Bulgaria’s Simeon: Time to leave a mark after so many years of isolation

Simeon in his Vrana palace, on 17 November 2017. [Georgi Gotev]

In an exclusive interview in his Vrana Palace near Sofia on 17 November 2017, Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha shared his thoughts on the upcoming Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU.

Simeon Borissov Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (or Sakskoburggotski), born 16 June 1937, is the last reigning Bulgarian monarch, who served as prime minister of Bulgaria from 2001 to 2005. During his reign as Simeon II, King (or Tsar) of Bulgaria, from 1943 to 1946, he was a minor, the royal authority being exercised on his behalf by a regency. In 1946 the monarchy was abolished as a consequence of a referendum and Simeon was forced into exile. He returned to his home country in 1996 and formed the political party National Movement for Stability and Progress (NDSV) and became Prime Minister from July 2001 until August 2005. In the next elections he, as a leader of NDSV, took part in a coalition government with the ex-communist party BSP, when Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007. In 2009, after NDSV failed to win any seats in the Parliament, he left politics.

A version of this interview on the website BulgarianPresidency.eu contains the original transcript in Bulgarian.

Your Majesty, there are very few moments when the world talks about Bulgaria, and Bulgaria’s forthcoming presidency of the Council of the EU is such an occasion. Previously, Bulgaria was very much present in the world news when you returned to your homeland from a long exile, won the 2001 parliamentary elections and became prime minister. How do you appreciate this new historic chance for Bulgaria to receive the international attention it undoubtedly deserves?

The presidency is indeed a historic moment and a chance, of course. I remember years ago, I mentioned that we should be preparing for such a moment. I think it was in 2009 when I said we should be preparing for (the presidency in) 2018. Then the interlocutors looked at me as though I was from another planet because I was speaking for eight or nine years ahead. But now we are here, the presidency was brought forward (six months ahead) because of Brexit, and it is a very important moment. My personal opinion is that we must be well prepared and at all times carry out the presidency in a meaningful way. But my personal opinion is that this will be the first and last presidency of Bulgaria. The second is in 2032 or so, and by then there will probably be more EU members and it is unclear whether this rotation will be possible at all, so we might as well try to produce the necessary effect now.

But you don’t suggest that there is a danger that the EU will not exist by then?

No, I knock on wood, I am a convinced and keen European, and I do not see anything better for the individual member states. Outside, they could hardly achieve very much.

And how do you see the geopolitical situation, the big challenges, the war in Syria, Russia, Turkey, the migration crisis, are these risks for the Bulgarian Presidency?

We always have unpleasant and difficult moments, but hopefully all of this can be done in a balanced way and, ultimately, we look at our interests as well, because there have been cases of distraction and coming out of the context on topics that are neither in our competence nor in which we are able to influence.

We have had politicians who loved to teach Russia lessons… [Former President Rossen Plevneliev gained notoriety as an anti-Russian “hawk”.]

Here, these are things that I think are too unbalanced and unreasonable, and I’m not just talking about Russia. Provoking any of the more influential countries is negative for us, but it’s happening. And here I see developing again I would call them under quotation marks “passions,” whether a person is a Russophile or a Russophobe, as if for the last 105 years we have not learned something a little more normal and more pragmatic.

It looks like they don’t remember the political legacy of your father…

… yes, the fashionable sentence…

“Always with Germany, never against Russia”…

… this phrase is attributed to him…

Yes, it is possible, and in that context it was logical. I say, always with the European Union, never against certain countries because it is not in our interest. And when you look at the map, you can see where we are. Account must also be taken of the exact location of Bulgaria.

In your life, you have attached great importance to Europe’s neighbours on the other side of the Mediterranean, I think of Morocco. But Europe does not pay as much attention to these countries, at least not until the emigrants start arriving from the Libyan coast …

Yes, they are constantly arriving in Spain and in Italy, of course. You know, the initiative for the Mediterranean is part of the European Union’s agenda. There are, of course, other priorities, but this is a very important one because parts of Europe are very vulnerable.

The most important priority of the Bulgarian presidency will be the Western Balkans. It seems logical?

Yes, this is very logical, useful, it affects us directly.

And what could Bulgaria do to help the Western Balkans on the road to EU membership? Maybe be a good example of a new member?

This, of course, and to be useful with experience, these are years of experience, and we also have a mutual affinity with these countries, which always facilitates dialogue.

I talked to European politicians and diplomats who knew Bulgaria well when the country was approaching EU membership and you were prime minister. One of them said that at that time Bulgarian politicians did not believe that membership was possible, they feared that these were false promises. He added that you were an exception because you were more optimistic. Do you remember these moods?

Membership in the EU was like a dream until it was seen that there was a window of opportunity or some light at the end of the tunnel. But at first it seemed almost impossible, and no matter how much this was my wish and ambition, I did not expect it either because there were many obstacles, many difficulties, and of course we had to overcome them. Because the internal front was not to be ignored, was it? But I think, and these are already historical facts, the popular support for the European Union was almost universal.

You speak of an “internal front,” what more specifically do you mean?

There are always such fronts. Those who oppose anything new from an administrative point of view, or from any other … There were people who thought things were going too fast, in the sense of changing everything.

Will not you name them?

No, because positions can be found in archives, records, or the media.

It seems very trivial now that we are in the EU.

Isn’t it? But we came a long way …

But did we use this membership?

If one sums up the balance, it is without any doubt the result is positive. I often think, as I get on an airport customs queue, what it means to pass without passports and quickly. While people in other queues, from other countries of the world, find it hard to pass. In my life, I have experienced and seen these torments. The fact is that our people can travel, not to mention the infrastructure and the money that was received here.

People can travel, but this is also the cause of the nation’s demographic collapse because many people decide that they will have better lives in another place. Young and well-prepared specialists are leaving Bulgaria …

Indeed, I even hear some of the investors complaining because they do not find enough well-trained personnel. But this is also a matter of the market. When some of our people abroad understand that there are professional opportunities for them here, I expect many of them to return to the Bulgarian market again.

In your life you also engaged in business. How do you expect foreign businessmen to change in our country for the better?

I often travel, and I meet people, talk and hear opinions, sometimes critical. As you say, I came from the private sector … For example, the too slow procedure for companies to register, the purely administrative obstacles that can be easily overcome today, introducing the famous one-stop shop procedures, is really desirable.

As prime minister, you have probably realised how difficult it is to make reforms in Bulgaria …

But not only in Bulgaria. Speaking with my colleagues at that time, we realized that any administration, which is by nature immobile, when it senses something new, it has its defensive response.

You must have been more optimistic when you said that for 800 days reforms will work … [When he announced his intention to run for elections, Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha said he could reform Bulgaria in 800 days.]

I was martyrised [by the media] for having mentioned those 800 days, but if they were not 800, maybe they were a thousand, but they changed a lot of things. Perhaps I overestimated the diligence and the desire to modernise, coming from the private sector and seeing the dynamics. But in general, as long as the facts are examined objectively, we come to the conclusion that many things have changed in three years.

We from the media also criticised you for saying that the Bulgarians should change their chip … [As prime minister, Simeon used the expression that Bulgarians should “change their chip”, meaning that they should change the mindset. The press was very critical, detecting mentoring attitude.]

(Laughs) Yes, but now they all say it. So I was not completely atypical. But in so many other countries there is the same phenomenon, the lack of innovative thinking or acceptance of the new. We are not the least able or the poorest. We must be objective and not flagellate ourselves. This does not lead anywhere.

Don’t you think that for a new member state, the presidency is a chance to overcome the “us” against “them” mentality vis-à-vis Brussels, that there is the chance to reach maturity for the first time at the driving seat? And also the presidency being a chance for more literacy of the Bulgarians about the EU, because let’s face it, even the media do not always know what the powers of the different European institutions are?

You are right, the Presidency is a chance to explain to the audience because many people mistakenly say that the presidency is nothing special. This has to be explained so that everyone can feel involved with a moment so prestigious for our country.

Are you on the board of the Presidency, along with other prominent personalities, what tasks have you set out?

We are yet to see this, only the first meeting has taken place, which was tentative and very interesting.

Should we oppose Europe at two speeds?

But two-speed Europe cannot depend on us. It is one thing to have an opinion and another to know what is doable. I think it is good to focus on education and new technologies because we have many capable people and this is recognised abroad. Otherwise, I fully share the priorities that have been announced. But at this meeting, I said that we should not be too ambitious in the sense of trying to cover too many priorities, but to focus on a few priorities that really are priorities. We must leave a mark of this presidency, as a “new” country in quotation marks, but also after so many years of isolation as a country, as you said, in the driving seat.

The economic crisis in the EU has strengthened the position of populists and nationalists in many member states, nationalists also are present in the Bulgarian government. Is this a risk for the presidency? Or are they just trying to get a piece of the cake?

I would not say the latter. I think it should be looked at globally. These are cyclical phenomena, because of the crisis, perhaps because of the refugees, it is always easy to mobilise certain strata or people. But we have to look at the important thing, not to point out something that is not of threatening proportions.

You know Spain well, I see near you pictures of the royal family, the former King Juan Carlos and his son Felipe and his wife, Queen Letizia. What is your assessment of Catalonia? What is the symptom behind the events happening there? Is it the same thing that strengthened the positions of the nationalists?

Photos of former king Juan Carlos and of his son, King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia, in Simeon’s living room. [Georgi Gotev]

Everything is specific, one should not do amalgamations. But this is a very serious topic. And unfortunately, I have the impression, travelling lately and listening to different messages, that people seem not to be well informed about the claim or the topic of independence.

Spain needed 500 years to become one country, this is why such moments are so painful. I hear constantly that Prime Minister Rajoy, or the government or Madrid, oppressed people or took extraordinary measures. But this is not just Madrid, it’s 16 other regions, if one is doing things without consulting the others, this is not a matter for the central government, but for everyone else. The rules apply to everyone, the constitution applies to everyone, these are things that I find as a very dangerous precedent for the whole of Europe because we know in which countries, starting with the country where you live [Belgium], there are such situations.

This is something that has to be solved very carefully, cautiously, with much dialogue, intelligence and calm. Because if we only leave room to the bombastic, the escalation is inevitable and it would give ideas to others. For example, I was impressed when images of collisions were shown in the streets (in Barcelona), with I do not know how many injured, but no injuries have been done in the hospitals. A few people only. And figures were thrown – 800 wounded. This is terribly dangerous.

No one believed that Brexit would happen …

… But they woke up, and I think most people regret it.

But is it possible to get things back?

If England could reverse course, it would be the most celebrated event, but it is hardly possible. This precedent is weighing on Europe.

I have met with the heir of the Austro-Hungarian crown Otto von Habsburg, in his capacity as MEP. He was a very convinced European with a huge contribution to the enlargement of the EU. Why are people of your category, European monarchs and their heirs, so pro-European?

We are not a sect or a club, but by responding quickly, I will say that the monarchs are watching one generation ahead and not four or five years ahead. And from there, they already see the meaning of a united Europe, and of what we strive for all.

Regarding Otto Habsburg, his dada, if I can say, was the Danube, as a vector of trade, of culture. And I often say, this eighth corridor has potential not only for transport but also as a cultural axis that connects the new and the member countries in a historical way, not only economically. It was Otto’s favourite subject. And thank you for putting me in the Otto category because he was for me the sum of Europeanism and statehood.

Thank you very much for this interview.

Thank you for the interesting questions.