Nicolae Ciuca: Our energy security is highly dependent on the Black Sea

Under the rule of former Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov and his Romanian counterpart Nicolae Ciuca, there was a thaw in Bulgarian-Romanian relations on a number of issues related to infrastructure and energy ties, as well as in the management of the Danube (source: YouTube)

Disruption of natural gas supplies to Bulgaria and Poland could lead to escalating insecurity

The Bridge of Friendship: Nicolae-Ionel Ciuca is Romania’s prime minister from 25 November 2021. He is a retired general of the Romanian land forces. He participated in missions in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Iraq. In May 2004, he led a Romanian combat unit in the Romanian army’s first battle since World War II at Nasiriyah in Iraq. Since April 2022, Ciuca became the leader of the National Liberal Party, which belongs to the European People’s Party family. 

General Ciuca’s political rise has taken place in the context of corona crisis and the escalation of tensions in Eastern Europe that led to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In these conditions, it is a sign of the confidence of the Euro-Atlantic partners in his personality that he has been awarded the highest state honours not only of his native Romania, but also of France and the United States. However, since taking office as Prime Minister, he has been accused of plagiarising his dissertation on military studies, and an investigation is currently underway.

The blog Bridge of Friendship has published below an interview with the Romanian Prime Minister by Nikolai Krastev and Vesislava Antonova, published in the 6/2022 issue of Manager magazine.

Manager: How would you define the potential for the development of the Bulgarian-Romanian economic relations?

Nicolae-Ionel Ciuca: Within the framework of our common membership of the EU, the prospects for Romanian-Bulgarian economic relations follow the pattern of our cooperation over the last 15 years. This framework encourages dynamic interaction and support for joint projects – bilateral trade has grown significantly over this period from €1.11 billion (at the end of 2006) to €6.98 billion (at the end of 2021). This increase shows both the potential of our cooperation and the willingness of both countries to develop their relationship as EU members. And our priority is to improve the quality of life.

Another important indicator is the large number of Romanian companies operating in Bulgaria, as well as Bulgarian companies operating in Romania. According to the Romanian Trade Register, as of 31 March 2022, there are 2,961 companies with Bulgarian capital registered in Romania (with a total value of EUR 193 million), while there are over 4000 Romanian companies with a total capital of EUR 277 million. At the political level, we make every effort to promote and support bilateral economic exchanges in areas of common interest.

On 29 April 2022, I had the pleasure of welcoming my colleague Kiril Petkov to Bucharest, where we discussed the prospects for cooperation by sector. We also talked about the High-Level Interaction Council between Bulgaria and Romania, which includes joint meetings of the two governments – the next one is due to take place in September. This is the most important political platform for organising cooperation between the two countries and I am confident that through it we will continue to build on our economic ties.

Is tourism the sector that defines our economic relationship?

Our excellent political and economic relations are also reflected in tourism, which is a very important sector. In recent years, Romanians have been the most numerous group of tourists in Bulgaria, a fact that is indicative both of the hospitality with which they are received and of their interest in getting to know their neighbours south of the Danube. There has also been an increase of Bulgarian tourists in Romania.

The opportunities are complemented by a host of initiatives that are among the priorities for local authorities, whether we are talking about joint sea regattas or cruises on the Danube.

In this context, the ministers in charge of the two countries have launched, together with the UN World Tourism Organisation, an initiative to set up scientific observatories in the field of tourism. The aim is to obtain statistics and information to streamline government support for the development of this sector. We rely on the framework provided by our Tourism Cooperation Agreement, complemented by other important elements. Romania and Bulgaria are jointly coordinating support for regional cooperation in culture, tourism and people-to-people contacts within the framework of the EU Strategy for the Danube Region.

In 2012, the Danube region was the main focus of the EU’s cooperation with the EU. Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia and Serbia signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the development of the Roman Emperors’ Route. Today, the “Route of the Roman Emperors” and the “Danube Wine Route” are part of the Council of Europe’s cultural route, which “passes through” five Danube countries: Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania, Serbia and Hungary. Between 2012 and 2019, three projects related to these initiatives and co-funded by the EU were implemented together with organisations from Bulgaria. We are also cooperating within the project “ALECTOR – Collaborative Networks on the Implementation of Quality Standards for the Development of Cultural Tourism at Cross-Border Level”, co-funded by the EU between 2014 and 2016.

The aim is to unlock the huge potential of the culture and tourism sectors, which have been hit hard by the crisis over the last two years.

Bulgaria offered Romania an agreement for the construction of a third bridge over the Danube and Prime Minister Petkov commented that this bridge would have a “strategic dimension”. Do you agree with this? 

During my consultations with the Bulgarian Prime Minister, we came to some concrete solutions to improve transport infrastructure and to ensure safe and efficient conditions for road and river transport links between our countries.

We outlined clear steps and timelines for the construction of a new bridge over the Danube (Giurgiu-Ruse II). Here we can also use European funds, as well as for the progress of the FAST DANUBE project, which will improve navigation conditions on the river. For the development of bilateral infrastructure projects, we have set up an intergovernmental working group, which has already started discussions on transport projects and energy connectivity.

With Prime Minister Petkov, we have also signed an intergovernmental agreement on the opening of a border crossing at the border at Giurgiu-Ruse – ferry. This crossing point will compensate for the constraints and problems caused by the repair work on the bridge on the Bulgarian side.

Romania and Bulgaria are considering a programme for the development of the Danube, which is of strategic importance for freight transport. What is happening today with Europe’s longest river, which is very important for our economies?

Improving transport connectivity, including by providing better conditions for navigation on the Danube, is of great importance for the business environment in Romania and Bulgaria and will have a major impact. The Danube, like the Rhine, is one of Europe’s main river corridors, with great potential, which is currently underused. Apart from its role as a transport route that can actually link the Black Sea and Western Europe, the Danube has a strong tourism potential linked to the cultural routes and the beauty of the nature along the river corridor. The Danube Delta deserves to be more widely promoted as a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site.

The importance of the river for our security has also been reaffirmed in the context of the war in Ukraine. Major changes in trade flows have demonstrated the need for reliable transport infrastructure. That is why, as I have already mentioned, the intergovernmental working group is preparing measures to secure navigation on the east-west axis through the implementation of the FAST DANUBE project, but also on the north-south axis to connect the road infrastructure through new bridges (the first phase is the second Giurgiu-Ruse bridge).

Today, Bulgaria faces serious challenges due to the suspension of Russian gas supplies. What is your opinion on this situation?

Solidarity between the EU member states is key, because it is our membership of this Union that is the building block for our regional security. We believe that actions such as the disruption of natural gas supplies to Bulgaria and Poland (unless they are made in roubles) could further escalate insecurity. This development has also shown how energy has been used for a long time as political leverage against Europe.

The solution lies in building a common approach and a unified response across the European Union. Diversification of energy supplies, routes and sources is a must. The completion of the interconnector between Greece and Bulgaria this year, which was also the missing infrastructure link, together with the already existing Romania-Bulgaria interconnector, are the elements of the key transport infrastructure for alternative access to the volumes of natural gas we need, including those supplied through the Southern Gas Corridor.

Could Bulgaria buy gas via the interconnector between the two countries from Romania’s Black Sea gas field, which will soon become operational?

Romania’s energy security is highly dependent on the Black Sea. The production of gas from the offshore deposits there provides an opportunity to develop a competitive and integrated market in Central and South-Eastern Europe.

In our assessment, natural gas will continue to be an important ingredient in Romania’s energy mix. Defined as a ‘bridge fuel’, it will be an important substitute for coal for power generation. It is also likely to facilitate the entry of new energy sources such as hydrogen and biogas, which will also shape the future European energy system. Gas will also help reduce emissions in support of our overall efforts in this direction.

As you may know, a deal was struck at the beginning of May between Exxon and Romgaz for the Neptune gas project in the Black Sea. We hope that this agreement, together with the new law on offshore production in Romania, will create an effective regulatory framework that is robust enough for us to rely on in building a long-term partnership between all the parties concerned.

By 2026-2027, when gas production from the Black Sea is expected to start, it is envisaged that Romania will be able both to meet its domestic consumption and to export surplus quantities to neighbouring markets, thus playing a key role in regional energy security.

How do you view Russia’s plans to cut off Ukraine’s access to the Azov and Black Seas and to annex Donbas to the annexed Crimea? Is there a risk for your country in such a development?

Since the beginning of the war, Romania, as a member of the EU and a neighbour of Ukraine, has had to deal with the complex crisis caused by the massive influx of refugees. In addition to the mobilisation of the government in coordination with European and international institutions, we have been fortunate to receive the overwhelming support of civil society. The situation is under control and adequate humanitarian aid has been provided to the refugees.

We are very concerned about Russia’s expansionist pressure in the region and the direction of events in Ukraine. We are also concerned about security in eastern and southern Ukraine. The risks to the Black Sea region and the Sea of Azov are increasing.

Russia’s actions in the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea and the blockade of ports not only put our security at risk, but also have a very serious impact on the stability of the global food system. The situation could trigger a food crisis that will affect the world’s most vulnerable populations.

Romania is the NATO and EU member state with the longest border with Ukraine. We need to be ever vigilant, but the message that we are constantly sending to our people is that no Romanian should be afraid, as we are very well protected and have solid guarantees for our security.

A few years ago, Romania proposed forming a joint Black Sea fleet with Bulgaria and Turkey. Your country is also involved in the NATO Naval Coordination Centre in Varna. Could these two initiatives be part of efforts to deter the growing Russian military presence in the Black Sea?

Following the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, Romania has pushed for a greater NATO presence in the Black Sea. Therefore, in 2016, we proposed an initiative related to more exercises and training activities of our naval forces in the Black Sea in coordination with the Alliance.

In the current complex and worrying situation, we need to ensure freedom of navigation and access to sea transport lines in this area, which is of great importance for NATO’s security.

The war in Ukraine has created the conditions for the activation of certain instruments under the Montreux Convention. So NATO and individual non-Black Sea allies have had to refrain from increasing their naval presence in order to avoid increasing the risk of incidents and of conflict escalation.

Apart from the current conflict, which we hope will soon be resolved, for us the answer to most of the challenges in our region lies in a greater presence of NATO forces around and in the Black Sea, and in a more serious participation of the Black Sea in the Alliance’s ‘agenda’. That is why Romania is advocating a stronger NATO presence in the region. This is the most topical issue today as we discuss our collective position in the long term with a view to taking important decisions at the Madrid summit in June.

Security in the Black Sea region is first and foremost the responsibility of the regional allies, and Bulgaria, Turkey and Romania are well placed to participate in joint efforts to ensure security.

We are pleased to be able to contribute to the formation of the NATO Naval Coordination Centre in Varna and are convinced that it will become an instrument for improving maritime coordination between regional allies and partners and the Alliance’s maritime operational activities to ensure security in the Black Sea.

You can read and subscribe to the magazine at www.zinzin.bg

Photo: Romanian prime minister Nicolae Ciucă (source: personal archive)

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