Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borissov, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU, used a January 17 address to the European Parliament to issue a strong call for clarity on the EU accession prospects of Western Balkans countries.
Acknowledging that there would be no further EU expansion during the term of the current European Commission, Borissov told MEPs: “Now is the right time to say to the countries of the Western Balkans when they can expect to be accepted”.
In a speech that touched on each of Bulgaria’s priorities for its EU Presidency and that was largely warmly received, Borissov pointed to the good-neighbourliness treaty between his country and the Republic of Macedonia, ratified by the legislature in Skopje and expected to be approved by Parliament in Sofia in coming days.
“Bulgaria and the Republic of Macedonia have given a real example, that with tact and goodwill, they can solve problems and not come to you with their problems,” he said.
He expressed hope that the dispute between Athens and Skopje over the use of the name “Macedonia” regarding the former Yugoslav republic would soon be resolved, and that the latter country could soon become a member of Nato.
Borissov expressed firm support for investing in infrastructure in the Balkans, so that young people in the region will have a future and it will not be depopulated. “If we do not do so, Russia, Turkey and China will do so, because they have interests in the Balkans,” he said.
“Now is the time to give a perspective to the Balkans. Stability in the Balkans is directly responsible for stability in Europe,” Borissov said.
He said that his country would seek to normalise relations with Russia, but this would be on the basis of a pan-European solution.
Borissov called for pragmatic relations with Ankara, saying that agreements should be signed with Turkey, especially against the backdrop of the migration crisis.
“We will try with a lot of tact and diplomacy to solve the issue of the distribution of migrants in the EU,” Borissov said.
He said that there were several countries where there were many migrants, others that did not want to accept them, and countries such as Italy, Greece and Bulgaria that were external borders. Secure centres should be established close to the military conflicts so that once these were over, people could go home to assist in the recovery of their countries.
Borissov expressed support for EU Cohesion Policy, and told the European Parliament that Bulgaria was ready to enter the ERM-2 waiting room for euro adoption because the country had very good economic indicators, including GDP growth of four per cent. Similarly, Bulgaria was ready for membership of the EU’s Schengen visa zone, Borissov said.
Borissov emphasised the importance of unified defence and energy policies for the future of the EU. He expressed hope that Austria, which will succeed Bulgaria as holder of the rotating EU Presidency in the second half of 2018, would continue the policies set by Sofia.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, responding to Borissov’s speech, reiterated his belief that Bulgaria was well-prepared for the EU Presidency. Juncker said that one of the most pleasant things about the Bulgarian EU Presidency was that he would see his friend Borissov more often.
Juncker congratulated Bulgaria on what he called a particularly well-prepared Presidency, calling the six months ahead crucial for the European Union and its future.
He also welcomed Borissov having made the building of consensus one of his priorities, a “wise choice”, Juncker said, and more important today than ever.
Juncker said: “The truth is that Bulgaria had to come a long way to join our Union. It had to make changes in a handful of years that other countries made in decades. It had to be patient, it had to be determined, it had to be courageous – and it was. Today it is with great pride but also with great expectation that I look forward to the next six Bulgarian months.”
Juncker also reminded his audience that he would travel to the Balkans end of February and early March 2018.
Statements by MEPs after Borissov’s address ranged from warm praise for Bulgaria’s strengthening economy and its stability, while there criticism of the presence of nationalists in Borissov’s coalition government and underlining of the fact that there were protests about his government’s decisions on the Pirin conservation area, concerns about corruption and about homophobia.