neighbourhood Policy and its regional dimension in the Black Sea. You more than many EU members can appreciate the size of the challenges our neighbours face and can offer invaluable advice and insights into how to rise to them.
I learned today you have a national proverb which says “seize opportunity by the beard, for it is bald behind”. I urge you to seize the new opportunities EU membership offers to contribute to our shared foreign policy objectives. Together I know we will create for ourselves a brighter and more prosperous future.