Chargée d'Affaires ad interim Irene Maria Plank: Germany has been Bulgaria's Number 1 Trading Partner for years #AmbassadorTalks
Where is the largest Bulgarian diaspora in the world? Which is the foreign language preferred by most Bulgarian students after English? What are the five most important advantages to start a business in Bulgaria?
The answers to these questions and more are covered in our interview with Chargée d'Affaires ad interim* Irene Maria Plank.
It is an honor to have Mrs. PLank as a guest in our series #AmbassadorTalks on a very special day for the German people – German Unity Day.
Find out which Bulgarian song has Mrs. Plank learned since her mission in Sofia began. And what is her favorite Bulgarian drink?
*A chargé d’affaires ad interim is a deputy temporarily acting for an absent head of mission.
1. What is your opinion on the bilateral political and business relations between Bulgaria and your country?
Relations between countries depend on relations between individual people. And herein lies one of our greatest assets: the largest Bulgarian diaspora worldwide lives in Germany, around 430.000 registered persons. Most of them keep close ties to their homeland and are “bridge-builders“ between our two nations: a valuable gain for our friendship.
Add to this the relations between our countries‘ leaders. In 2022, we had visits on the highest political level: President Rumen Radev traveled to Berlin and Hamburg, our Federal Chancellor Scholz came to Sofia for talks, and we had Finance Minister Christian Lindner here, too. All within just a few weeks.
The basis for this is of course the traditionally close relationship between our two countries, and the fact that Germany and Bulgaria are partners in the EU and NATO; we share the same values and convictions.
Last but not least, our economic relations are moving forward and upwards. Germany has been Bulgaria's number one trading partner for years, and the German market is the largest for Bulgarian products and services. According to the Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Protection, the foreign trade turnover between Bulgaria and Germany in 2021 reached EUR 9.802 billion, i.e. in 2021 there was an increase of 19.43% compared to 2020. Exports from Bulgaria to Germany amounted to EUR 5.266.98 billion. In the opposite direction, imports from Germany to Bulgaria amounted to EUR 4,534.13 billion.
In 2021, German companies invested 258 million euros in Bulgaria, according to reports from the Bulgarian Central Bank. Most of these investments represent greenfield projects in export-oriented sectors such as the electric and the automotive sector.
2. What kind of improvement of these relations do you see in the near future and also long term?
I could envision a more intensive cooperation on grassroots level: municipalities, civil society. This requires commitment and motivation by individuals, municipalities, mayors in Bulgaria and in Germany.
Furthermore, once Bulgaria has elected the new Parliament and formed a new Government, we hope for a more intensive political dialogue on all levels, Ministers and Members of Parliament, on all the important issues for our two countries: how to cope with inflation and rising energy prices, how to deal with Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, how to shape the future of the European Union and NATO.
At a recent company visit, I saw first-hand what it can look like when Germans and Bulgarians team up to invest in qualified future workforce: by introducing the dual education system Germany is so famous for, young people in Bulgaria can not only find a profession that is in demand, but learn on the job while at the same time earning a salary right from the start. This is a win-win situation for our countries, and I would be happy to see many more of these.
I believe there is a lot of potential that can still be tapped into: we are happy that the interest in learning the German language is strong in Bulgaria. There are more than 100,000 people currently learning German. I encounter German-speaking people here everywhere, in all walks of life! Many have lived, worked or studied in Germany or have family there.
German as a foreign language continues to be popular in the schools as well: German is the third most important foreign language at grammar schools; in the cities it ranks second. Bulgaria has one of the largest partner school networks with Germany in the world, and at the Embassy we are very impressed with the linguistic skills of Bulgarian students!
In fact – keep a look-out in our social media channels (Facebook, and soon also Instagram), we will be featuring some of these young students soon.
School and university relations are strong. Germany is one of the most popular countries of destination for Bulgarian students. There is a lively exchange with German partner institutes in both the humanities and natural sciences, mainly through the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. Since 1990, the German Academic Exchange Service has supported German-language degree programmes at the TU Sofia (Faculty of German Engineering and Business Administration Education) and at the Chemical-Technical University of Sofia as a lighthouse project – both in terms of personnel and funding.
Many don’t know this, but Bulgaria is trending among German medicine and dentistry students, of which over 1,000 are enrolled at Bulgarian universities.
As you see, a lot is going on already, and I think this is the best basis for even closer relations: the individual people who experience and know both countries, the mixed families, young people who have received a part of their education or work experience in the respective other country. This is Europe in action, this is our future.
3. In your humble opinion, what is the place of Bulgaria in the modern world?
With its language, its culture, its history, its geographic position, Bulgaria brings a lot of assets and experiences to the table. This is an enrichment for Europe and the European Union.
Germany was a key supporter of Bulgaria becoming a member of the EU in 2007.
One of my favourite quotes about the EU is “There are two kinds of European nations. There are small nations and there are countries that have not yet realized they are small nations.“ The former Danish Finance Minister Kristian Jensen said this in a conference on Brexit. But for me it is also a reminder of the fact that we need to stand together in Europe if we want to have a voice. In these times more than ever.
We are facing similar challenges concerning the consequences of Russia’s war with Ukraine, especially with regard to energy supplies, inflation, accommodating people fleeing from the atrocities and danger. I was deeply impressed to learn about the great solidarity, generosity and helpfulness that Bulgaria showed to Ukrainian refugees.
4. If you want to promote Bulgaria to investors from your country, what would be the 5 most important advantages you would mention?
The German-Bulgarian Chamber of Industry and Commerce is very active and does excellent work on the business climate in Bulgaria. The five most important advantages they refer to from surveys are: the comparatively low tax burden, the tax system (easy to manage), labor costs, EU membership (above-average integration of its economy into international value chains), as well as access to public/EU funding.
A more soft, but not less important factor is the above-mentioned Bulgarian diaspora in Germany. There are many people who return to Bulgaria with excellent German skills and knowledge about the country – in many ways a talent pool that companies like to tap into.
We see an immense treasure in these “returnees“ as “bridge builders“. While Germany is interested in qualified workers, we are also very aware of the problem of brain drain. Therefore, I am happy about Germans and Bulgarians who choose to live and work either here or there, but carry in them the treasure of being at home in two countries, understanding two mentalities. I think this is incredibly valuable.
5. Do you think Bulgaria can improve its image or branding and if yes - do you have an idea or advice you could share with us?
Your country has so much to offer, and from talks with my German colleagues at the Embassy I know: everybody feels absolutely lucky to have been posted here, many try to extend their stay and are sad to leave.
So, it seems to me: once you get people here, they do not want to go. But you need to get them here first. In my humble opinion, Bulgaria could more strongly promote the “modern Bulgaria“, i.e. the large IT community, the many start-ups, the supply chains between German and Bulgarian industries. I think an active and coordinated communication campaign in Germany would be conducive. For many Germans, especially in West Germany, Bulgaria is still “terra incognita“.
6. What would be the 3 most important events for your Embassy until the end of this year?
The job of our Embassy is not limited to big events like the reception for the day of “German Unity“ on October 3rd. More important is what we do every day: trying to understand Bulgaria better, meeting Bulgarians from the political scene, civil society organizations, educational institutions, the media, the cultural scene, in order to try and get a rounded perspective on different issues. I wish to not only focus on the capital and bigger cities, but also on the regions.
My Embassy team has events and goals planned for their different areas of work, and I am curious and exited to see what the future holds for the German-Bulgarian relations.
7. How deep has the COVID pandemic affected the bilateral relations between Bulgaria and your country?
Thanks to digitalization and communication possibilities, relations between our countries have remained very good, though – like everywhere else - we had a significant decrease of high level visits between our two governments and Parliaments, and the exchange of school and university students was not as frequent as in pre-Covid years. Now we hope that the political dialogue will resume in person and that the frequency of private travel between our countries will go up again.
8. What advice can you give to Bulgarians who want to do business with people from your country?
This is a question that should be directed to those who know better, and here I refer to several hundred German companies that are active and successful in Bulgaria.
Bulgarian companies that wish to internationalize should consider using the service of Germany Trade & Invest (GTAI), the economic development agency of the Federal Republic of Germany. GTAI helps international companies identify suitable investment opportunities in Germany, Europe's strongest economy. A global team of industry experts offers advisory and project support services at all stages of the investment process for smooth business start-up in Germany. In addition, I recommend contacting Bulgarian experts in this area – there are business consulates, individuals and institutions in Germany who can offer experience, advice and contacts.
9. Tell us about yourself - what was your professional diplomatic career, how long have you been in Bulgaria, and what are the most fascinating places or even dishes for you in Bulgaria?
My career has so far brought me to Marokko, Seattle/USA, Kongo/Kinshasa, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Brussels/NATO, and now Sofia. I have a keen interest in security politics, and was director of Strategic Communication in the Federal Foreign Ministry in Berlin before coming here. A topic that in itself could fill an entire interview!
I arrived in Bulgaria in August, and have been enchanted by the country and its people.
There are many places I have yet to see, but I am enthusiastic about Varna, Nessebar and Plovdiv, which I visited recently.
In September, I watched the womens‘ national football teams of Bulgaria and Germany at a match in Plovdiv, and I was thrilled by the fighting spirit of the Bulgarian team. As far as my schedule allows, I will watch more games. And I am also looking forward to the winter sport season here.
I did not know much about Bulgarian cuisine before coming here, but I am pleasantly surprised. I have only eaten good food so far - without any exceptions! And I relish in Bulgarian tomatoes, peppers and mushrooms.
I love knitting as a hobby, and I was thrilled to see that it is quite widespread also in Bulgaria.
The only Bulgarian folk song I have learnt so far is about white wine ("oh, white wine why aren't you red"). In my opinion, the Bulgarian white wine is just as good as the red wine; not to forget rosé, which I also enjoy.
And I don’t want to forget the beautiful nature, which I am yet to discover a lot more, and traditional dances. In Berlin, I used to love Latin American dances like salsa, I am very curious to get to know Bulgarian dances. In fact, at our Embassy there are colleagues who do folk dances as a hobby with their families. Wonderful!
10. If you must describe Bulgaria in just three words, what would they be?
Bulgaria has everything – slava bogu!
Only three words – that is tough. Let me bring it down to: Creativity. Hospitality. Resilience.
Many thanks to Mrs. Plank for providing our readers with such an interesting point of view. We congratulate her and the German people on German Unity Day and wish her an enjoyable stay in Sofia.
Chargée d'Affaires ad interim Irene Maria Plank has been the Director for Strategic Communication at the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin from July 2020 until July 2022. Before that she worked as the Head of Division “Business and Human Rights“ at the German Federal Foreign Office in Berlin. The division coordinates the implementation of the new German National Action Plan “Business and Human Rights” across the government and connects the German efforts in this field with the international agenda.
Before that, Irene has mainly worked in security related areas and was Deputy Director of Cabinet of the NATO Secretary General in Brussels between 2012 and 2016. Between 2006 and 2009, she was Deputy Head of Mission at the German Embassy in Beirut. Previous posts include Congo/Kinshasa, Kabul and Seattle. She has also been Deputy Head of the Federal Foreign Offices division for Humanitarian Help between 2016 and 2017.
She became Chargée d’Affaires ad interim at the German Embassy in Sofia in August 2022.
Novinite.com presents its new series entitled: “Ambassador Talks”. It consists of interviews with Ambassadors or Heads of Missions accredited to Bulgaria in order to see their point of view on current developments - both domestic, bilateral and international. Each interview has the same 10 questions.
Our Honorable guests so far:
Ambassador of China, His Excellency Mr. Dong Xiaojun. You can read his interview here.
Ambassador of Denmark, His Excellency Mr. Jes Brogaard Nielsen. You can read his interview here.
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