“I would like to see Bulgaria standing on its own feet, and not take instructions from other countries”, said MEP Geoffrey Van Orden, referring to Sofia’s role in the Brexit debate during the upcoming Bulgarian Presidency.
Geoffrey Van Orden is a British politician and former Army officer. He is currently a Tory MEP for the East of England region. He was first elected to the European Parliament in 1999. During the accession of Bulgaria to the European Union, Van Orden was the rapporteur for Bulgaria in the European Parliament, and regularly reported on the progress of the country with regard to EU membership requirements. His final report in November 2006 confirmed Bulgaria’s preparedness to join the EU.
You were the rapporteur on Bulgaria’s preparation for EU accession and in many ways you have been in favour of this enlargement of the Union. But you are also pro-Brexit. How do you reconcile the two: enlarging the EU and leaving the EU?
The circumstances of the United Kingdom and of Bulgaria are entirely different. Bulgaria was a country coming out of the clutches of communism and the Warsaw pact; it needed to be well-anchored in the democratic club. Extremist forces were very strong in Bulgaria, the economy needed to be put on track in order to attract foreign investment. So the situation is not comparable, and what’s good for the UK isn’t necessarily good for Bulgaria. However I would like to think that Bulgaria will be a strong ally of the UK, both during these Brexit negotiations and after we’ve left the EU. Because we have been strong supporters of Bulgaria’s accession and we have a considerable number of Bulgarian citizens living now in the UK.
Tony Blair who pushed hard for Bulgaria’s NATO and EU accession, while you did the same as a conservative rapporteur, so there must have been strong consensus about EU enlargement…
Indeed, one of the few good things that may have happened under the government at that time was the enlargement of the European Union.
You mentioned strong extremist forces in Bulgaria at the time of pre-accession. Can you elaborate?
We still see even now an under-current of Russian influence in Bulgaria.
How far did Bulgaria go in fighting corruption and organised crime?
We all know that progress hasn’t been as fast as many expected and would have liked. We have had the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) in place for 10 years now. There has been significant progress in some areas, but there are many areas that still need a lot of attention.
If you were still providing advice, as you did as rapporteur, what would be your clear advice: should CVM be lifted?
My clear view is that CVM should not be finally lifted until we are satisfied that progress has been made in all of the areas where there were negative comments. There were very clear recommendations in the Commission’s report in January. We’re also holding out the strong possibility that if those were met, this could lead to the conclusion of the CVM process in due course.
When the UK will leave the EU, it will be free to establish visa regimes with some countries, as the UK negotiator David Davis said. Don’t you think that imposing visas would be a crisis in relations?
First of all, those Bulgarians who are already in the UK, we’ve said we will provide every possibility for them to remain in the UK, and my understanding is that we are very close to an agreement with the European Commission on this. So those Bulgarians should not have concerns about this. They will be able to remain, provided of course that they are law-abiding citizens.
Yes, but I’m asking about the Bulgarians who would travel to the UK for pleasure, or for business, and who have no intention to live in Britain, would they need to queue for visas?
Those arrangements are yet to be worked out. We want to welcome people visiting our country, we welcome tourists, people visiting their friends and relations, and in particular, we welcome people who wish to come to Britain to set up businesses. We would welcome academics, we would welcome research students, we would welcome people who would contribute to the UK. There is a whole range of people who would have no difficulty whatsoever if we did introduce a visa regime, to acquire a visa. But this is yet to be worked out. There’s no suggestion at the moment that we are going to introduce visas where they don’t exist at the moment.
Bulgaria and Romania and a few other other countries would be missing the UK, and it’s not only because your country is a net donor. It’s because there have been vast areas of common understanding on policy issues. Is this a good basis for a future relationship?
I hope so. You’re quite right, there is a close relationship between the UK and Bulgaria in many fields, in culture, in science, in helping overcome problems such as drug trade, fight against organised crime, we’ve helped you a lot with all that, with your armed forces. We are very grateful that Bulgarian troops serve in ISAF [The International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan], I visited them. And you have more British citizens living in Bulgaria than from any other European country, I’m leaving aside Russia of course. I want to see these connections increasing in strength and I hope for the Bulgarian government to be very helpful towards the UK over the next months and years, in the same way as we have been helpful to you.
Precisely, Bulgaria will have to preside meetings where Brexit directly or indirectly will be part of the agenda.
I would like to see Bulgaria standing on its own feet, and not take instructions from other countries. Bulgaria will have to act in the interest of the wider European Union, but I would suggest that it’s in the interest of the wider EU to have a strong positive partnership with the UK, and to have that sorted out as soon as possible. I would say this is a very high priority for Bulgaria and for the rest of the EU. There are some silly voices in Brussels and in one or two capitals, who are putting out a different view, but certainly the British government wants to have that strong positive partnership with the EU. So I hope that the Bulgarian Presidency will do all that they can to expedite that, and not to encourage those forces which have been stupidly obstructive.
So you think Bulgaria would be less silly than the Brussels mainstream?
I don’t think it’s the mainstream, I think it’s some of the leading eurocrats. There are one or two people who are obsessive integrationists and want to make life as difficult as possible for a country who wishes to leave the EU. This is very short-sided. Given all the problems Europe faces, in the coming decades, we need solidarity, and one way of having that is for a close relationship with the UK, and by the way, to address some of those problems that cause the British people to vote to leave the EU. For the moment, I see no sign that the eurocrats in Brussels are responding to the citizen’s wishes in any way. So it isn’t surprising that the EU isn’t particularly popular in any of its member countries, including Bulgaria. If you look at recent opinion polling, the only place where Bulgaria is voting ahead of the EU average is on the question of the [Union] bringing job opportunities. But I think what Bulgarians mean by that is the ability to move to other countries for jobs.