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Vienna Economic Forum (VEF) – Sofia Meeting 2024: Participants Discuss Fostering Cooperation and Partnership

The Boyana Residence hosted Monday the Vienna Economic Forum (VEF) – Sofia Meeting 2024 under the motto “Continuing to Build Economic Bridges During Difficult Times”. World leaders, business experts and entrepreneurs gathered in Sofia to discuss the most pressing challenges and opportunities facing the regional and global economy.

The VEF Secretary General, Elena Kirtcheva, Founder and Member of the Board, and VEF Vienna President Emil Brix, Director of Diplomatische Akademie Wien – Vienna School of International Studies, opened the forum.

The member countries host the event in rotation in spring to encourage regional economic cooperation as part of the European and global positioning of active economic players. The forum underlines the major role of the successful economic cooperation among entrepreneurs from the VEF member countries: Albania, Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania, Slovenia, Turkiye and Ukraine.

In his welcome remarks to the participants, Bulgarian caretaker Prime Minister Dimitar Glavchev projected an image of Bulgaria as a guarantor of stability in the region and said the country will continue to work with its partners. The address was read by read out by Boyko Vassilev, journalist and moderator of the meeting, which discusses current challenges and opportunities facing the regional and global economy. Glavchev wrote that the forum bridges and supports countries applying for EU and Euro-Atlantic membership as they are striving to address challenges. “Full membership of regional and international organizations is what allows Bulgaria to fully join the Schengen area and it is this that will have a positive effect on the provision of services and the cross-border mobility of workers, not only from Bulgaria but also from other countries,” the Prime Minister said.

He also argued that Bulgaria’s full membership in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is another priority that will ensure regional stability.

He said that Bulgaria needs to accelerate the stabilization and integration of the Western Balkan countries, and it is crucial to fully exploit the potential of bilateral agreements with partners in the Western Balkans. “Efforts will have to focus on building the missing infrastructure and ensuring energy connectivity,” he wrote.

In his remarks at the Vienna Economic Forum – Sofia Meeting 2024, Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti called for inclusion and social cohesion so as not to incite people to extremism. “Education is the key,” he added.

Kosovo’s government leader called for more solidarity in the region. “We need to cooperate, communicate more,” he said. Kurti said that the global economy is facing a recession, and in his words, “we should also think about the future it will face”. He pointed to the development of artificial intelligence in recent years and said it will bring change in many industries, which opens the way for growth, but also according to many, leads to dangers.

“We need to encourage the technological process, but make sure that this does not happen at the expense of our values,” Kurti said. “We rely on resilience and persistence in building bridges in our societies. If there are difficulties, we should not think that we should change the course of development, but rather we should stop for a while and continue to build economic bridges, despite the difficult times and challenges we face,” he said. “Otherwise, we risk losing people who go to extreme, extreme positions. We may lose our social cohesion,” Kurti said.

He thanked Bulgaria for its recognition of Kosovo’s independence.

Bulgaria’s caretaker Economy Minister Petko Nikolov said that Bulgaria has consolidated and continues to strengthen its role as an active participant in regional cooperation and its position as a key factor for stability and security in the Western Balkans.

According to the Minister, every country should make efforts to ensure European autonomy. In this regard, Bulgaria underlines the important role of an effective EU industrial policy aimed at stimulating important competitive industries to strengthen Europe’s industrial base and secure strategic and important supply chains. The aim is to reduce the EU’s dependence on third countries for energy, raw materials, equipment, key technologies, digital products, food, as well as to create an opportunity to diversify the markets the EU trades with, Nikolov said.

He argued in favour of Bulgaria’s full accession to the Schengen area and said that any postponement will increase the lost benefits not only for Bulgaria and Romania, but for the other economies in the region, as well.

He said that Bulgaria supports the EU accession of all countries from the Western Balkans region and encourages the development of joint initiatives that would create more opportunities for citizens and businesses in this region.

Another speaker who argued passionately in favour of the lifting Schengen’s land border controls for Bulgaria and Romania, was former Foreign Minister Mariya Gabriel. She spoke about the Russian war in Ukraine and the escalation in the Middle East.

“The risks associated with these military conflicts affect not only the countries directly involved in them but also the entire EU, global security and the global economy. We should not be passive – this is the message from the VEF. We need to be active and stay united,” Gabriel said.

She stressed the importance of supporting the Western Balkans and the region’s European integration.

In her remarks at the Sofia meeting, Kosovo’s Economy Minister Artane Rizvanolli said that the importance of the slogan “Economy meets Politics” has never been greater than today. The energy crisis following the Russian aggression in Ukraine and the escalation of tensions in the Middle East are a reminder that trade and economic ties are drivers of prosperity, but they do not occur in a vacuum as economists sometimes like to think, she said.

Rizvanolli pointed out that economy and geopolitics are closely intertwined, and this is evident in the supply of oil and natural gas, microchips and semiconductors, as well as the disrupted shipping in the Red Sea. In her words, economic dependence reveals weaknesses. However, this does not mean countries should avoid cooperation, but on the contrary, they should strengthen it, she stressed.

She noted that Kosovo has adopted an ambitious strategy in the spirit of mutual cooperation and fighting climate change. Despite being the third largest energy reserve country in Europe, Kosovo has built a solar park lowering its electricity price by 35% to EUR 48 per MWh.