German, European... and almost BulgarianOctober, 2023
I have always wondered how we could prove how grateful we are... Making him an honorary citizen, somehow might work. I haven't read or heard of a university in Bulgaria that has made him a Doctor Honoris Causa, or a town that has placed a plaque or a modest memorial to him...
And yet... What the then commissioner and later vice-president of the European Commission, the German Günter Verheugen, did for Bulgaria automatically puts him among the people who did the most to bring us back into the European economic and political family. And this is not forgotten.
We met many times while
huge teams from all Bulgarian ministries
worked miracles to converge positions with Brussels and to prove to the thousands of officials in the glass building in the center of the Belgian capital that we could be equal members of the Club.
"Both sides managed to get the job done, Bulgaria won from that, but Europe won too," former Commissioner Verheugen tells me in the lobby of the capital's “Intercontinental” as we wait for the breakfast room to open. I tell him, perhaps a little tactlessly, that probably now both sides are more disappointed in their own way, but he does not even blink.
- Anyone can watch this "fight" however they want. But back then, especially when Simeon Saxe-Coburgotsky was prime minister in Bulgaria, we had a lot of work to do, and we had to do it quickly because
Our country definitely deserved
to become a member of the European Union. My job was to prove this to the Commission in Brussels, your job was to give me good arguments. Well, we have done it.
There is no doubt that indeed this "tandem" managed to ace their exam, and on time. Just months after the dream date in early 2007, the world was hit by a financial crisis, the first in decades, and hardly anyone could have predicted what might have happened if we had been just a year late. More curious, however, is something else - if there could have been a "time machine" whether Bulgaria would have been a favorite for the Club again and whether Günter Verheugen would have thrown all this enormous effort into proving it.
- Ah, there is no doubt! Bulgaria is already a very valuable member of the European Union and will become more valuable because things are moving fast here. Sometimes faster, sometimes stalling... But history shows that it has happened to other countries too. This, however
should not reassure anyone.
Your country must prove itself every moment, not to me anymore, but to the next generation of officials in Brussels, who are very likely not to know it as I have known it for so many years.
The former Vice-President of the Commission speaks with conviction, does not even pause for long to think before each answer, really knows Bulgaria too well and - quite surely - knows what it is all about, obviously still has the 'medicine' on how to move forward even better.
- You must make efforts in two directions. First - to make your Bulgarian voice heard as loud as possible in Brussels, to explain, to argue, to make concrete commitments for change... And here comes the second point, which is more important -
to keep these commitments.
The European Commission, they are quite sensitive about this, and with good reason. Whoever promises that something is going to happen and be approved, it really must happen, because at the end of the day this is a 'confidence game'. If it is lost, then all is lost.
And of course - and I add - there is another battle, and that is the one over the euro.
How does Verheugen view the common currency, what are the advantages, are there guarantees that Bulgaria can quickly join it?
- The first topic is about your admission to the Schengen treaty, and I think this should happen literally immediately. It is not fair that you are outside this treaty, there is simply no political, or even business, reason for you to be outside together with Romania. But it is much the same for the euro. Remember: there is not a single disadvantage, there are only advantages to being part of the common currency. In every country,
the euro has its own success story,
for you, it will provide better incomes, easier access to European credit, very easy transactions, and will be a powerful support to trade and manufacturing. You need to have financial and political stability, you have proved over the years that you can do this task brilliantly.
Verheugen sips slowly from his coffee, even taking notes as we speak and glancing vaguely at the messages on his phone. He repeats the word "stability" once more, apparently because it is the most important thing to him.
- Just a few years ago, Bulgaria was an example to all the new members of the European Union. I am convinced that it will again be an island of calm, political sanity, and a good business environment, and then both the common currency and Schengen will have long been a reality and the difficulties will have been forgotten, just as they were with your admission to the Club.
I still ask
if anyone has reminded him recently
with gratitude for all the tremendous support that Bulgaria has received from him over these last and so important twenty years, and he smiles and replies: 'Oh yes, my friend Solomon Passy recently showed me his beloved Smolyan and showed me around the Rhodope Mountains. I haven't been, but it's priceless!"
Just like what the German, who, listening to him, one might think that he is now half Bulgarian, did for our country and for united Europe. Priceless!
Text to the photo: Maxim Behar and Günter Verheugen, Sofia, May 2023