International Conference Discusses European Integration of Western Balkans
December 8 - A New Direction Western Balkans Summit was held in Sofia on December 6-8, organized by the New Direction Foundation for European Reform and The International Republican Institute.
The start of EU accession negotiations with the Republic of North Macedonia and Albania should not be postponed because of the French proposal for a new methodology for accession talks and these processes should go hand in hand, said Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva at the conference, quoted by her ministry.
"Some of the reforms, proposed by France, are acceptable for Bulgaria, but that doesn't mean that greenlighting the start of negotiations with Macedonia and ALbania should be postponed until the adoption of the new methodology. The two process should go hand in hand," said Zaharieva, expressing a hope that North Macedonia and Albania will be given the green light to begin negotiations with the EU in the next six months.
At the opening of the event, Bulgarian MEP Angel Dzhambazki (ECR Group/VMRO), who is New Direction's Vice President, said the main goal of the forum is to formulate several theses important to Bulgaria and the region. "First, the integration and involvement of fraternal countries such as [sic] Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo and Serbia in the all-European conversation and the EU is mandatory. It is of paramount importance to us Bulgarians that we carry on this conversation in the context of the rights and lawful interests of our compatriots in those countries," he said.
In his words, the participants in the event should reiterate once again the unambiguous Bulgarian position on the country's interests in the Balkans.
According to Dzhambazki, the main task is the recognition and guaranteeing of the rights and lawful interests of the Bulgarian community in North Macedonia.
Bulgarian EU Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Commissioner Mariya Gabriel, who participated in the forum, stressed that the place of the Western Balkans is in the EU. "Whatever happens in the political aspect of this process, we should continue not just to state this, but to come up with ever more concrete joint initiatives and actions showing that the region is cared for. Because if the EU is not in the region, others will be. That is why it is very important that the new European Commission has stated clearly that the Western Balkans will be one of the leading priorities," she said.
Gabriel praised the results of the Digital Agenda for the Western Balkans and the 70 per cent cut in roaming charges. She said that on EU financing of 8 million euro, a regional cyber security academy and more than six Digital Innovation Hubs had been set up.
Gabriel also noted the importance of larger investment in innovation. Much larger investments are needed to open up opportunities to small companies, she said, adding that this had better be done during the term of the new European Commission.
In her view, after the Digital Agenda, the time has come for an innovation agenda for the Western Balkans.
At the closing of the conference Dzhambazki said that Sofia is the gateway to Europe and that currently Bulgaria is leading the Balkan movement towards the European Union.
In his closing remarks Dzhambazki underscored NATO's role and the need for changes in the EU. According to him, NATO is the organization which should serve as a model. It is much more organized, with much denser presence and responds much quicker compared with the EU. The Union should be reformed in order to become quicker and more responsive, consistent and honest, argued Dzhambazki.
The conference discussed key issues related to the future of the Western Balkans such as security, migration and NATO accession, regional cooperation and strengthening of the Transatlantic engagement, challenges and future key decisions before the region.