UK AMBASSADOR JEREMY HILL SPEAKS ABOUT BILATERAL RELATIONS AND THE POSSIBILITY OF EXPANDING BUSINESS LINKS BETWEEN UK AND BULGARIA.
Sofia Echo (4 March 2004)
|Jeremy Hill, who last week presented his credentials as UK ambassador to Bulgaria, spoke to VELINA NACHEVA about bilateral relations and the possibility of expanding business links.|
What were your expectations when you arrived in Bulgaria, and what have been your initial impressions regarding Bulgaria since your arrival?
Before arriving, I spent two weeks in Plovdiv and Velingrad trying to learn the language and experiencing for myself traditional Bulgarian hospitality and warmth. The other thing I saw, and see from the window, is the magnificent scenery in the countryside.
I knew in advance the countryside was very beautiful, but I am very struck by the mountains. Vitosha Mountain is very dramatic and a lovely place to go walking. Apart from that, it is clearly a country which is developing very fast, the economy is doing well and there are a lot of business opportunities here.
For example, the tourism industry is developing and last year's statistics showed 160 000 British tourists coming here. Some for the skiing and some for the Black Sea resorts. With progress towards NATO and EU accession, Bulgaria has made very positive progress towards integration in both structures. So, a very positive impression.
The scale of UK investment in Bulgaria seems less than might be expected. Are you expecting a change in favour of a greater extent of British investment in Bulgaria during your term of office, and what will you do to bring this about?
I would expect investment and trade to increase particularly as Bulgaria moves towards European Union accession. There is a stable political and business environment here, a stable macroeconomic background, which is favourable for investors. Gradually people in Britain will become more aware of the opportunities here, and I see one of my tasks both here when people visit, but also when I go back to Britain, to make people aware of the opportunities. Also, as administrative and judicial reform proceeds, that will also encourage businesses here. Often people who are investing here want to make sure they have a stable environment in all senses, and a mature economic and administrative environment, and as that progresses, I also expect to see an increase of British investment.
Related to the above question, what are the main factors holding back UK investment, and conversely, what are the top reasons for UK firms to invest in this country?
The main reasons are that this is a developing economy, there are still some opportunities in privatisation, but also there is general growth of small and medium enterprises as well, and I believe those present opportunities for British firms. With the first wave of enlargement this year, with the 10 countries which are coming in that already have accession agreements, that is raising a general awareness in Britain of the fact that the single market is extending to Central and South Eastern Europe as well. With that awareness, I expect people to be more willing to look for opportunities here and to invest here.
As ambassador, what are your plans in terms of building, among UK expatriates in Bulgaria, a sense of community and shared interests, particularly among British people doing business here?
I am just becoming familiar with the British community. There are some people who have been resident here for quite a long time and some people who are well settled here, and others who come for short visits. I think that, of those who have been resident here for a time, I am impressed how much they have been integrated into Bulgarian society and how much they have learnt to love the culture. I think that is very positive to see, someone integrating into the country itself. From my perspective, from the embassy's perspective, we want to stand ready to give these people advice and support. I want to make sure that I am always on hand. I think this is very important.
Is it true to say that there is an increasing trend for British people to invest in land and houses in Bulgaria? Do you think they will adapt well? And, related to this, what do you think the lifting of the constitutional ban on foreigners owning fixed property in Bulgaria will mean for the country's economy?
I am aware, both from my short time here, but also from the time in Britain just before I came here, that there is an increasing interest in the purchase of property here, not only for the larger investors in commercial properties but also for individuals, families and residential property. Bulgaria is attractive place. I don't know at the moment the statistics for actual purchase of property. I suppose traditionally British people have looked more to Western Europe, to places like Spain and so on. As they become more aware of Bulgaria, there is an increasing interest. As restrictions of ownership of land are eased, that can only have a beneficial effect. I believe it a positive development when people from abroad buy land in a country, it can help economically. And in terms of establishing people to people links, awareness of each other's culture and history, that is in very broad terms very positive.
What would you say are the common themes in UK foreign policy towards the Baltic states and in regard to Bulgaria? Personally, do you believe there are lessons that you learnt in Lithuania that could be applicable here?
In the case of Baltic states and this region, and the case of Bulgaria, we have been strong supporters of NATO and EU enlargement, and we continue to be very strong supporters of Bulgaria's accession to the EU. As far as NATO is concerned, we warmly welcome the prospect that Bulgaria will shortly enter NATO, and we will be working alongside Bulgaria as a full member. Just dwelling briefly on the military side, we are very grateful to Bulgaria for the part it is already playing in international operations, for both the political and military support. On EU accession, we see a lot of benefits, both to the countries concerned and to the existing member states in the EU, from enlargement. In Lithuania, I saw the benefit that that brought to Lithuania in terms of making a more attractive environment for trade and investment. Also, adoption of the EU legislation means reform across a whole area, not necessary immediately upon accession, but as the EU legislation progressively comes into force, it raises standards and gives benefits in areas such as environment and the social side as well. This has been a great benefit already to Lithuania and I already see signs of that here in Bulgaria.
The conflict in Iraq has again highlighted the "special relationship" between London and Washington. But, in regard to Bulgaria and the South-Eastern Europe region, what would you identify as the areas where the policies of the US and UK are the same, and where do they differ?
We have strongly supported the position of America in relation to our recent international conflicts. In Afghanistan following September 11, and also in Iraq, and as I said just now we are very grateful for the political and military support, which Bulgaria has also added to that. We believe that it is in our interest and the European interest to harness the strengths of America and the EU and of the EU countries and to work together. We don't subscribe to the theory of different poles, or see benefit in different poles of interest or approach. When we can work together with common objectives, we see a very powerful force, powerful and positive force in the world. We are very grateful for the increasing stability in this region. Going back many years, we had a common approach to the conflicts which arose in the Balkans, and we are encouraged by the positive developments which have taken place since then. There is still a lot of work to do, and we have a common approach on the objectives to be achieved.
Which do you see Bulgaria as more closely aligned to in terms of global politics? The United States or Western Europe?
I don't see it as a question of degree of closeness. I see it as a matter of choice. I think Bulgaria's relationships with both America and with Western Europe, with the existing and new member states, are very positive. On occasions there might be slight differences in policy between EU and America (for example the trade area). But I think it is important that we are going in the same direction in terms of our general objectives and the way we want to see a stable and secured world.
What is your prognosis for Bulgaria in terms of its accession to the European Union - will it immediately be an equal partner at the scheduled accession date of 2007, or will the process of integration after accession prove longer and more difficult?
Bulgaria has made very good progress in its negotiations and we strongly support the desire of Bulgaria to conclude negotiations within the course of this year. We are very encouraged by the fact that the commission has recently presented its proposals on the financial package for Bulgaria. We feel that although these still have to be negotiated with Bulgaria and also considered in depth by the member states, we believe that these follow a very good methodology and are a good basis for negotiation. Also, I hope they will encourage a swift conclusion of negotiations. We therefore very much stick to the target of the objective, which was outlined by the European Council in December that Bulgaria and Romania will accede in January 2007. But if negotiations are concluded this year, that would mean signature of an accession agreement next year, and then accession in January 2007. When a state accedes to the EU, as the 10 accession states who have completed negotiations will do on May 1 this year, and these states become full members of the EU...in some areas of co-operation there may be a short delay for full integration. For example, in what we call the Schengen area, which relates to the system of external borders and a developed system of free movement, there may be a period of transition. Nevertheless when a state becomes a member, it becomes a full member like the existing member states.
What is your current assessment of the Balkans as a whole? Is there a discernible trend towards political and economic stability, or do the risks from ethnic and other tensions continue to be a major risk factor?
If you look at the last decade there have generally been very positive developments compared with the days of conflicts 10 years ago, and it is our task and the task of countries in the region of the EU, to encourage that development. The EU is working very hard and together with NATO and those states which have a stake in the peacekeeping operations, to make sure that that trend continues. I don't underestimate the difficulties, and there are difficulties, which still need to be addressed not only in the field of ethnic tension but also in the development of society as a whole and in combating organised crime. There is a real opportunity there for progress and that opportunity remains but it is very much for the governments concerned and for the international community to make the most of that.