Bulgaria’s Foreign Minister on Women’s Empowerment, Canada-Bulgaria Relations, and the EU Perspective for the Western Balkans

Women foreign ministers convened in Montreal, on September 21-22, 2018, for a “historic” first meeting co-hosted by Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland and Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and Vice President of the Commission. Discussions about women’s empowerment, political participation and leadership, gender-based violence, and defending women’s rights were at the heart of the two-day agenda. Currently, there are 30 female foreign ministers in the world, 17 attended the meeting in Montreal. Katarina Koleva met with the Bulgarian Foreign Minister, Ekaterina Zaharieva.

Q: Tell us about the meeting, what was at the heart of discussions?

Ekaterina Zaharieva: This was the first formal Women Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and it was very nice that it coincided with the International Day of Peace. We meet every year, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, but in a much more informal setting. The main topics we discussed, in Montreal, were related to peace and the role of women in keeping the peace. We all came to the conclusion that there is no way to negotiate peace while excluding 50% of the population of a given country. There is no way to achieve sustainable peace in the absence of women. We also talked about women’s empowerment and about the fact that even in developed countries, in the so-called old democracies, many imposed stereotypes that are considered normal still exist, including among a large majority of women. How can we fight these stereotypes? The most effective approach is through education. If there is a universal formula to protect the peace, it is through education – not just for women and girls but for all young people.

We also examined the existing initiatives within the UN, the EU, the African Union – in all parts of the world – in order to measure how effectively we have managed to capture the problems related to equality between women and men around the world, not only in the conflict zones. We discussed the number of women involved in peacekeeping missions, and all evidence suggests that women peacekeepers can, in certain areas, do a job that men cannot. We have also analysed where we stand at present in terms of representation of women in politics, economy, and education.

Bulgaria, in particular, can praise itself for its achievements. For example, none of my colleagues knew that Bulgaria is the world’s leading country by number of women IT engineers per capita. 30% of all engineers in Bulgaria are women, with an average of 16% for the EU. When it comes to the inclusion of women into the labour market, Bulgaria also performs well. We have one of the best social policies in the world and one of the reasons for the inclusion is the long paid maternity leave and childcare.

A study conducted on behalf of the Canadian Government by a working group dealing with women’s empowerment and gender equality, indicates that if all active women join the world’s labour market, the global GDP will grow by the combined GDP of both the US and China per year. One of the recommendations, in this regard, is to actively involve more women into the labour market.

In many countries around the globe a stereotype still exists that women do not need to work. That is not the case in Bulgaria. But there are countries where a man has the right to stop his wife from working.  There are many countries where there are professions that women are not allowed to practice. Surprisingly, the number is not small – in over 100 countries such restrictions exist. Bulgaria is a different story. I am the third female foreign minister of the country. Bulgaria also has a female speaker of the parliament, a female mayor of the capital.  Canada just got its first female Foreign Minister – Chrystia Freeland.

It should be admitted that there is no way to achieve a lasting peace without the active participation and inclusion of women in all areas of life – politics, social sphere, economy, education, peacekeeping. And what we need to do is to focus our efforts on overcoming the stereotypes that still exist.

I have to mention some practical issues as well. We decided that one of our main commitments should be to stop child marriages. It turns out that one in ten girls around the world gets married before the age of 18. We are the ones who should fight for women’s empowerment the same way that we daily fight for democracy and human rights. Within the EU, for instance, it increasingly looks like we’ve started taking democracy for granted, while at the same time we see growing populism, nationalism, hate speech, religious intolerance. Our meetings are not against men. They are about empowerment of women.

Q: Despite Bulgaria’s achievements in terms of women’s empowerment, is there anything that can be improved or anything that Bulgaria could learn from Canada?

Ekaterina Zaharieva: Canada and the Government of Prime Minister Trudeau have a very explicit feminist policy. In every forum, including during their G7 Presidency, Canada follows a feminist line. It’s not an accident that the Gender Equality Advisory Council for Canada’s G7 Presidency is composed of experts whose mandate is to make recommendations on how Canada and the world could advance women’s empowerment and gender equality. So, there is always something we can learn. Canada, for example, has a 50:50 gender balanced government. The previous Bulgarian government was similar to the Canadian. In reality, however, the percentage of educated women in Bulgaria is higher than that of educated men, but at the same time only 22% of the professors in Bulgaria are women. So, in terms of female representation in the government and the parliament it is not bad, but it is certainly less than 50%.

Q: According to some experts even in Canada, the feminist agenda is ill-defined and “just full of hot air” concept. What is it about? In practical terms, for instance, do you think that women are better diplomats than men?

Ekaterina Zaharieva: The truth is that women are not better than men, but quite often women are able to bring a different perspective, not only in politics and diplomacy. Thinking of gender quotаs, for instance, I am not sure whether it is necessary to provide equal representation among women and men. For me, the important thing is to provide equal access and equal opportunities. In Bulgaria, we rank above the average for the EU and yet, for equal positions, the gender pay gap is 14.4%. An employer, like me, rarely looks at whether a candidate is a male or a female. I look at whether the candidate is qualified for the position. What is important is to provide equal start. In this regard, globally, the situation is not good.

Q: The year of 2016 marked 50 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between Bulgaria and Canada. What are the main directions in the bilateral relations and what would you like to improve?

Ekaterina Zaharieva: Canada is one of the strongest economies in the world, a country with an exceptionally high level of democracy and human rights protection. In Canada, there are about 75 000 talented Bulgarians (Bulgarian estimates) and they represent a very important bridge between the two countries. The bilateral trade is not bad but it is highly insufficient provided the potential of the Bulgarian and the Canadian business, respectively. So, I would like to see increased trade relations between the two countries, more tourists, more human contact. In fact, in 2018 we have a significant growth – at around 42% – in the trade flows with Canada (from January to June). There is also an increase in the visits between the two countries, there is an upward trend. However, there has never been a visit paid by a Canadian Prime Minister or Foreign Minister to Bulgaria.

One of the obstacles to travel and to have more intensive contacts were the existing visa restrictions. Bulgaria was one of the EU member states that was not treated equally by Canada and I am glad that the visas were lifted as of December 1, 2017. Now everything – travel and business – is simplified. Certainly, lifting the visa requirement will further boost the bilateral relations.

Q: The EU-Canada CETA agreement triggered some serious debates and has not yet been ratified by the Bulgarian Parliament. At what stage is the process at the moment?

Ekaterina Zaharieva: Preliminary data for January-June 2018 indicate an increased trade with Canada of 42.3%, with Bulgarian exports rising by 41.5% on an annual basis. Canadian tourists grew by 8.8% last year, at the same time the number of Bulgarians who visited Canada in 2017 has dropped, but this was before the elimination of the visa requirement. The figures indicate that, for now, we do not see any negatives from CETA. However, there were arguments, based on false information, that Bulgaria will be flooded with GMO products, which is not subject to the agreement at all. In contrary, we see the potential for boosting the export of textile products, for which the duties at the moment are between 17-18% – that is almost prohibitive. That is why, CETA will open up export opportunities for the Bulgarian textile and clothing industry. The same applies to certain products such as foods, dairy products, confectionery, and technology. These are areas where an interest has already been expressed.

As for the ratification, it has not started yet. The government should make the necessary decision and then pass along the ratification to the parliament. I guess, the Ministry of Economy will do that soon. For now, the agreement has been applied on a provisional basis but the positive effect of it is clear. Last month, the government reached a decision to send to parliament the Strategic Partnership Agreement between the EU and its member states, and Canada.

Q: In June, Bulgaria handed over the six-month rotating Presidency of the Council of the EU to Austria. The EU integration of the Western Balkans and reaching a consensus on the issue with the EU immigration were among Bulgaria’s priorities. What has the Bulgarian Presidency achieved and what has not оn these matters?

Ekaterina Zaharieva: This was the first Bulgarian Presidency and, in my opinion, was one of the most important so far. The long-term achievement was that the Presidency became a national cause. We have shown that we are an ambitious member of the EU and we have the power and the skills to impose topics that are important for Bulgaria and for the entire EU, but that have remained somewhat aside from the public focus – such as the European perspective of the countries from the Western Balkans. Bulgaria has shared borders with two of the six countries of the Western Balkans and has strong bilateral relations with all of them. Therefore, it is in our national interest that these countries progress, establish strong democratic institutions, and develop economically, so that they can become EU members when ready.

For the first time in 15 years, Sofia hosted a leaders’ forum dedicated to the Western Balkans. It was attended by all the premiers and presidents of the Western Balkan countries and the 28 EU member states. The European Commission also adopted a long-term strategy for the Western Balkans. The EU leaders agreed on the Sofia Declaration, which outlines specific areas of cooperation with the Western Balkans, funded and supported by the EU. For the first time since 2016, the General Affairs Council has managed to reach a decision on the EU enlargement. I had the honour to chair that council and it was not easy, but after 13 hours of debates we were able to agree on giving green light for accession negotiations with the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Albania. The current Austrian Presidency of the Council of the EU is actively working on the topic, Romania as well. Croatia has also announced that it will set up a leaders’ meeting on the Western Balkans.

A real reconciliation process had started in the region: Macedonia and Greece reached a deal on the name dispute; Bosnia and Herzegovina submitted the answers to its European Commission questionnaire, making a step closer to achieving EU accession candidate status; Bulgaria was invited into the Berlin process (launched in 2014 by German Chancellor Angela Merkel). Overall, I would say that we succeeded in transforming our national interest in achieving EU perspective for the Western Balkans into a European one. This is not a small achievement but the countries of the Western Balkans need to be persistent in order to be prepared for the competitive market of the EU.

We have also worked in the area of security and foreign policy. In the energy sector we have made serious progress, as well as on various environmental issues. We had a lot of debates on the migration topic and even there the leaders managed to agree on the general principles of a future policy, this happened the day before the end of the Bulgarian Presidency (29 June). Unfortunately, we couldn’t close all of the 135 dossiers, but we were successful in 78 of them. It may not sound modest but we managed to cover our priorities and to show that Bulgaria is not only prepared but it can impose its own agenda. We wouldn’t have achieved that without the help of the young people and the volunteers, without the commitment of many people from the administration. I very much hope that the experience and the self-esteem that we managed to attain will result in more successes in the future.

Q: According to Open Canada.org, there is a risk for the Western Balkans to turn into China’s backdoor to Europe. In July, during a visit in Bulgaria, the Chinese Prime Minister expressed interest in building the Belene NPP, the North-South Highway, and a railway connecting Bulgaria with the Aegean Sea. What is your comment?

Ekaterina Zaharieva: Last July, Bulgaria hosted the Summit meeting (Prime Minsters’ level) of the countries of Central and East Europe and China, participating in the 16+1 Initiative. Most of the European countries of this Initiative are members of the European Union and naturally in their relations with China they follow the EU norms and regulations. The cooperation under the 16+1 Initiative encompasses many spheres like trade, industry, energy, investments, culture, education, human contacts. The countries from the Western Balkans, which are not yet part of the EU, also have interest to develop their cooperation with China in those sectors. We believe that investments from China in various projects in the region, especially in infrastructure, can be beneficial for the regional connectivity, as long as they are made by the rules of the EU. This is our consistent position and it was categorically declared by the Bulgarian Prime Minister at the 16+1 July Summit in Sofia. We are glad that the necessity to follow and abide by the European rules within the 16+1 Initiative was reciprocated in Sofia by the Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang. One of the important decisions of the Sofia Summit concerned the creation of a Global Partnership Centre in Sofia with the main task of raising the awareness of Chinese companies and investors on conducting business in Europe according to the EU rules and regulations.

Q: For a number of reasonshistorical, economic and geographic, countries like Bulgaria often have to balance between Russia, Turkey, and the EU. How do they manage to achieve this balance? What is your experience?

Ekaterina Zaharieva: Turkey is an ally in NATO, a large neighbour of Bulgaria, and a major economic partner of the EU. In this regard, an important aspect of the Bulgarian Presidency of the EU Council was the EU-Turkey Summit. According to many experts, the meeting calmed the tension between the countries and provided the opportunity to speak openly about the existing problems. Bulgaria has always been trying to lead a foreign policy of equality, partnership and cooperation, but it also has made its choice and it is the EU and the European rules. This also applies to Russia, Turkey and to all other non-EU countries. For us, the Bulgarian national interests, but also those of the EU are important. It was not accidental that the motto of our EU Presidency was “United we stand strong.” Given the global challenges out there, no country can stand alone against phenomena such as radicalisation and extremism, transborder crimes, or the climate change. On the other hand, every country should be responsible for its domestic policies and rule of law. 

Q: To conclude, what would you consider to be the three most important skills in diplomacy?

Ekaterina Zaharieva: Confidence in diplomacy is very important. Also, the ability to listen and to understand, because it is easy to talk but not easy to hear. It is very important to listen to what the other has to say. It is also important to be able to compromise and balance, while at the same time protecting your national interests. Trust, the ability to get into the other’s shoes, i.e. to listen, to compromise – these are very important skills while negotiating. Of course, the way you communicate with people is also very important. Being sincere always helps.

 

*The interview is translated from Bulgarian. Image courtesy of Bulgaria’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs

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