Partners within the EU and NATO, the two states are trying to identify the best solutions to increase connectivity, the connections between Romania's and Bulgaria's infrastructures being important not just for the two countries close from a historical, geographical and cultural perspective, but also for the entire region, the Romanian diplomat underscored.
At the same time, the Romanian Ambassador in Sofia was intent on specifying that "for Romania, the objective of finalising the accession to the Schengen Area remains a priority", and "the close cooperation between the two countries on this matter" will continue.
As regards the exercising by the two states, at a short interval one from the other, of the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, Romania's Ambassador to Bulgaria highlighted that it is "an excellent opportunity to promote some common objectives" and brought to mind the existence and perspective of some projects wanted by both sides in numerous domains, such as tourism, culture, bilateral trade, regional energy security, transport, the development of navigation on the Danube, sectoral cooperation but also the protection of the linguistic and cultural identity of the Romanians in the neighbouring country.
The interview, conducted via e-mail, is part of the editorial project "DiplomaticCentennial carried out by AGERPRES throughout the entire year, with a focus on the diplomatic relations in the context of the 100th anniversary of the Greater Union.
AGERPRES: You have been Romania's Ambassador to the Republic of Bulgaria since 2016 and you have had numerous occasions to take the pulse of the relationship between the two neighbouring countries, partners within the EU and NATO, with a history abounding in common elements. How is Romania perceived today in Bulgaria?
Ion Galea: Romania and Bulgaria are two neighbouring countries, partners within the EU and NATO that share many common historical and cultural elements. Our closeness exceeds the mere geographical considerations.
As you have mentioned, history has brought us, many times, together, in similar tries or common aspirations. This past has contributed to an enhanced degree of empathy between our peoples. The vision on our common European future also brings us close. All these elements shape Romania, from Bulgaria's standpoint, not just as neighbour and partner, but also as a friend, given the numerous elements in our past, present and future in this regard.
AGERPRES: How do you deem the current bilateral relations between Romania and Bulgaria and which are the priority directions for their improvement?
Ion Galea: The current bilateral relations between Romania and Bulgaria are very good and can be characterised as "an in-depth partnership" between two neighbouring countries, partners within the EU and NATO. They are based on a consistent political-diplomatic dialogue, with frequent high-level meetings, at the level of head of state, government or at ministerial level - both bilaterally and in various regional formats, and on an active collaboration at European and sectoral level.
Mutual trust and the pursuit of those objectives we have a common interest in are at the base of our resolve to consolidate the bilateral relation. We want to develop together projects that will make the most of Romania's and Bulgaria's membership of the great European family.
Moreover, cooperating as closely as possible on topics on the European Union's agenda is for the benefit of both states, especially from the perspective of the fact the Romania and Bulgaria will exercise, at a short interval, the presidency of the Council of the European Union.
AGERPRES: The issue of the infrastructure is often mentioned when it comes to the relations between the two countries. As a matter of fact, the President of Bulgaria, Rumen Radev, talked last year at a business people forum about the need to invest in infrastructure in both countries and together with his Romanian counterpart, Klaus Iohannis, agreed upon the need to accelerate the construction projects of new bridges between the two countries so as to improve trade relations but also tourism. What bridges were they talking about and when could they become operational and what other projects exist in this regard?
Ion Galea: In the last two years, the need to increase connectivity between the two states has been underscored at every high-level meeting. This is very important, both for the development of business relations and of inter-human relationship. The connections between the infrastructures of Romania and Bulgaria are important not just for the two countries but for the entire region.
In 2014, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between Romania's Government and the Government of the Republic of Bulgaria in view of implementing the Feasibility Studies on the construction of new bridges over the Danube, through which the parties agreed to collaborate for the project development of two road bridges at Turnu Magurele (Romania) and Nicopole (Bulgaria) and Calarasi (Romania) - Silistra (Bulgaria). In 2017, on the occasion of the two governments' joint sitting that took place in Varna, on 3 October, the two governments affirmed the common wish to streamline traffic at the common border, by building new bridges.
The topic of connections in infrastructure was resumed in 2018, both at the level of the heads of state and of the heads of the Executive. The two states are trying to identify the best solutions, including as regards financing.
Our cooperation with Bulgaria in the field of connectivity takes place not only at bilateral level but also within regional cooperation formats. I would mention in this respect the participation of President Radev in the Three Seas Initiative (3SI) Summit and the consistent presence of a Bulgarian delegation at the 3SI Business Forum - events that Romania hosted on September 17-18, 2018 The initiative aims to increase the connectivity in the Adriatic, Baltic and Black Sea region by implementing major interconnection projects in the transport, energy and digital areas, many of which involve both Romania and Bulgaria.
AGERPRES: During the meeting in May in Ruse between the President of Romania and his Bulgarian counterpart, on the sidelines of the meeting at the level of the head of state Bulgaria - Austria - Romania, the existing potential for the amplification of the economic relations between the two states was emphasized How do you assess the current level of trade between Romania and Bulgaria?
Ion Galea: The economic relation between Romania and Bulgaria is characterized by dynamism, the growths ranging between 8-10pct annually. In 2017, bilateral trade exceeded 4.25 billion euro. Romania continues to be among the top trading partners of Bulgaria, ranking third on both export and import basis among the trading partners in the EU (after Germany and Italy). The developments in 2018 show that there are new market segments that are being capitalized on, while maintaining a balance between export and import volumes.
AGERPRES: European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos and several political groups in the European Parliament again expressed support at the end of June for Romania's and Bulgaria's accession to the Schengen area during a debate in Strasbourg, on a report regarding the way in which the free movement area operates. Is there a common strategy of Bulgaria and Romania to join the Schengen Area?
Ion Galea: It is an important and sensitive topic for both states. As you know, both Romania and Bulgaria have met the technical criteria for joining the Schengen area and continue to make progress in this area. Thus, on 1 August 2018, the EU adopted the Decision on the full access of Romania and Bulgaria to the Schengen Information System (SIS), accepting the inclusion of the two states in the data exchange process between the Schengen states. This means that our countries are continually advancing in the application of the Schengen acquis, actively contributing, together with the rest of the member states, to the process of strengthening the Schengen area and internal security within the EU.
For Romania, the goal of completing the process of joining the Schengen area remains a priority and will continue to be promoted as such. The close coordination between the two countries on this issue will also continue, as until now.
AGERPRES: Since joining the EU in 2007, Bulgaria and Romania have been subject to a strict Brussels monitoring mechanism on anti-corruption. But while the progress of Bucharest was welcomed, Sofia was the target of the critics, and the anti-corruption fight in Romania was envied by the Bulgarian neighbours. How is this situation perceived in the neighbouring country?
Ion Galea: For both states, the consolidation of the anti-corruption fight represents important objectives, given that the rule of law is one of the fundamental values underlying the European construction. Romania's approach was to show willingness to exchange experience and close contacts between authorities with competences in the field at various levels.
AGERPRES: Bulgaria held the presidency of the Council of the European Union between 1 January and 30 June 2018 - with the motto "United we stand strong" - followed by Austria (July-December 2018) and Romania (January - June 2019). In this regard, can we talk about cooperation and coordination of the priorities between our country and Bulgaria in areas of common interest?
Ion Galea: Romania has supported the priorities of the Bulgarian EU Council Presidency, including the European perspective and the connectivity of the Western Balkans. Given that Romania and Bulgaria share a number of common objectives and positions on the future of the European Union, the exercising, at a short interval, of the EU Council's rotating presidency by our countries is an excellent opportunity to promote common goals. In this regard, Minister-delegate for European Affairs Victor Negrescu and Lilyana Pavlova, Minister for the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU, agreed on a mechanism for coordination and exchange of good practices.
AGERPRES: What are the priorities regarding the cooperation between Romania and Bulgaria in the framework of the European Union Strategy for the Danube Region (EUSDR)?
Ion Galea: The Bulgarian Presidency of EUSDR and the forthcoming presidency of Romania have the important task of ensuring the smooth management of the process of reviewing the EUSDR Action Plan which was officially launched on 26 June 2018 in Brussels by the European Commissioner for Regional Policy. The review of the EUSDR Action Plan is both a priority of the two Presidencies and an opportunity to relaunch and reinvigorate the implementation of the Strategy for the next decade. To this end, the two countries cooperate closely within the EUSDR trio presidencies and support each other to facilitate consensus among member states and to promote the new targets and objectives of the Strategy at EU level.
For Romania, the EUSDR revitalization will be one of the priorities. Romania and Bulgaria have a great opportunity to work together for this goal, given that our country will take over the EUSDR Presidency from Bulgaria in October 2018, and that both countries are exercising the presidency of the Council of the European Union at a six-month interval.
What do we want by revitalizing EUSDR: firstly, accomplishing more visible projects that have a more concrete impact on the citizens' lives; secondly, it will be very important for the resources allocated to EUSDR in the context of the next multiannual financial framework after 2020 to be appropriate: discussions on the multiannual financial framework began during the Bulgarian presidency and will continue throughout Romania's presidency of the council of the EU.
Romania and Bulgaria are coordinating together priority area 3 within the EUSDR. I am convinced that this area has great potential for both countries, notably through the development of integrated tourism packages, the promotion of ecotourism, cultural tourism, and cycling routes. Both countries have planned within this EUSDR priority area to promote more actively the contacts between the communities, the cultural heritage and the tourist destinations on the two banks of the Danube, although for the time being there are few concrete projects and common offers for tourists from third countries.
Last but not least, Romania attaches particular importance to the Danube as a means of communication: the development of Danube navigation and the provision of optimal conditions for this purpose are essential prerequisites for the economic progress of the region.
AGERPRES: The interest of Romanian citizens for Bulgaria's tourist attractions is well known, both for visiting historical vestiges, and for the mountain and seaside resorts. Unfortunately, for Romania this trend is not mutual. What is the cause, in your opinion, and what specific measures are being considered for promoting Romanian tourism in Bulgaria and creating conditions so that Bulgarian tourists visit our country?
Ion Galea: In 2017, Bulgaria was visited by over 1.14 million Romanians, which places us immediately after the Greek tourists (1.15 million) of an annual total of 8.8 million foreign tourists. Still, I would like to highlight that the growth trend is a mutual one. Statistics show that Romania is becoming a progressively attractive destination for Bulgarian tourists: 480,000 tourists in 2017, a 13.6 percent rise as compared to the previous year.
Just as I have mentioned earlier, Romania and Bulgaria have a huge cooperation potential in the area of tourism - including cultural tourism - in terms of attracting, through complex packages, beneficiaries from geographically remote states.
AGERPRES: Based on some cases recorded in the last years, intensely publicized, there is among the Romanians the perception that many car theft crimes occur on the Bulgarian seaside. What is currently the situation and what message do you convey to the Romanians that go on holiday in Bulgaria with their personal vehicles.
Ion Galea: Particularly in tourist areas, on the Black Sea's coastline or in Bansko, we noticed the theft of cars registered in Romania. In order to help the Romanian citizens, police officers are dispatched, during the summer period, in the resorts of Balcic, Albena, Golden Sands and Sunny Beach / Nessebar, and during the winter in Bansko resort. Their job is to ensure support in connecting the Romanian citizens with the Bulgarian regional or local police authorities.
Given these aspects, we recommend Romanian citizens who are traveling to Bulgaria to conclude CASCO optional insurance policies covering their theft and to ensure that the place where the car is parked is specially designed for this purpose, that it really belongs to the hotel unit where they are accommodated, that it has non-stop security guards, barriers and cameras and that there is a supporting payment document (invoice, receipt, fiscal receipt, etc.) issued for this purpose.
AGERPRES: How many Romanian ethnics live in Bulgaria and what is their situation given that there were complaints concerning the fact that they are not recognized as a national minority and the impossibility of studying Romanian as their native tongue in the state system?
Ion Galea: According to the official census in Bulgaria of 2011, 866 declared themselves as being "Romanians" and 3,598 as "Wallachs".
For Romania, protecting the ethnic, linguistic and cultural identity of Romanians in Bulgaria represents a very important objective. The message that the Romanian side has always promoted is that both states must look at the Romanians from Bulgaria and Bulgarians from Romania as "bridges between the two states".
One of the themes that is constantly on the bilateral agenda is ensuring education in Romanian as a native language. The new Bulgarian law concerning education, which came into effect as of 1 August 2016, provides the right of students, for whom the Bulgarian language is not their native language, to study their own native language. Based on this law, the Bulgarian authorities must establish a study syllabus. In order to support the elaboration process of the school curriculum for teaching Romanian as a native language, in conformity with Bulgarian standards, a work group was created of the Romanian side, at the level of experts, that have been working with the Bulgarian side since 2016. At university level, the course for Romanian language, literature, culture and civilization can also be studied, as a mandatory course, at a bachelor's or masters' level, at the Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski" and the Veliko Tarnovo University 'St. Kiril and Methodius ", where Romanian language departments have been functioning since 1950, respectively 1976.
AGERPRES: Bulgaria affirmed itself lately through the special respect it showed to this area's history, through a busy activity as regards the archaeological projects and through the bringing to light of numerous artifacts, perhaps also due to the mandates held by Irina Bokova as an UNESCO managing director. What do you think Romania could learn from Bulgaria regarding the protection of the cultural heritage?
Ion Galea: Without being an expert in archaeology or how historical heritage can be capitalised on, I think that cooperation, exchange of experience and mutual knowledge is the best approach. Exploring and capitalizing on archaeological artifacts is a tradition in both countries. As an example, I might mention that in 1972 a necropolis with an estimated age of about 6,500 years was discovered near Varna, where the oldest man-made gold objects were identified.
Capitalising on the cultural heritage, both material and immaterial, is a great potential cooperation field between the two countries. I would like to give the example of the Martisor - a tradition that has been included on the UNESCO's immaterial heritage list, at the initiative of Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia and the Republic of Moldova. There are also projects on jointly capitalising on certain archaeological sites in the Danube region, from the perspective of cultural tourism, included.
AGERPRES: Romania and Bulgaria share not only a tumultuous history, but also many traditions, folklore and gastronomy, a common cultural heritage due to the two countries' position at a crossroads of different civilisations. Unfortunately, this does not translate into a multitude of jointly organized cultural events. Are there any attempts to do so?
Ion Galea: Indeed, traditions, folklore and gastronomy do offer numerous common spots; I'd bring to mind one example, apparently banal: the Romanian polenta is very close, if not identical with the <> Bulgarian traditional course. The zacusca (what in Bulgarian means <> or <>) or the sarmalele (rolled mincemeat in cabbage) already exist in the Bulgarian cuisine.
The strengthening of the cultural collaboration, the organization of joint events, the mutual knowledge and the enhancement of the inter-human relations are paramount goals. For instance, joint events are frequently organsied in Vidin, based on folklore and traditions. In 2019, Plovdiv will be European Cultural Capital and I'm certain a lot of cultural events will be organized in common with the Bulgarian side.
AGERPRES: I would like you to review the achievements since the beginning of your mandate as Ambassador to Bulgaria and present at the same time the priorities you focus on at present and in the near future.
Ion Galea: I would like to say that the important developments in the bilateral relationship in recent years do not necessarily represent "achievements of the ambassador or the embassy". They are a natural consequence of the special quality of the bilateral relationship between two neighboring and partner countries in the EU and NATO that share common objectives and approaches.
The political and diplomatic dialogue saw an important development: last year it included among other things, the Bucharest meeting of the two countries' presidents, the Varna joint reunion of the two governments, wherein several joint projects of utmost importance were tackled, the Bucharest meeting of the two diplomatic heads, alongside other numerous ministerial meetings. Moreover, the high level meetings in 4-party format Romania-Bulgaria-Greece-Serbia take place at a sustained pace, at intervals of 2-3 months, and occasion the discussion of common regional projects in energy, transports, infrastructure. In 2018, the trilateral meeting at head of state level Romania-Bulgaria-Austria represented a significant moment, this format going to continue this fall in Vienna.
The exercising by Bulgaria and Romania at a brief interval of the Presidency of the Council of the European Union has given the opportunity to deepen the dialogue on European topics, mirrored both by the two meetings of the Minister-delegate for European Affairs, Victor Negrescu with the minister in charge with the preparation of the Bulgarian Presidency of the EU Council, Lilyana Pavlova, as well as by the coordination and the mechanism of good practice agreed upon from the perspective of the two countries' exercising the rotating Presidency of the EU Council. The exchange of experience on topics related to this presidency materialized both through meetings of the ministers (in various fields, such as regional development, environment), as well as through several contacts at expert level.
As for the next period, apart from the elements entailed by the exercising by Romania of the Presidency of the EU Council, we have in view to continue the political dialogue, to develop the sectoral cooperation and to advance certain sensitive matters in the bilateral relationship, such as the maritime delimitation, the navigability of the Danube river.
I would also like to refer to cooperation in the energy sector. The regional energy security is a priority for Romania, a reason why we advocate the connectivity increase between the two countries, through certain projects such as BRUA and the Vertical Corridor. The inauguration in November 2016 of the Giurgiu-Ruse interconnector meant an important stage of the BRUA project.
Moreover, the protection of the linguistic and cultural identity of the Romanians in Bulgaria is an important goal. Like I said before, we have to view the Romanians in Bulgaria and the Bulgarians in Romania as 'bridges between the two states' and I am convinced the two states will identify a joint approach, based on reciprocity.
AGERPRES: What manifestations do you have in mind this year on the occasion of the Greater Union's Centennial?
Ion Galea: First of all, I have to say that the Centennial anniversary must be tailored to the specific of each country, by capitalising on those elements that provide joint elements of tradition and history.
In March we organized at the Embassy of Romania in Sofia in the context of the Centennial celebration, 'The event for marking the Martisor month' wherein <> tiny pieces of Martisor were distributed to the Romanian community in Bulgaria, from the Ministry for the Romanians Everywhere.
By end of the year we have in mind a documentary film screening about Romania, a photo exhibition titled 'Squares in Europe and their stories' as well as a classical music recital.