To Be Part of Europe, Accept the Rules
An op-ed by Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolay Mladenov for the Trud Daily, published Friday, December 14, 2012, reprinted by Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency) and Novinite.bg. Translation into English by the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry.
The op-ed tackles the issue of setting a date for the start of Macedonia's EU accession talks.
The conclusions of the EU External Relations Council, which did not set a date for starting negotiations with Macedonia, have caused excitement again in Bulgarian society. Interpretations have tended to the extreme, from "digging a grave" to "cutting them off".
Bulgaria is neither digging a grave for its neighbours, nor cutting them off on their path to Europe. On the contrary. Once again we have said that we want the Western Balkans to advance confidently and quickly on the road to European integration.
But what does that mean?
The goal is clear – that one day, there will be no borders between Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia and our other neighbours in the Western Balkans, that we will use one currency (the euro) and our businesses will be interlinked. Only our road signs will differ, because they will be in our respective native languages, as is the case between France and Germany...
In a united Europe, everyone keeps their own identities and develops them, but not at the expense of the others. That is the integration that Europe offers and because of which it is so valuable. You cannot, however, be part of a community, without meeting the same criteria, without accepting the same rules.
For the Western Balkans, the road to Europe is not a process in which concessions have to be made by the EU, by Bulgaria or anyone else, for the sake of romantic memories or a difficult childhood. That would be to the benefit of no one, because when one day we want to open our borders, it would be apparent that we have a different understanding of things. If we want one day to have an integrated business environment in the Balkans, as in the Benelux countries for example, we cannot today close our eyes to the fact that companies are discriminated against just because they are Bulgarian. Can we succeed in having the free movement of people if we do not now raise the issue of citizens who are harassed by the state machinery simply because they feel that they belong to another nationality? No one can live with a neighbour if you instill hatred towards him.
We do not want the Balkans to remain in thrall to the past or even the present. On the contrary, we want to look ahead. Precisely because it is clear to us that European integration is the best scenario for the development of our region, we have a responsibility to point out to our neighbours the truest path towards it, and not to deceive them that it is easy. Because we know from experience that this is not so, that it takes difficult reforms, compromises and careful attention.
This means that the conclusions of the External Relations Council are timely and in the right direction. They show that the government of the Republic of Macedonia should not apply an approach to European integration that is administrative and bureaucratic, but one that is of substance. The Conclusions identify the steps that the country should now take in order to move towards the next stage of its accession to the EU. The criteria that must be met are clearly defined – namely, reforms, good neighbourly relations, including with Bulgaria, and steps to solve the name issue.
As the biggest advocate of the European integration of the Western Balkans into the EU, Bulgaria has obligations also towards Europe. The topic of the enlargement of the Union is difficult enough at the moment, so we cannot allow unrealistic expectations to arise, that one day will rebound like a boomerang. The creation of an artificial image today, without actual improvement of the situation in the candidate countries, will create insurmountable obstacles in negotiations in the future.
Raising the issue of Macedonia was not a case of showing muscle to someone smaller or weaker. In fact, Bulgaria has had to explain its position to other EU member states and to the European Commission and to convince them that what we are saying makes sense. Remaining silent and being conformist would be good neither for Bulgaria nor for Macedonia.
Bulgaria for the first time has succeeded in putting forward an important national issue, involving another country and that concerns our interests, to Europe and securing its solidarity. I think that we have done so in a European tone and within the rules. It is already five years that we have been a member of the Union, and we constantly repeat that we must begin to behave like a member state and not a frightened candidate.
From now on, the greatest responsibility for the accession of Macedonia falls to its government. They have the Bulgarian proposal for a treaty on good neighbourliness, our proposals for strengthened co-operation, and so too the clear signal from Brussels that there is only one way to Europe and that is through co-operation, and not through denial.