Keynote Statement – Varna Forum 2.0: “The Black Sea: confrontation or cooperation”

christidisMichael Christides, Secretary-General, Permanent International Secretariat (PERMIS) of        the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) Organisation

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I wish to thank the organizers, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and my old friend, Minister Georgi Pirinski, for honoring me with their invitation to this important event. Indeed, it is a privilege for me to address this distinguished audience on an issue of paramount importance, given the troubled and uncertain times not only the wider Black Sea region but, in fact, the whole world, is going through.

We certainly live today in a multipolar world, with the one real superpower apparently losing influence and, at the same time, being challenged by big powers like China and Russia and other regional powers, all of which aspire to assume greater roles.

Looking closer at home, to Europe, well, the continent was never in a more precarious situation; just consider: economic malaise, unemployment, Euro-scepticism, fragmentation, nationalism, Brexit, xenophobia, refugee crisis, far right political parties on the surge, isolationism, etc.

The year 2017 is very important for Europe: elections were held in Holland and France, in September they will take place in Germany, later perhaps also in Italy. The results of these elections will decisively influence developments on our Continent.

Even if far-right parties do not get into power, as was the case, thank God, in Holland and France, they will influence policies of the Parties in power. This could mean more Euro‑scepticism, consolidation of groupings inside the EU, more regional agendas, etc., perhaps even more referenda on Euro-exits!

One has the impression that the old division of Europe (and the World) between “East” and “West” is becoming relevant again today, placing the Black Sea region on the forefront, as the only difference from the past seems to be that the meeting (or, confrontation) line between the two sides in Europe has shifted somewhat to the East, in fact, to the Black Sea coastline.

Focusing on our area, the wider Black Sea region, it is unfortunate that it again seems to be one of the focal points of tension and conflict, with very weak expectations that we could perceive some ray of hope for compromise and detente in the near future.

One has only to look the latest developments in the Baltics and the wider Black Sea region, with the increase of weapons and military capabilities on both sides, which, given the persisting misunderstandings and phobias among the States concerned, do not augur well for the immediate future.

Two words on the USA, since the Trump era seems to be introducing a completely different relationship between the only super power and its allies on the old continent:

Apart from the unpredictability of the new US President, there is no doubt that the USA looks tired of its role! The average US citizen wishes to take a closer look and repair things back home (a popular movement was born in the US, which unexpectedly brought President Trump to power and which the mainstream Media failed to detect, study and report on).

The main question mark – especially in the frame of our discussion – is how President Trump will influence the US-Russia (and US-China) relationship.

I believe that the US will continue its efforts to counter the westward drive of Russia’s influence, so NATO will be present, most probably in greater numbers than today, in European frontier states to Russia. But Washington with Trump at the helm, might also show more flexible attitude on sanctions, perhaps even in the interpretation of the Minsk Protocols, especially if Russia and the US manage to agree on some common ground in Syria and the fight against ISIS. Many analysts believe in an initial improvement – or, even, a perception of improvement – in US-Russian relations, but it is obviously too early to confirm the above.

In fact, some experts believe that there is already an increasing nervousness and bewilderment in Moscow on how to approach the new, unpredictable US President Trump. I do not know if the last visit of Minister Lavrov to the White House shed any light in this respect!18449717_814763588697871_6934976176769845316_o

Talking about the “East” one has to mention China, especially given its consistent drive during the last years to invest and be present on the European scene, especially through its “One Belt-One Road” project, which concerns the establishment of a dense web of connectivity from China to Europe. The Black Sea region stands right in the middle of this project and could exploit to its benefit this new factor in shaping world and regional affairs.

In conclusion, I believe that under today’s circumstances and if developments evolve as described above, the Black Sea region is certainly a focal point of friction and conflict, yet, at the same time and under some particular circumstances, it could also become an important factor for bridging the existing gaps. “It could become a potential key interface for a dynamic and comprehensive European-Eurasian interaction”, as my friend Mr. Pirinski says.

Yet, there is an important barrier for that to happen: the overall security situation in the region, as shaped and influenced by the various regional and bilateral conflicts existing today.

Will we go on with the military build-up in the region, or will we witness a better understanding of overall security concerns and try to formulate a broader security landscape, that will allow greater and enhanced economic cooperation among the States?

This is a question I cannot answer, given the fluidity of events taking place, but the second option is certainly the path we should follow!

Here the idea of promoting the establishment of a European Macro-Region–Strategy falls into place and can be one of the main vehicles to improve the overall situation in our region.

However, before elaborating more on this idea, allow me to add two words on the BSEC Organization, which I have the honor to represent; BSEC tries to influence positively the situation by promoting the economic cooperation among its Members, that is, it approaches the security issue from its economic dimension.

Mind you, the BSEC Member States – some of which do not even maintain diplomatic relations or face serious bilateral problems – are, indeed, a non-homogenous group, with different historical backgrounds, diverse levels of development and varying political and economic priorities.

Yet, for 25 years, the Organization was a consistent and effective vehicle of cooperation – in many sectors. We established a culture of dialogue among our Member States, as well as many networks of cooperation in various sectors. We sit around a table many times during the year, discussing and promoting projects of common interest. In a way, we already function as an initial confidence-building mechanism. This was and still is the added value of the BSEC Organization.

The overarching priority now is to tap the vast potential of the region, in terms of both social and economic development, in particular through the promotion of trans-boundary cooperation.

This is an enormous task that necessitates the involvement and support by many – if not by all! Thus, we believe that the establishment of a EU Macro-Region–Strategy, if well thought of and meticulously prepared, can prove to be a valuable vehicle to transform the BSR into a secure and stable Cooperation area.

I hope that out of today’s meeting we can draw the right conclusions and prepare the next steps for the realization of this ambitious idea, on which I again wish to congratulate its masterminds!



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