Independent Presidential Candidate Meglena Kuneva: Bulgaria Needs Non-Partisanship and Competitiveness
Interview of Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency) with Meglena Kuneva, independent candidate for President of the Republic of Bulgaria in the 2011 presidential elections.
Meglena Kuneva is a former Minister of EU Affairs in the government of Simeon Saxe-Coburg and the NSMP party (2001-2005), three-way coalition government (2005-2007), Bulgaria's Chief Negotiator in the EU accession talks in 2001-2007, and Bulgaria's first EU Commissioner in 2007-2009, when she was in charge of consumer protection.
You seem like a "post-modern" candidate while many people in Bulgaria probably live in a different "age", to put it that way. Aren't you concerned that you messages about civic participation won't be understood, and that they aren't what people in Bulgaria really need?
That is a fundamental question. I am really focused on the fate of politics. In my view, politics doesn't equal the political parties. This is actually the greatest challenge in Bulgaria right now – the political parties have occupied politics and exhausted it. It's time for "recultivation."
It's a person's choice what age they are going to live in. It's really bad when people "live" in a past age but it's even worse when these people are politicians.
I am running for President of Bulgaria because I think that we Bulgarians deserve only the best. What does that mean on my part? Total dedication, openness, and attention to people's problems.
This approach is not new for me. That is how I have been working in politics. This is what I care for, and that's who I am. And I have had very tangible indicators for my success in my capacity as Bulgaria's Chief Negotiator in the EU accession talks, and my work as EU Commissioner for Consumer Protection. We got it – Bulgaria became an EU member state right on time, and after I joined the European Commission, people in Europe and in Bulgaria really started to pay attention to consumer protection. This is success that can be measured; as is the EU legislation that I proposed.
Bulgaria really needs to advance its civil society, and right now we are at a junction. We need to demonstrate with our behavior that we know which the right direction is. I really believe in civil society, and this belief is fully rational.
You have been a distinguished member of the National Movement for Stability and Prosperity, the political party of former Tsar and former Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg. Why did you decide to run as an "independent", non-party candidate? Isn't that an unneeded hypocrisy?
This is primarily a demonstration of respect for the presidential institution and the Bulgarian Constitution. This is the right reading into the Constitution because it is non-partisan, and it is the right thing to be a non-partisan candidate if you are running for a non-partisan position where you job will be to unify the nation.
This means running without party organizations, without state subsidies for political parties, standing up honestly before the Bulgarians and giving them what they want – a majority election, i.e. an election in which they pick personalities rather than political parties.
I think this is the right time for non-partisan bids because political dependencies are very counter-productive for Bulgaria right now. Our political space and society has become extremely partisan to the extend that people stopped believing political parties. So if we want to have trust in the political system we need something greater than political parties.
Let's not forget that parties in Bulgaria are really divided from within, which makes the situation even worse. Civil society makes parties stronger; if it's missing, parties won't be competitive. Political parties are not enough for a true democracy – which is what we want at the end of the day, right?
You represented Bulgaria at top positions in international politics in an extremely important period for its development. Which do you think were your greatest achievements when you served as Bulgaria's Chief Negotiator in the EU accession talks and when you served as EU Commissioner for Consumer Protection?
If we go back to Bulgaria's EU accession negotiations, I can talk about them page by page, chapter by chapter. I can tell you about the joy of knowing that you've been able to protect you nation's dignity. This is a rare chance in life, and I am so glad I had it.
In such talks, deadlines are crucial, and about as important as their substance. And I think this is clearly visibly from the failure of the current Bulgarian government to get Bulgaria to join the Schengen Area. It isn't all the same whether you make a deadline or not.
It was of crucial importance for Bulgaria to become an EU member in 2007. This wasn't even stipulated. We started the talks without having any guarantees about when we will join the European Union. We had no date for ending them, we had no financial framework, we had to negotiate everything in the process of the talks.
But we managed even though we had no "grand sponsor" - for example, the Baltic states had Scandinavia, Poland had Germany. Bulgaria had to do things on its own. All other EU member states were well-intentioned towards us but I can't say that it was of strategic importance for any of them that Bulgaria become an EU member in 2007.
Which is why I consider it a great success that my team and I managed to do it with the enormous support we had in Bulgaria.
As far as my work as an EU Commissioner is concerned, my goal was to make consumer protection a priority in the EU and in Bulgaria and I managed to do that within a short period of time. Of course, the fact that I wasn't technically new to the European Commission, and the people there knew and trusted me, helped a great deal.
I suppose you are aware your opponents describe you as "Mrs. Yes", creating the impression that during you work in Brussels as Chief Negotiator you acquiesced too easily to foreign countries' demands. Where do you think this idea about your work in Brussels comes from? Is that a purely malicious rumor or perhaps it is justified to some extent?
I have never heard any specifics. Any chief negotiator of any EU candidate country has been called Mr. Yes or Mrs. Yes, for as long as the accession process has existed, by their political opponents and euroskeptics.
In order to become an EU member state, we had to harmonize our entire legislation with that of the EU. There was no other way. We were joining a common market, and there are universal requirements for goods and services. Would today's Bulgaria as an EU member state agree to allow Croatia in with more relaxed requirements for its cheese, for example, which can easily come to the Bulgarian market? Would we agree to lift the air quality requirement so that it can be worse in a neighboring candidate country? Because this means that industrial plants could easily move over there, not to mention the effects for the health of the respective EU citizens.
Of course, this whole thing isn't true. I am ready to prove page by page of Bulgaria's EU accession treaty that as a Chief Negotiator I got the best terms and transition periods. And the most important thing is that we got 25 EU member states to say "Yes" to Bulgaria's accession. You can see what the government in Sofia is doing today – we can't get the others to agree we should join Schengen even though Bulgaria's EU accession treaty that I signed guarantees that Bulgaria will become a member of the Schengen Agreement. The question is when.
As far as the transition periods are concerned, Bulgaria got the best transition quotas – more than 20. I got a milk production quota – there are only two of those in the EU – which surpasses our current production by one-third. We can't even reach its limit yet, because it is up to the state to stimulate the producers. We got an agreement to expand the vineyards even though the others were no longer allowed to. Our factories had several years more to adjust to the environmental requirements. The big question is what Bulgaria did after that.
Why is it that out of those several billion euros of EU funds slated for Bulgaria for 2007-2013, only 14% have been absorbed? Is that a "yes" or a "no" for Bulgaria? Because I got the "yes" from the outside, but the "no" has resulted from within. This is a huge issue.
Bulgaria's Borisov government promised to achieve a 90% absorption rate of EU funds, and they got only 14%.
Is the two-year rule of the government of Boyko Borisov a success or a failure? What will your relations be with Borisov and his Cabinet if you get elected President?
First of all, I would work with any legitimate Bulgarian government, but I would not spare them my criticism when that's needed. I wouldn't spare my praise as well.
But the fact of the matter is that the economic policies of the Borisov Cabinet are stifling the small and medium-sized enterprises in Bulgaria. The government is coming up with new degrees all the time, there is no predictability.
A legal study found that the current government adopts two new decrees daily. This is not a normal economic environment. The unemployment is growing, the number those who are permanently jobless is up by 40%. I mentioned the EU funds absorption rate – 14%.
And the appointments in the Bulgarian judiciary are a great disgrace for this nation. I would be very happy if I could say good things about this government's record.
If seems that the Bulgarian nation has been lacking a true national ideal for the past 20 years, and probably for an even longer period of time. What do you think Bulgaria's "national ideal" should be?
We need to have ideals. There is this verse by Bulgarian poet Slaveykov - "The heart is empty without ideal." This is motivation to work and do things that will be there after you're gone. We Bulgarians would lose our identity without that.
We managed to get Bulgaria in the EU in 2007 because we had that ideal, that national goal – which consisted of democratization, market economy, and Euro-Atlantic integration. I remember how happy we were every time we achieved a certain success.
After Bulgaria joined the EU, things changed. We are technically in Europe but not quite.
I think that Bulgaria's national ideal, national goal today needs to be to become competitive to the rest of the world. Competitiveness is not a word that inspires the heart, you can't fall in love with it. But it is crucial. We need to be able to be proud of what we can do. Individually and as a nation.
The same goes for being able to live better together every day, to understand one another better, and demonstrate solidarity and compassion.
People in Bulgaria are actually rather supportive of one another on a personal level but let's raise our eyes, and see how an underdeveloped region is suffering. Let's see if we can have solidarity and create balance within.
Also, we need solidarity for those who take risk in their business, in their desire to succeed, who are entrepreneurs. Let's grant them this solidarity through the state institutions because they risk and create more for all of us.
This will be a true national unity when everybody is aware of their worth for themselves as well as for the lives of the others.
Leaving aside the fact that the Bulgarian President has no direct functions regarding economic policy, what is your recipe for Bulgaria's economic development? For example, which sectors should be prioritized?
The recipe is simple – a better business climate. A predictability of the economic and legal environment. If I get elected, I will say immediate which laws I will veto, and why, especially when they contradict entire economic strategies. Why would you amend the Renewable Energy Act in a way that contradicts your own energy strategy?
What should foreign and local investors read then, which is the correct document, when they want to make a 20, 30, 50-year investment. Every business starts with a cost-benefit analysis, and due diligence, and stability is a crucial factor.
The judiciary is also key. That's why we got delayed for Schengen – the others just don't trust the Bulgarian law enforcement system. Education, healthcare, anti-monopoly measures all have to do with economic development.
We have a great problem with this "insecurity tax" - where you have a friend who is somebody. You pay excise duties if you're not close to those in power. There is now way to take such a country seriously.
The President represents Bulgaria in international relations and is the Commander-in-Chief. What should Bulgaria's international strategy be with respect to its national security and diplomatic relations? Does it need to go beyond NATO and the EU?
The EU and NATO are extremely important because, especially with NATO, we are part of a collective security system, and we need to assume our fair share of its burden. We can't expect that somebody will be guarding us for free. We need to be able to guarantee our participation in international missions.
I was very disappointed with the participation of Bulgaria in NATO's operation in Libya where we send the Drazki Frigate for one month, and then brought it back because we had no money for a longer mission. What good was it then?
Bulgaria cannot guarantee its national security on its own in the age of globalization; that is why, we need to account for the collective security system that we are part of. We need to know the histories of NATO and the EU, and be aware of our allies.
Diplomacy should also play a huge role. Yes, NATO and the EU are the cornerstones of our international policies but we forget that we are members, not consumers. Bulgaria keeps forgetting its own position. I cannot cite a single Bulgarian minister from a Council of the EU meeting whose position was published in the Financial Times, Le Monde, El Pais, anywhere. The same goes for NATO. What did we do with the US/NATO missile defense in Europe? Bulgaria's position was, "We'll see."
Bulgaria's demographic situation is worsening tremendously. It includes the question about the situation of the Roma, among other things. It threatens to hinder Bulgaria's economic growth in the future. What is your solution?
People keep asking me how I will bring back their kids. There is no magic word for that, except, perhaps – work, jobs. Good business climate, and standard of living. Because the young people want to know if they can give birth in a Bulgarian hospital, if their kids can get medical aid and good education anywhere in the country. All these elements provide the bid answer.
Because people plan not only their business but also their family decisions. When you don't know what somebody in the government will do tomorrow, how can you risk the life of your family? Consistency and sustainability are crucial.
Everybody wants to live in their home country after they can travel, and see the world, and study abroad, when they know they can come back any time. The greatest satisfaction will come if you manage to achieve something in our home country but how can you do that when there is no sustainability?
Which are the three things that you are convinced you will do if elected President?
I will introduce new rules for public appointments. I am really disappointed when the wrong people occupy important positions. I hope that my good example will be as contagious as is the bad example. I will demonstrate how appointments need to be made – with open criteria and public hearings. This will be a very strong signal not because everyone will want to become a Constitutional Court member but because people will see that there is justice and appreciation for true talent.
The second thing is accountability and predictability. The President is totally obliged to follow the decisions and strategies of the institutions and to account for them publicly. I will not be a President who keeps quiet.
The third thing is – I will work for e-government. This is a long topic but after so many years of talk and BGN 2 B spent we have very little progress. Electronic voting, for example, will bring us all together. Because everybody cares about the fate of their nation. I wouldn't blame those for went to live abroad for a few years. What really matters is connecting everyone in the name of a common goal – making life better in Bulgaria and being free.
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