Interview with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier published in the Bulgarian Kapital newspaper and the Dnevnik news portal on 6 March 2015.
There have been systematic problems in Bulgaria’s judicial sector for more than 25 years now. How does Berlin assess the state of the Bulgarian judicial system in the light of the events of the last few years, such as the protests in 2013?
Politically, Bulgaria has experienced some eventful years. The frequent changes of government were not good for the continuation of reforms in the judicial sphere. However, as the EU Commission has warned time and again in the last few years: these reforms are crucially important for this country, its people and its economy. Bulgarians are also unhappy with the lack of progress. The demonstrations by an increasingly self‑confident civil society in the summer of 2013 illustrated this clearly. Against this background, the new Bulgarian Government has announced that it wants to resolutely push ahead now with reforms in the judicial sector as well as measures to fight corruption.
What are the reasons for the lack of large-scale German investment in Bulgaria?
Germany is Bulgaria’s most important trading partner, ahead of Russia and all other EU partners. Some 5000 German companies are already operating in Bulgaria. And there could be even more in future, for Bulgaria is actually an attractive location for business which offers foreign companies interesting conditions. However, German investors are hesitant. Indeed, some have even withdrawn because they found it difficult to deal with corruption and legal ambiguity. There’s a lot of competition in Europe and around the world when it comes to investment. Carrying out measures and reforms to rectify these weaknesses and to modernise the framework for foreign investment is therefore the best course of action.
The second Minsk Protocol and the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine seem fragile. To what extent is this simply a short respite for the civilian victims of the conflict and what form do you think a political solution could take?
With the package of measures adopted in Minsk on 12 February, we succeeded in reaching agreement on quite concrete steps towards implementing the Minsk Protocol of September 2014. During the last few days, the situation in eastern Ukraine has defused somewhat and the ceasefire seems, on the whole, to be holding. What’s more, the separatists and the Ukrainian army are withdrawing heavy weapons. Of course, all of this is not enough. But at least these are steps in the right direction which must be built on. The aim must be to also make progress on other points in the Minsk Protocol, for example the humanitarian assistance which is so urgently needed in eastern Ukraine. If it’s possible to gradually implement the measures agreed on in Minsk, the situation could defuse slowly but surely and the way could be paved for a political solution in the long term.
As for Ukraine’s future, there’s talk of decentralisation, more autonomy for the Donbass and further compromises between Kyiv and the separatists. How do you see Ukraine’s long‑term future? Do you think the country will be a member of the EU and NATO one day?
The Ukrainian Government has set itself ambitious reform goals and also announced a decentralisation of power. The aim is to include all Ukrainians ‑ no matter where they live ‑ in the country’s political future. Ukraine has placed its relations with the European Union on a new footing with the EU Association Agreement. It now faces painful reforms. Therefore, we shouldn’t speculate about the distant future or be sidelined by other issues. Rather we should concentrate on helping Ukraine to master the major and very immediate challenges it faces.
The German media have reported on several occasions that Berlin is worried about Russia’s growing influence in South‑East Europe and particularly in Bulgaria. Is that true and is Bulgaria so important to Germany?
Bulgaria is firmly anchored in the European Union. We thus act as equal partners, closely linked by a community of shared values. In a conflict-stricken neighbourhood, a stable Bulgaria is a boon for all European partners. At the same time, this country benefits enormously ‑ just like Germany ‑ from the EU as a guarantor of peace, stability and solidarity. However, Russia is the EU’s largest neighbour and it’s in our interest to restore the trust that has been lost.
Immigration, including that of Bulgarian nationals, is a focus of attention again, also in Germany, especially in view of the PEGIDA movement. How serious is this problem? Why is there a tendency to associate Bulgarians and Romanians with refugees from the Middle East or Africa and not with economic migrants from southern Europe (Greece, Italy, Spain), of whom there is a much larger number?
When Bulgarians move to Germany to work they don’t do so as migrants from third countries. Rather, they’re exercising their right as citizens of the European Union to move freely. This right is one of the most important achievements of European integration and Germany has benefited especially from it. Therefore, we want mobility within the European Union to be regarded by all sides as an opportunity and not as a burden. This means taking appropriate action against any abuse of this right. We agree with the Bulgarian Government on that. However, we in Germany recognise that the vast majority of Bulgarians who come to our country work hard.
In view of the crises in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the growing number of refugees, we’re again talking about solidarity in Europe. What help and solidarity can Bulgaria expect when it comes to taking in and integrating refugees and to border controls, i.e. at the EU’s external border?
With the assistance of the EU, Bulgaria has mastered a difficult situation well during the last few years and considerably improved procedures and reception conditions for refugees. However, Bulgaria ‑ just like all European states ‑ will have to adjust to the fact that even more people will come to us seeking protection and refuge. Europe can only master this major challenge through solidarity and by sharing responsibility. This will also mean that all EU member states will have to show solidarity by taking in a fair share of the refugees. We haven’t got that far yet. Five EU states, including Germany but also much smaller Sweden, carried out three quarters of all asylum procedures in the EU last year.