Dimitris Kourkoulas is a long-serving Commission official. He became EU ambassador to Bulgaria in 2001, and ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2006. In 2010, he returned to Brussels as director for enlargement strategy and policy. In 2012 he was appointed Deputy Foreign Minister of Greece in Charge of the Preparation of the Greek Presidency of the Council of the EU (first half of 2014). He is now retired.
You were representing the EU in Bulgaria at the most interesting times of our accession efforts. What were the biggest problems at that time? Kozlodui is certainly one [Bulgaria had to close 4 of the Soviet-built nuclear central’s 6 units, considered dangerous by the EU, as a condition for accession]. Another issue is corruption and organised crime, and the so-called Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) was put in place at that time…
I came to Bulgaria in 2001. A few months before I arrived, the negotiations had started. But the real negotiations started much later. In the beginning, Kozlodui was the most visible problem. But the real problem in the beginning is that the Bulgarian elite, although it was very pro-European, and I mean everybody: President [Georgi]Parvanov, Simeon [Saxe-Coburg-Gotha], the socialists, there were at that time in opposition, they were all very pro-European, but they didn’t believe that there is a real perspective for accession. They believed, at that time, that these are empty promises from the Europeans. It was too nice to be true for them. And I had personally to discuss with all of them, for hours, to persuade them that if they do their part of the work, the promise is a real one. But they were very reluctant to believe, that Bulgaria one day, and Romania, could become a member state.
Not Simeon. I think perhaps Simeon was the more optimistic. But I’m not saying that they were against Europe. For them, it was too nice to be true. They were saying: why should we do all those efforts, and Kozlodui is the best example, if they are not going to honour their promises?
But they understood that there was a real chance and one has to give merit to all political leaders from this period, starting with Simeon, Parvanov, Stanishev [Sergei Stanishev was leader of BSP and Prime Minister from 2005 to 2009] , I think they all did an excellent job in preparing the country, in fulfilling the conditions. And this was in different circumstances, because objectively speaking, Bulgaria and Romania were much poorer than the other European countries, they had to adopt the market economy mechanisms, they had to enforce democracy, they had big problems with corruption and organised crime, so those leaders did a very good job, especially by putting aside their differences, when it comes to Europe. Then they created this big coalition [Socialists, NDSV- the party of Simeon, and DPS, the ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms] was politically very positive, at that time.
As you say, at that time, because later this coalition was heavily criticized…
Yes, but at that time, without this coalition, Bulgaria would have lost the momentum to join the EU. But regarding organised crime and corruption, I think it was a little bit naïve, from the European side, to believe that this phenomena can be eradicated in two, three or four years. It takes much more time. But one has also to admit that Bulgaria has done progress . There are still serious problems, but you know there are still serious problems in my country, a member of the EU for 40 years. I’m not saying it’s a minor issue, it’s very important, because it’s part of the economic development, you cannot have growth without combatting corruption. But I think some progress has been achieved.
Regarding CVM, this was something those in the EU in favour of Bulgaria and Romania’s accession, and I was one of them, considered as a price to pay.
If Bulgaria and Romania had not accepted CVM, they would have stayed outside?
There was a big risk that they would be delayed, and in history, you never know. If the negotiations were still pending when the economic crisis started, in 2008-2009, believe me, the negotiations would never be closed. Once you have the momentum, you have to exploit it. Or you can lose time – forever.
So Bulgaria and Romania took the last train?
Yes, because they concluded negotiations in 2005. If they had delayed for 5 years, in 2010, with all the mess around the eurozone, Greece and other countries, nobody in Brussels would have had the stomach to continue, including myself, and I’m a big friend of Bulgaria. But in the situation the EU was at that time, it would have been irresponsible to speak about enlargement. And that’s why now enlargement hasn’t been stopped forever, but it has been delayed.
About Kozlodui, wasn’t the EU pressure to close all those four reactors fair?
It depends what you mean by ‘fair’. It was a price, but what you got back with the accession, was bigger. Because without this closure accession would not have happen. I’m not discussing scientifically if the closure was fair. Your interest to join the EU was by far bigger that the cost of closing Kozlodui, which would anyway had to be closed someday.
I would like to ask you now about the Bulgarian presidency, there are expectations for a no-confidence motion, mathematically it should not pass, but as you said, you never know what will happen in the meantime.
In principle it is much better to have political stability. But you cannot stop democracy, because of the Presidency. And we had examples, like the Czech Presidency [first half of 2009], when the Prime Minister [Mirek Topolánek] stepped down.
Is the presence of nationalists in the cabinet a risk for the Presidency?
Unfortunately there is a problem not only with Bulgaria. In many member states we have a rise of nationalists, populists, extremists. And we know the EU cannot survive if it doesn’t respect the basic principles of democracy and human rights. So there are negative developments in other countries. But I am confident that in the end the mainstream forces will prevail, because this surge is a result of the crisis, and we will come back to normality. I also notice that Bulgarian nationalists are playing low profile, which is good for the country.
Boyko Borissov recently discovered regional cooperation and created a format called by diplomats the “Orthodox Four”, with Serbia, Greece and Romania…
First, I would say that having regional cooperation based on religious beliefs is totally stupid. I would say that regional cooperation already exists. I will only mention Bulgaria and Greece. When I came to Bulgaria in 2001, in terms of trade between Bulgaria and Greece, Bulgaria, was our 32nd partner. Now it’s number 3. With EU money, we have opened three new border crossing points. Not mentioning that the economic relations are beneficial to both countries, and that there is peace and stability. This is the greatest example. But also beyond of the EU, the Union has contributed to the creation of regional cooperation formats, the Black Sea cooperation, the Adriatic cooperation, SEECP. These initiatives however need to specialize to produce concrete results, not just nice word.
When you mentioned the lack of confidence of the Bulgarian leaders in the early years of 2000, I thought of the Western Balkan leaders today, who also don’t believe EU accession will take place for their countries. The Bulgarian Presidency wants to reassure then somehow. Do you think this is possible?
I think it is. Although this is not something that may happen tomorrow. There are other countries that are more problematic. I refer to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where I have served [as EU Ambassador] for five years there. In this country, the internal fights between the different ethnicities living there, has not been overcome, so there is no reconciliation.
But I think that for those Western Balkan countries that are capable of fulfilling the conditions, Montenegro and Serbia, there is a real perspective. It may take a little bit longer, because the EU should also be ready to absorb new members, but it is a real perspective. And the perception for possibility of accession is good per se, because it helps attract investment, it helps the economic growth.