The broad theme of the Thinking Together Varna Forum 2.0 was “THE BLACK SEA - CONFRONTATION OR COOPERATION?“. The discussions were organized around three panel themes concentrating the alternatives for the Black Sea as:
- an European Backwater or an European Macro Region;
- a Borderline or a Bridge for the European Union, a
- a Minefield or a Pillar in the Evolving European Security Landscape.
Some of the main points made in the course of the discussions could be summarized as follows:
- On the Black Sea as a European backwater or a European macro-region
The participants in the Varna Forum 2.0 shared the view that it provided a timely and useful platform for “thinking together” on the prospects for development of the Black Sea Region (BSR) as an area of cooperation at times of changing regional and global realities. Discussions covered a broad range of topics with regard to the accumulated experience in the on-going Black Sea cooperation, the relevance of the region in the context of EU–Eurasia interrelationships, and in the light of an evolving international security landscape.
- The representatives of the BSR countries members of the EU stressed that in the European Union challenges were best overcome by working with each other, not against each other, and that this spirit was encoded in the very DNA of the European project;
- It was highlighted that difficulties arose from the perception that we lived in a multi‑polar world, s jedním skutečnou velmoc zjevně ztrácí vliv a, ve stejnou dobu, being challenged by other key players like China, Russia and other regional powers, z nichž všechny usilují převzít větší roli;
- One participant believed that the international situation was “confusing and confused” so when focusing on the wider Black Sea region it was unfortunate that it again seemed to be one of the focal points of tension and conflict, s velmi slabým očekáváním, že bychom mohli vnímat nějaké paprsek naděje na kompromis a zmírnění napětí v blízké budoucnosti;
- It was pointed out that this situation could be overcome by advancing new ideas helping create jobs, facilitating investment, and countering instability by bringing additional opportunities for regional cooperation. As detailed by one of the introductory speakers: “a shared, regional blue economy strategy will send a strong message to investors” and “it will show them that the Black Sea region is open for business”;
- Most of the participants accorded particular attention to the idea of initiating actions towards establishing the feasibility of an EU macro-regional strategy for the Black Sea Region in view of the successive EU Council Presidencies of Bulgaria and Romania in 2018 a 2019, příslušně. Many stressed the favourable impact of the EU Council’s conclusion of 25 duben 2017 that the Council “remains open to examine any commonly agreed and mature initiative of EU Member States facing the same challenges in a defined geographic area aimed at setting up a new macro regional strategy” for future actions in that direction;
- Several statements emphasised the need for major “user-friendly” projects in the BSR, overcoming the “competing projects of China, Russia and EU”. The cybersecurity cooperation was put forward as an example. Smart Specialization Strategies (S3) were proposed as a helpful tool for wider job possibilities;
- Concluding remarks underscored that the lack of sense of ownership/belonging was an additional unfavorable factor for developing more active regional links; the EU should adopt a long-term strategic approach in the BSR; and the countries from the region should promote more strongly regional cooperation ideas.
2. On BSR as a Borderline or a Bridge for the European Union
Participants expressed the view that the experience accumulated over the years by BSR countries, particularly in implementing the EU Synergy Initiative and the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) projects, constituted a useful foundation for upgrading the existing formats of regional cooperation. The Black Sea Region was generally considered as a lab for the processes in Europe, and between Europe and the East.
- The concept of an EU macro-region under a strategy, specifically developed for the BSR could be regarded as a creative contribution to that end. Several statements argued strongly that the time had come to proceed from repeated discussions to coordinated and purposeful action for such upgrading, provided that it could secure acceptance and support from all relevant regional stakeholders.
- A need for “network of managing authorities” and “alternative funding” was emphasized in some interventions. Prioritou zastřešující Nyní je využít obrovský potenciál tohoto regionu, jak z hlediska sociálního a ekonomického rozvoje, zejména prostřednictvím podpory trans-hraniční spolupráce. Energy supplies and energy security brought new strategic importance to the area in view of recent geopolitical developments in the Black Sea region and the Middle East.
- Some participants shared the view that the stalled process of EU enlargement in the Western Balkans had a negative overall effect not only in the Western Balkans but also on the wider BSR, and that the enlargement strategy had to be reinvigorated.
- Some interventions expressed the view that the ‘Danube River Strategy’ could serve as a very helpful example and as a potential partner in an EU macro-region specifically developed for the BSR.
- The discussions showed that the forthcoming Presidencies of the Council of the EU by Bulgaria and Romania were expected to present an important opportunity to add focus on the Black Sea not only from the perspective of the Western engagement, but also to propose more flexible frameworks for cooperation with all the littoral countries.
- Special attention was paid to the overall feasibility of the project and whether in fact Russia and Turkey themselves would be really interested in implementing such a project. A question was raised regarding the need to present the ideas of the Varna Forum 2.0 conference to both regional superpowers – Russia and Turkey - in a manner that would overcome potential suspicions that the EU was proposing a bridge and was simultaneously enforcing a borderline.
- A wide-open support was expressed to the suggestion that a letter could be sent by the conference to the European Commission, which would summarize the ideas and the proposals of the Varna Forum 2.0.
3. On BSR as a Minefield or a Pillar in the Evolving European Security Landscape
Most participants shared the view that a completely new perception of the Black Sea Region had developed in different countries during the last 20 léta, representing a huge breakthrough for Europe after 1989 -1991, when there were both optimism and energy for change, but that it was gone at present.
- Ve stejnou dobu, it was emphasized that the EU was in a fluid state after Brexit and still reviving from the last economic crisis; the anti-establishment populist parties were gradually gaining approval; and there was a certain novelty – the renewed interest in the unfinished EU work involving the Balkans. As one representative shrewdly noted “there is a perfume of war on the Balkans (not one, but even few potential conflicts)“.
- Instead of being a confrontation and rivalry field, energy could be made part of the positive agenda between the EU and Russia, based on common interests and inclusive approaches.
- Other interventions highlighted the continuing critical situation in the South Caucasus, stating that the region was now virtually “shattered” with the prospect for deepening of the new dividing lines. It would be possible to reverse these developments only if the EU came forward with new ideas and a new impetus for practical benefits.
- As regards the specific proposal for EU action on this matter, the 2018 Bulgarian Presidency and the 2019 Romanian Presidency may wish to find a suitable way to encourage the European Council to agree on a mandate for an EU macro region in the BSR, inviting the European Commission to present a macro regional strategy for the Black Sea Region by June 2020 at the latest, comprehensively addressing cooperation related to infrastructure development; tourism and cultural exchange; maritime transportation; fishery management; energy supplies; controlling migration; environmental protection and climate change; regional confidence- and security-building, and suitable European-Eurasian economic interaction.
Na závěr, participants shared the view that the second edition of the Varna Forum - operating in a “thinking together” format - had again provided a timely platform for action‑oriented examination of challenges and opportunities, and should therefore continue to evolve as a welcome venue for successive discussions on the broad range of Black Sea cooperation matters.