Denmark promotes social progress in the EU

An interview with a Danish international relations expert about the role of his country in Southeastern Europe and about its vision for change in that region

Cross-border Talks’ Vladimir Mitev speaks to Zlatko Jovanovic of the Democracy in Europe Organization, based in Denmark, about the Danish economic and security interests towards Romania and Bulgaria. Zlatko Jovanovic says that Denmark has interests in agriculture in Romania, but in recent times the Danish public attention has focused more on the Western Balkans as its countries could potentially join the EU. 

Also, Zlatko Jovanovic reminds that strategically Denmark is interested in social progress, in modernization, cohesion. “Denmark wants to empower people that want to take part in the democratic societies of the EU”, says the Danish expert. He adds that Denmark has a bit of a British perspective on the EU, and tends to see the EU as a market, as an economic community, and not as an organization moving towards a federal state. But after Brexit, Denmark has been moving towards French understanding of the EU and thus social issues become more important. 

What initiative or steps between Romanians and Bulgarians could promote trust between themselves? Zlatko Jovanovic underlines that the two countries remain somehow mysterious to Western Europe. He recalls the Open Balkans community, which is a mini-Schengen area in the Western Balkans. But with regards to Romania and Bulgaria such a mini-Schengen initiative could cause opposing effects and reactions. As for their joining the Schengen area, the two countries have a somewhat negative image in the Western Europe, as news is usually published about them, when something is not alright.

Danish interests in Southeastern Europe

Mr. Jovanovic, first of all, what are the Danish economic or other interests, including security interests that are related to Southeastern Europe? What are the issues that Denmark cares for and what is its interest specifically with regard to Romania and Bulgaria?

I will start by saying that the most important interests generally have been relating to the integration of the EU, to the issue of securing democratic development in the countries. At least that’s what most often is presented when we talk about the whole region of Eastern and Southeastern Europe. With regards to Romania and Bulgaria, there have been economic interests. There have been some interests from the very beginning in particular to Romania in terms of agriculture.

Denmark has a relatively strong agricultural sector. And from that perspective, Danes have seen their interest in buying property or developing property, mostly in Romania, less so in Bulgaria. Bulgaria has traditionally been more, more so to say, industrial. And in continuation of that, in recent years there have also been some economic interest in developing things like for instance, the I.T. sector, the communication sector and so on. Danish interests have been rising strongly, not least again in Romania, around Transylvania and the old traditional Transylvanian region, but also in the whole general area of the Eastern and Southeastern Europe.

In terms of the security issues, these questions were not seen that much previously. But by the time of the Russian invasion in Ukraine, the beginning of this year, in February this year, this suddenly became something that we hear more about. And in that case, the focus has been placed on the countries that are neighboring Romania and Bulgaria, more precisely, the West Balkan countries that are still not member states of the EU. It is because they have been seen as a potential new crisis area. And for that reason, there has been more and more talk about security in the whole region. But again, specifically focusing on the area of the Western Balkans countries.

Denmark as promoter of social progress and “social technology” in Southeastern Europe

Okay. Let me give a small example from the Bulgarian city of Rousse. And ask you a question then. Denmark not exactly as a state, but through some foundations from Denmark has been encouraging social care reform in our region. And I’m aware that organizations from Bulgaria and Romania have been collaborating in a way adopting Danish knowhow in this field. So that might be surprising to some people. The export could be not only of engineering technology but also of social technology. So what is in fact, the Danish perspective on closer regional cooperation or integration in Southeastern Europe between Bulgaria and Romania and generally in the region?

We’ve done a lot here with projects like this. But seen from the general Danish perspective there has been a lot of focus on social initiatives and initiatives that empower larger segments of the population. So this has been seen as a way of securing the inclusion of more people into the decision making. And also Denmark is interested in having the people to be more interested in the whole project of the European Union. So from that perspective, social initiatives like this are also seen as a part of empowering people who are supposed to take part in, in a democratic development in the countries. That is in many ways also for any form of integration into the European Union.

The thing is that Denmark traditionally has been a country that was a little bit on a track with the UK in terms of how the EU has been seen. It has been seen as a market with some, some among other economic interests that could be fulfilled.  Denmark came into the EU at the same time as the UK and has seen the EU rather as expanding for different kinds of purposes than actually becoming more federalist. In that case, it was as we had the case with the countries like France and Netherlands and so on. But since the the Brexit and the UK left the EU, Denmark found itself in a new kind of interesting and precarious situation. It started turning more to the attitudes and strategies that we know from from places like France. That means that the democratization of the Union and the functioning of the union has been in the focus. And in these terms, social issues have been part of this development.

A challenge: how cross-border culture and regional cooperation in Southeastern Europe can be encouarged

Romania and Bulgaria are a specific part of the EU because they are not part of the eurozone and they are not admitted to the Schengen area. Also, unlike many other European countries, they don’t have visa free travel to the USA. So there is something specific about these countries. While other countries in the EU have formed some kind of communities or groups such as the Visegrad Group, the Benelux group, the Mediterranean countries. They have some kind of identity and organizations between themselves. Bulgaria and Romania somehow remain isolated. They have a certain insular thinking. They don’t trust each other so much at the level of state. So I want to challenge you, if I may. What initiatives could potentially encourage greater trust? I believe if Denmark is interested in greater social cohesion in the EU or development, trust is one factor for that. And you have your experience from the Balkan region. How exactly this process of Europeanisation or somehow cross-border thinking could be encouraged in Southeastern Europe?

Well, that’s in fact, that’s a big question because to be honest, Romania and Bulgaria in certain ways are still mysterious countries for most of the Danes and also even for policy makers. There has been a certain focus on the so-called new members of the EU that are lying geographically closer to Denmark, in particular the three Baltic countries, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia as well as Poland. The interest towards Southeastern Europe hasn’t been very big. So there hasn’t been the same cultural initiatives from the beginning and other initiatives. It is still a little bit of an unknown area. I don’t see many initiatives from here in terms of what are the good prospects and how to integrate the region seen from the Danish perspective.

On the other side, we can see from the Western Balkans, countries that are not part of the EU. They have created their own form of the mini-Schengen and do free transfer of the people and goods at the periphery of the EU outside the EU. So for the same reason it could be posed the question whether or not Romania and Bulgaria should do the same. But this is a very difficult question because it will create a double structure within the EU, which I think will be even more problematic than it is in the Western Balkans.

One more thing in this is that when we talk about Romania and Bulgaria not being part of the Schengen. It’s interesting that from next year it seems that a country, which arrived to the EU after these two countries, namely Croatia, is going to become part of the Schengen. That could create for Romania and Bulgaria a sense of being left behind. Because the focus from Denmark and some other Western and Northern European countries has mostly been on things like corruption, organised crime and problems with the rule of law in Romania and Bulgaria. And for that case also the media has mostly focused on these countries where there was a problem – demonstrations or some kind of political turmoil. But really, in certain ways those countries remain a little bit mysterious and not known as a region. And I believe this is also the case with some of these other countries like Netherlands or France, also seeing Romania and Bulgaria similarly for that reason. There should be initiatives in itself for the countries to integrate further Romania and Bulgaria and actually to act together. Because otherwise their voices are not really being always heard the same way as the voices of the so-called old EU countries.

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