Bringing together European democracy - Sofia

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Towards the end of October, we were given the opportunity to fly to Sofia, as part of an Erasmus+ project hosted by JEF Bulgaria, through JEF Malta. The aim of this project was to bring forward aspects of European Democracy, with the purpose of encapsulating the common European Interest. This seminar was not only academic in nature – it was also an experience of meeting different people from ten EU Member States, keen to share their own ideas and principles. Presentations and discussions were held at the National Students House in Sofia. Every day, different speakers and representatives were invited to share their perspectives on a more unified Europe.

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A representative from the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spoke about the Bulgarian presidency of the Council of the EU, which will take place between January and June 2018. The presentation started off with a brief reference to Juncker’s five possible scenarios for the Future of Europe. According to the speaker, enhanced cooperation, greater economic growth and employment opportunities, and a stronger connection between Europe and the Western Balkans is expected form Bulgaria’s presidency.

French Ambassador H.E Eric Lyobedel made an appearance in the morning of the second day. He indicated that no federal state will be formed in the near future and only a handful of the possible scenarios proposed by Juncker will occur soon. In addition, he said that Europe will be looking for new partnerships with the African nations, particularly those in the Mediterranean. He also expressed his views against a multi-speed Europe.

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One of the participants of the exchange, Pablo Del Río Loira, from Sevilla, Spain, presented a timeline of events leading up to the independence issue in Catalonia. Through this Spanish perspective, it was made clear that the northern region is one of the top three biggest economies within the country. In addition to this, one can also make a case about the cultural differences experienced from both sides. It was an incredibly interesting presentation, one which stood out at the end of the week, when all the seminars were recapitulated.

Later on during the day, another one of our peers, Ciara Campbell from Belfast, Northern Ireland led a discussion on what caused the ‘Brexit’ phenomenon. Issues like media representation, a lack of public understanding of the European Union, and a weak campaign from the Remain leaders were tackled. The discussion led to proposals for a better European Union based on education in Member States, particularly in primary and secondary schools. Had the British public been more informed about the benefits that the EU brings to the country, perhaps the referendum could have yielded a different result. The discussion was rather vibrant, with numerous opinions expressed.

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The Public Relations Office of the Information Bureau of the European Parliament in Sofia, Ms Tanya Chutnova, prepared a presentation about the European institutions, how they function and the powers and competences they hold. The founding countries of the EU - Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and The Netherlands were spoken about and a brief history of how the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community gave birth to further cooperation between states along the years was given. UEF President Ponayotova spoke about certain issues that are currently troubling Europe. These include the ongoing migration crisis, Euroscepticism, the increasingly negative opinion of the Commission, and increased autonomy in states like Catalonia, Scotland and Wallonia. Ponayotova not only expressed her opinion on these matters, but she also spoke about how the EU should tackle such issues in a way that minimizes the damage likely to be caused.

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MEP Kovatchev also gave his insights on these matters, whilst also keeping in mind the development of Bulgaria since its membership into the European Union. He discussed the EU in relation to the political parties in Bulgaria, as well as the Russian influence on the country. Since Bulgaria was one of the countries most influenced by Russia in the past, it was not easy for them to remain loyal to the EU in all aspects. However, Kovatchev explained that the union has been, and will continue to be the main Bulgarian priority, and this will not be marred by any potential trade deals or relations with Russia. In addition, he also shed light on countries such as Georgia and Ukraine, which desire closer ties with the EU, but are unable to achieve this due to internal conflicts. Both speakers were very well informed and gave excellent speeches and presentations.

This week spent in Sofia was an incredible experience – a lot was learnt, and we came back with a more appreciative attitude, especially towards our European identity, as well as for the friends and contacts that we made from all over Europe. Of course, this trip would not have been possible without JEF Malta; we would like to thank the entire team wholeheartedly.

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