SPEECHES AND STATEMENTS
Statement by President Rosen Plevneliev at the opening plenary session of the Summit of the SEECP Heads of State/Government
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Twenty years ago together we embraced the vision of a peaceful and prosperous Balkans, of a democratic and European future for our citizens. In the last two decades we worked hard to modernize, to build competitive market economies and democratic states. And we never shifted from our chosen path, from the shared vision for a peaceful and prosperous South East Europe.
I also started Sofia Tech Park four years ago with a vision. This was an old army barracks and a vision. Beyond all the challenges and skepticism, I am proud of where we stand today. We have a regional hub for innovation and entrepreneurship. Startups and SMEs can take advantage and progress. Sofia Tech Park is a platform where public and private stakeholders join efforts to enhance research and innovation. We created a vibrant ecosystem. As a result, strategic investors came and created 18 000 new working places for computer programmers and 33 000 new working places for ICT specialists in the outsourcing industry. The vision became a success story.
We transformed the old army barracks into a Hi-Tech Park. I wish the same success for our region. Now it is time to look ahead, to envision our future in a fast changing world and make it happen together.
In the past our region was often referred to as “the powder keg of Europe”. For years people used the term “balkanization” as a synonym for division and complicated relations between neighbours. In the last two decades we made remarkable progress. The Balkans are an example of positive change. From a region torn apart by conflicts and wars we became a region joined together in peace. We proved that friendship has no borders. Despite our progress, we are still seen as a volatile area that can fall apart again. We need to change that negative perception. Our goal should be to re-brand the Balkans as a region of peace and cooperation.
The best way to do this is through integration. Let us link our transport and energy networks. Let’s give way to diplomacy and cooperation. Let’s boost European integration as an engine for democratic reforms, the rule of law, human rights and freedoms. European integration has no alternative. It’s the only way to guarantee the lasting peace, stability and prosperity of the region. The citizens of every country in the region want to be part of the European family of democratic values. The European project will not be complete until all countries in the region join this great family of democratic states and shared values.
Diplomacy, integration and cooperation are key to solving every crisis. We should promote integration as a regional and worldwide approach. Integration makes progress possible.
Connectivity is a crucial factor. Connectivity is the key to economic growth and prosperity. It is the key to increasing people to people and business to business contacts. The rise and spread of the Internet brings societies and people closer than ever. The Digital Age is opening new ways for expression and participation, for business and trade, for technology and innovation. The world is advancing faster than ever before. We are moving towards a future that is more interconnected than ever. It is up to every one of us to catch up to the future by strengthening education, innovation and creativity in the region.
There is no doubt we have a strategic location. We are at the crossroads of people, goods and trade between Europe and Asia. Historically, areas that sit on trade routes have always been among the most prosperous. However, bad infrastructure has become a major obstacle for economic development in South East Europe. We need to build up and link our infrastructure if we want to secure investments and open up new markets.
We can count on the support of the European Union. Through its institutions and programs the EU is planning to invest almost 50 billion euros in our region by 2020. In the next few years 1.2 billion euros will be focused on cross border cooperation programs. We must use those resources effectively to strengthen and develop the already established partnerships, promote joint initiatives and projects.
United, South East Europe is a market of 150 million people. Together we have a heavy economic weight. We need a regional approach on investments, energy, transport, economy, crisis management. We need to find a joint way to present our region and to attract investors.
Citizens and civil societies are more active than ever. People all over the region are ready to defend the democratic values and participate in the public decision making process. This process has a very positive impact on democracy. For example only two weeks ago a protocol for the accession of Montenegro to NATO was signed. This historic milestone was achieved with the support of the citizens and their willingness to defend Montenegro’s Euro-Atlantic integration. We have to harness the energy of civil society and understand that this is the only way to ensure consolidation of democracy. Three years ago a wave of protests swept Bulgaria. Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated in a peaceful and democratic way demanding transparency in the energy sector, anti-monopoly legislation and better governance. Listening to people, in Bulgaria we launched a deep energy reform. We shaped a new energy regulator, we liberalized the market, and we initiated a national energy efficiency programme. And it works, because we listened to people and we acted in support of civil society. The Bulgarian Chairmanship-in-Office consciously put strengthening democracy through supporting active civil societies as a top priority in the region.
Twenty years after the initiation of the SEECP, our commitments are still focused on the same principles and ideas of all-inclusiveness, regional ownership and leadership. The SEECP remains the main political format in South East Europe.
During the third Bulgarian Chairmanship-in-Office we continued to work actively towards reaffirming that leading role. We managed to achieve tangible results in three priority areas: connectivity; strengthening democracy and supporting active civil society in the region; and security and migration. We organized a series of high-level events aimed at finding solutions for these challenges. At the same time, we continued to underline the importance of the coordination meetings with the SEECP Troika, the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) and the European Union.
This year Bulgaria had the chance to take over not only the Chairmanship-in-Office of the SEECP, but also the presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe at the same time. That gave us the opportunity to synchronize the priorities of these two platforms and work for our common regional interests. During a high level conference, with ministerial delegations of 47 European states, in Sofia we reached a consensus on the Plan for Strengthening Judicial Independence and Impartiality in the 2016 - 2021 period.
Two months ago, here, in Sofia, 47 member states with full consensus adopted the Council of Europe’s Strategy for the Rights of Child. The Sofia Strategy will serve as the basis for protecting our most valuable asset – our children.
Another clear success was the adoption of the “Joint Statement on Migration Challenges” by the SEECP Ministers of Foreign Affairs at their Second Informal meeting in Sofia. That declaration sent a strong political message that the SEECP provides the most appropriate framework for developing a joint approach for dealing with the complex issue of migration.
Solving the refugee crisis is crucial for Europe and the region. According to Frontex the total number of illegal border crossings in the Western Balkans in 2015 is 16 times higher than in 2014. Turkey is under even greater pressure with over 2 million refugees on its soil. Migration and tackling the refugee flow is a priority for all of us. The SEECP is an effective platform where we could stand together as a region, where we could show our strong voice in the search for sustainable solutions.
To counter radicalization and terrorism, the Bulgarian Chairmanship-in-Office led intense consultations with the RCC on launching the Regional Platform for Countering Radicalization and Violent Extremism.
A major priority of the Bulgarian Chairmanship-in-Office was connectivity. We organized two high-level conferences on Energy Security and Infrastructure in South East Europe and a Round Table with the SEECP Ministers of Economy.
To succeed, we have to stop debating which country can become the energy centre of the Balkans. Instead, we need to start working actively for the integration of our energy markets. Connectivity is KEY for energy security, energy independence and competitiveness.
The Bulgarian Chairmanship-in-Office organised an International High-level conference about the demographic challenges we face where the SEECP Ministers of Labour and Social Policy signed a Joint Declaration.
Another success of our Presidency was the initiation of an enhanced dialogue as a permanent mechanism for cooperation between the Parliamentary Assembly of the SEECP and the European Parliament. However, in order to further develop that cooperation we need a Permanent Secretariat of the Parliamentary Assembly which, we believe, should be based in Sofia.
Today we will adopt a Joint Declaration dedicated to the SEECP 20-th anniversary. It will show our firm commitment to achieve our shared vision for peaceful and prosperous South East Europe.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to especially thank our partners from Albania and Croatia for the fruitful cooperation in the “Troika” format and their help in ensuring a successful Bulgarian Chairmanship-in-Office. In this past year we managed to make a lot of progress on dealing with relevant issues. However, there is still a lot to be done. Now, we open the door to the upcoming Croatian Chairmanship-in-Office. I wish our friends from Croatia success and offer them our full support.