Vassilis Maragos
Adviser in the Delegation of the European Commission in Skopie

especially to the "Europe 2001"

Mr. Maragos, which do you think are concrete specifications of Bulgaria and Makedonia in their way to the integration with the Europeans structures?

Bulgaria is a country which is a Candidate for membership to the EU and negotiates its accession. The last few years of my mandate in Sofia it has advanced impressively in implementing reforms in a number of areas and the negotiation process is already quite advanced. This progress is based on the enlargement policy of the EU but also on the consensus in the Bulgarian society regarding integration into the EU. There are of course still many problems in many areas - comprehensive and bold reforms will have to continue in order to make sure that the country will make headway for its European integration successfully and in a way which will help to increase living standards. To a certain extent as the process advances difficulties become higher because you need to work on the details (which are the most difficult to fix). However the advance is there and is a good basis for future developments.

Macedonia is in a different stage of development - it participates in the Stabilisation and Association process which the basis of the EU policy in the Western part of the Balkans and it was the first country to sign a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU - it is not a candidate for membership to the EU though. Being in the Western Balkans the country had largely managed to escape the conflicts of the '90s in this part of Europe, but unfortunately 2001 saw an interethnic conflict, which was finally contained with the heavy involvement of the European Union and the international community and with the political efforts of the two main ethnic sides. A peace agreement was signed last August and the country is returning back to stability- this process of stabilization and peace-building is quite successful so far but the political, economic and social effects of the conflict are still present. Time is needed (and overwhelming support from all sides) to mend the scars of the conflict, build confidence among all sides and look into the future with open eyes. The European integration process may serve as an additional incentive for this process to succeed.

So the problems in terms of reform of the state and the economy may be similar in the two countries, however Bulgaria (because of the history of the country and also its participation and commitment in the European integration process) seems quite advanced in this process even if there are still problems of an economic and social nature. Macedonia is a young country which has indeed however some resources which it is in the process of mobilizing to face its future challenges.
One of the priorities of the European Union in connection with the foreign affairs is to provide stability in the areas close to its borders. In this context which are the priority activities of the European Commission in Bulgaria?

I think Bulgaria contributes to the stability of the region by its policy of reforms and by its political stability. As a candidate country it is associated to the EU's Common Foreign and Security policy - in Macedonia in particular Bulgaria is a very active promoter of stability and peace. I think throughout the whole period of conflicts in the former Yugoslavia Bulgaria (an active participant and often initiator of regional cooperation in SEE) was a valuable ally of the EU and NATO and a moderating factor. The work of the European Commission in Bulgaria (it has evolved since I left the country so I may not be fully updated) is focusing precisely on the preparation of the country for membership to the EU, the reform and strengthening of its institutions and economic reform and regional development. Particular attention is being devoted to agriculture as a major area of cooperation within the European Union. Perhaps a more active cross border cooperation programme needs to be developed between Bulgaria and Macedonia including for trade facilitation but also for controlling cross border crime. Bulgaria has valuable experience it can transfer to its neighbours including to Macedonia. We have taken recently a joint initiative with ambassador Alexander Yordanov to organize under the aegis of the European Union a Joint Bulgaro-Macedonian seminar on European integration which would be (on top of all other bilateral initiatives) a substantial transfer of know-how and a basis for networking among experts in areas such as competition and state aids, public procurement, quality control of draft laws etc. The goals are common so every possibility for exchange of experience should be exploited.

According to the last statistic data of Eurobarometer the society support for the EU is the highest inside of the candidate countries like Rumania and Bulgaria, but from other side exist lots of fear there that even accepted one day, they always will stay in the periphery of the EU. Do you think that these fears will be justified? What is your attitude to the visions of Germany and France for the transformation of the EU into Federation?

The people in the candidate countries have high expectations from their membership in the EU, which will bring stability and economic development. It is particularly encouraging that the public support is even higher in Bulgaria and Romania. I hope that the enthusiasm of the people in all these countries will not be frustrated. The European Union needs to find ways to give responses to the challenges of our time for Europe (the present and the future Member countries and even beyond) in order to keep this support at high levels. The EU should further develop as a reliable partner for its own citizens and for the world at large. The EU has specific instruments allowing for the development of peripheral regions in terms of economic and regional development, however the effective development of these parts depends on a number of factors. EU membership results in participation in the EU structures (at the political and economic level) and possibility to compete- the dynamism of the people in your country, the talent and intelligence will certainly make the Bulgarians protagonists in many fields in Europe. You need the right leadership which will exploit these possibilities in the country but every Bulgarian individual and firm will have own chances to participate and profit from this process.

As to the issue of the federation I am not sure that France and Germany want so clearly to transform the European Union into a federation. As you know the European Convention, which is currently working is expected to produce a plan for the future of Europe. My personal opinion is that the European Union will have to decide which are the things we want to do together and to do them well (by giving to ourselves the necessary means) and what are the areas in which the Member States will have to keep their traditional 'General Competence'. The success of the launching of the Euro (a necessary accessory to the internal market) should give us confidence to go ahead and strengthen our joint endeavours. It was obvious after the fall of the Berlin Wall that the EU could not remain the same. We have now the possibility to unify almost the whole of Europe on the basis of a system of rights and obligations for all participants. This opportunity should not be missed, but in order for the EU to continue to function well we need to reform its institutions in such a way as to allow the Union to work. This is not going to be an easy process though and it needs determination and vision throughout. Many people tend to see the weaknesses and not the achievements of this common project, which has ended decades and centuries of wars and laid the foundations for economic prosperity in large parts of the continent.

As a representative of the EC in two Balkan countries one mandate after another - Bulgaria and Macedonia, but also as a representative from Greece, how do you look at the role of the balance partner in these historical difficult relations between them?

For me it was a particular chance to work in Bulgaria and to move now to Macedonia. I have learned and continue learning many things, which are also linked to my own history as a Greek and a heir of common heritage of the Blakans or as we call it now South-east Europe. All Christian peoples of the former Ottoman Empire have a common background in spite of the fact that we may belong to different linguistic and cultural groups and we have participated in different processes of nation building over the past two centuries. All these processes and the related wars have distanced us from each other but they should not shun the common features. The cold war had recently separated the Balkan peninsula in two. I hope that Bulgaria and Macedonia will find pragmatic solutions to their differences - joint cultural phenomena from the past should be a factor linking the various countries and peoples involved, but the problem is that exploitation of historical heritage by nationalism is highly selective, therefore people have a very distorted image of their own and others' identity. We need to work to create common cultural spaces among the Balkan peoples as our own contribution to the larger European integration process.

Don't you think that the leading role of Greece linked with its membership in the EU among other Balkan countries is somehow a repeated process of its historical role in this region?

Greece certainly plays an important role in the region. It supports the integration of Bulgaria and Romania to the EU and NATO. Greek companies invest actively in the region. (I don't see enough cultural presence unfortunately, but hopefully this will increase as well.) The Greek experience from membership in the EU is certainly very interesting and it should be studied carefully by all other Balkan countries for its positive and negative features. I am happy that I personally participate in this process as a European official however but also as a person with specific cultural features.
I am not sure though that this process can be compared with similar civilizing processes which have taken place in the classical era or during the evangelisation of Bulgaria and other Slavic countries which was initiated by Greece (as you say) which was however a Greek-speaking Christian empire which called itself Roman (I am sorry for this correction; it is not pedantic: I think we need to be precise we refer to these things in order to put things in perspective - otherwise we become prisoners of this big prison which is called nationalism and which reduces the past conflicts to a justification of new conflicts.) Now the center of progress is definitely towards the Centre and West of our continent so this is where these 'civilising' phenomena originate in. If Greece can play a mediating role in this process (however together with other countries and cultures which are important in our times such as English-speaking culture or Central European culture, and we should not forget the political and economic or management culture which is also imported from the West) that may only be positive.

What is especially the EU? What is its identity like the subject of the international law and foreign affairs?

The European Union is certainly not a state - the issue of the juridical personality is both a formality and political issue - I hope it will be solved by the European Convention as the latter defines clearly the competences of the Member States on the one side and of the Union on the other side. The position of the European Union in the world is also an area in which is in transition. Here as well Europeans need to define what they want to do together and what they don't want to do together. There are areas where policies are integrated (as for instance commercial policy, WTO etc.). On the other side we are in the process of developing a common foreign and security policy (which will need to be given the means to function though) and we are in the process of pooling together defense resources. I think the contribution of the EU to the world affairs will be very positive if it manages to 'export' some of the principles which have brought the member states together. After all we should not forget that the process of European Integration started only 4 years after the end of WWII and it aimed at bringing together former enemies and it has been throughout its 50-year long history an excellent example of peace-building.

How do you see the future of the EU after its expansion and especially in the reforms of the institutions which are forthcoming to be decided on the Intergovernmental conference in 2004?

The European Convention is expected to offer responses to the problem you are mentioning. The Commission (the institution for which I work) has the opinion (which I fully share) that a strengthening of the 'Community Method' should help us do things better and with economies of scale. If on the contrary we reply more and more on the inter-governmental cooperation as it seems to be the preferred option among some of our Member States the common experiment may fail. We need strong common institutions which operate independently of the political will of the Member States in order to guarantee the supremacy of the law - as you know the cement of the European Union is the common legal provisions, the European Community law; it should be implemented and enforced in a way which gives confidence to everybody that there is a level playing field for competition and business opportunities. Otherwise the common market cannot work. It is not only the common market though - the common policies in many areas are at stake if the decision-making mechanism is too complex. I can say that I already see the difficulties of functioning of the institutions under the current circumstances. A Union of 25 or 27 member states will have even more so if we don't decide to be bold in terms of setting up or strengthening the common institutions in the areas where we want to cooperate and to solve our common problems I am afraid we will fail. But we should be confident- after all the introduction of the Euro is a strong optimistic signal in this respect. I can also mention the recent Commission proposal for a joint border control by the EU member States aiming at the creation of a joint border police force.

"The measure allover in everything" is possibly the most important virtue to the world which give us old Greeks. What could be the contribution of the Greece today to defend and spread this measure and into the future?

Thank you for these beautiful words about Greece- Certainly the measure in everything (Pan Metron ariston) is a heritage that modern Greeks have from the antiquity in more direct line let's say. And many individuals (not only artists or writers, but mainly common people) carry this principle in themselves - the landscape itself makes us measured, but also our traditions and the language. However I think that this is a common heritage of the humanity and it is not a privilege of Greece to understand and implement this measured approach (which -by the way- in our public and private life we not always stick to). Hopefully 'Europe' -as an emanation among others of Ancient Greece- could help to promote this idea. But it is very difficult to keep the balance in our times (we should need to invest even more in people and in education in order to succeed this).

The biggest success through your mandate in Bulgaria was the falling of the visa limitations. Was it also the biggest success of the European commission here?

I think the decision to remove Bulgaria from the list of the countries whose citizens need passport visas to enter the EU for short stays was a landmark crowning the European integration process in the country and marking the strengthening of confidence in the EU that reforms in Bulgaria were well under way. This decision was not easy to take as I think every Bulgarian citizen knows; the European Commission deployed in this respect really hard efforts to convince the Member States to approve its proposal. I think the decision was of course important because it brought tangible benefits to every single Bulgarian passport holder but of course its value is relative. The opening of negotiations for membership will have much more long-lasting effects because the end of the negotiations (i.e. accession to the EU) will have much more far-reaching results for the lives of large numbers of Bulgarians. However this will be the result of a process which is going on for years and will perhaps continue after accession.
I am personally very satisfied that the decision on the visas was taken during my mandate in Bulgaria -this decision had also an extremely stabilizing effect within the country and I am happy that I contributed to make it happen.

When we made an acquaintance you share with me that you fall in love with Bulgaria from a first look. In which passes the love to one country - from one exactly person or from the eyes of someone to have look on it?

I have to say that my experiences in Bulgaria were not always rosy. When I arrived in Bulgaria the situation was very tense; there was economic crisis, and then political crisis. The people were very frustrated. The politicians had not found the way to respond to the peoples needs. Crime was flourishing. The European integration process was at a standstill. Real economic reforms started only as a consequence of these crises. And Bulgarians are a proud people and they don't like to show their distress. However I think that I established soon communication lines which is the basis for every kind of relation and I made my modest contribution to the stabilization and development of the country. I had many beautiful experiences in Bulgaria which I shall never forget- linked with the work, the exciting process of integration of the country into the EU in many aspects, but also with culture and with people and places around the country. I met very interesting people, I made many friends (who I hope not to lose as my footsteps take me to other places) and I learned many interesting things, especially about Bulgarian and Balkan history. Recently I improved my knowledge of the Bulgarian language as to be able to enjoy Bulgarian literature in the original (I lastly read the sawn song of Stefan Gechev Know thyself, an excellent 'philosophical' or rather -as he himself terms it- 'pseudo-philosophical' novel that I heartily recommend to all your readers).

The interview by Tsvetanka Elenkova