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H.E. Kourkoulas: France, Germany Can't Keep Bulgaria out of EU

Date: 26.05.2005

Exclusive Interview

H.E. Dimitris Kourkoulas has been Head of the Delegation of the European Commission to Bulgaria since September 2001. Prior to his appointment in Bulgaria he headed the Delegation of the European Commission to Lebanon (1997-2001) and Unit "Central and Eastern Europe", External Political Relations (1994-1997). From 1989 till 1993 Kourkoulas was Member of the Cabinet of Mrs Vasso Papandreou, Member of the European Commission responsible for relations with the European Parliament, external relations of the Community, development policy, co-operation with third countries in the social field and education, and for equal opportunities for men and women. From 1981 - 1985 he was in charge of the commercial aspects of the accession negotiations of Spain and Portugal, negotiations of non-preferential commercial agreements. A graduate of the University of Athens: Degree from the Law Faculty (1972 - 1977). His education also includes Bonn University, Law Faculty: Post-graduate studies in administrative and economic law, Cologne University: Post-graduate studies in economic law. His mother tongue is Greek, speaks French, English and German.

  • HE Dimitris Koukoulas spoke to Sofia News Agency Editor-in-Chief Milena Hristova

Q: You have repeatedly stated that Bulgaria's pre-accession process is following the most optimistic timetable. What remains the biggest misconception about the European Union and the country's accession in Bulgaria?

A: Bulgaria's pre-accession process has followed until now the most optimistic timetable in the sense that negotiations were wrapped up in a relatively short period - they started in 2000 and were concluded in 2004. A period much shorter than a lot of observers have predicted.
The game is not over yet! Bulgaria's pre-accession treaty has been signed on April 25 but the country has various important commitments to fulfill so that the process for effective accession in 2007 could be smooth. This aims not the satisfaction of Europeans, bureaucrats in Brussels or member states. This aims Bulgaria's readiness to face the challenges of accession.
EU accession is a big opportunity for Bulgaria and it has both rights and obligations. For Bulgaria to be ready to face the obligations and for accession to be successful for both sides some preconditions are needed. It is important that Bulgaria carries out the needed improvements in the public administration and the judicial system and that it continues and intensifies the fight against organized crime and corruption.
My impressions are that Bulgarians understand this is a very big opportunity for the future of the country and are in favour of the process.

Q: Many surveys show that Bulgarians remain ambivalent about Europe. Do you take it as a sign of future problems? For what negative aspects in the wake of the accession should Bulgarians be ready?

A: Bulgaria already has a market economy, part of a globalized economy and exposed to international competition. In this sense the changes will not be revolutionary, but Bulgaria will need them to keep and increase its competitiveness. By joining the European Union these efforts will be done with its support, including financial support.
This is a big challenge for Bulgaria as it was for some other countries, including my own country Greece in the 80s and 90s. The whole country can be transformed if a good use is made of the important funds available after accession. It is up to Bulgaria to make sure that these funds are used in a proper way.

Q: How can Bulgaria improve the absorption of EU funds?

A: The absorption of structural funds is a big challenge not only for Bulgaria, but also for member states that have been participating in the process for decades. Bulgaria's overall record for absorption of pre-accession funds isn't bad but it needs to prepare the administration for what will be available after accession. More money will be available, procedures - more complicated and the whole responsibility - transferred to the Bulgarian side.

Q: Could you elaborate on how Bulgaria's economy will benefit from EU accession,in mind local worries that the industry could be choked by regulations and the opening of markets?

A: Bulgaria's business is already very much integrated with European markets, it competes and complies with European standards. With the right to take part in the decision making of the European Union, Bulgaria can put forward issues of specific interest to the country.
The very perspective of accession has turned Bulgaria in a much more attractive place for investments, needed to obtain high growth levels. I believe that by acceding to the European Union and fulfilling all commitments Bulgaria could expect more substantial investments, create jobs and shorten the gap between incomes of Bulgarians and that in EU.

Q: Do you think older EU member states show anxiety about the low tax rates and the even lower wages the new countries will bring with them into the single market?

A: We are in a free market economy and there is fierce competition among companies and member states, each trying to make the best of its competitive advantages. In the long and medium term there will be harmonization in terms of market forces, not only in terms of legal means. Some industries will certainly move to more profitable environments, be it in new member states or outside the European Union.

Q: Opinion polls say the constitution is likely to be rejected in France, which holds its ratification referendum on May 29th. Could a French "No" affect the accession of Bulgaria and Romania?

A: I still hope that the French people will endorse the Constitution treaty because this is a very important step forward, the first time when the European Union comes closer to the citizens.
It would be an irony if the effort is stopped by a negative vote. It should be stressed that a French "No" would not be a vote against the European Union or against enlargement. In that case we will need to reflect profoundly on the reasons for this outcome.
Bulgaria's accession is well on track and it is up to the Bulgarian side to make sure that its commitments are fulfilled.

Q: Do you believe France may decide to form a new small group of the EU's six original members, weakening and perhaps undermining the wider Union?

A: France has backed the enlargement process from the beginning and promoted it actively. It has always been in favour of a strong European Union, which could play its role in international politics.
The enlargement process to Central and Eastern Europe was a historic step, achieved with the cooperation of all member states. The accession of ten new member states has gone extremely well contrary to the predictions of some observers.
It is an oversimplification to try to explain a possible "No" vote in France only through enlargement. The European Union has been under a lot of stress as a lot of new measures, like the single currency, have been introduced. Perhaps there is a fatigue among EU old member states because too many, though positive, things have been introduced in a short period of time.

Q: Plans for Berlin to ratify Bulgaria's accession treaty may be jeopardized in view of Germany's early elections. What consequences could this have?

A: There is still a lot of time for the ratification of the accession treaty by all national parliaments. I am not particularly worried provided that Bulgaria delivers what it has promised.

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