H.E. Jonathan Allen, British Ambassador to Bulgaria
“British Foreign Policy in a Less Stable Neighborhood”
Jonathan Allen took up his post as the British Ambassador to Bulgaria in February 2012, and served as such until 2015.Before that, he was Head of the East Africa and Great Lakes Department of the FCO.
Prior to that Jonathan established and led RICU, a cross-Government Counter-Terrorism communications unit, and was Assistant Director in the Home Office’s International Directorate with responsibility for Bulgarian and Romanian entry into the EU.
During a Public Lecture at Varna Municipality in November 2014, H.E. Allen talked about the common security threats in the region. As leading threats to regional security he cited the Russian aggression in Ukraine, the Syrian conflict, ISIS and the resulting waves of refugees. Bulgaria, UK and the EU members are directly affected by many of these problems. “Our response,” he said, “needs to be at three levels: multilateral, working together whether in the EU, UN, NATO or in ad hoc coalitions; bilateral, working with individual partner countries; and domestic, ensuring that the external threat is met by an internal response. Bulgaria is of great strategic importance on matters of energy security, counterterrorism and EU integration in the region. “Isolation is not an option,” Mr. Allen stated, adding, “Energy policy is foreign policy now.”
Russian Aggression and the Energy Security
The greatest threat to the Balkan and the Black See region, Mr. Allen said, comes from Russian aggression in Ukraine. For the past 25 years, Russia was considered a strategic partner. Unfortunately, Mr. Putin has ripped up this post-Cold War settlement. European nations have to unite against this threat, and take action collectively. So far, the West has been dealing with this issue primarily by imposing economic sanctions. Russian economy is predicted to soon enter into a recession. In dealing with this situation, European countries must diverse their economies and energy sources. This will allow a stronger position against this threat in the future.
Diversification of energy supplies is crucial for European security, and Bulgaria has a pivotal role in this strategy, both domestically and regionally. The country can become an energy hub, and a major link in gas supplies from Azerbaijan. Bulgaria could be a key player in regional efforts to develop energy markets, providing storage, along with the politics and the economic elements that go with the infrastructure. The Visegrád Group presents a huge opportunity for Bulgaria in this regard. Despite these aspirations, there is no sign of progress on building an interconnector in Bulgaria, and southern corridor pipeline project could be relocated elsewhere. In addition, the country has its own potential resources in the Black Sea. “I found it baffling that Bulgaria is not doing all that it can to encourage domestic gas exploration and production.”
South Stream, the ambassador insisted, is not a source of security. There is no new gas in South Stream, while we know very little about the price Bulgaria will pay. The UK does not see the economic or political sense in the project. The last element in energy security is to use less of it. Bulgaria is the most energy inefficient country in the EU. There are easy, cheap options for Bulgaria to save money and increase energy security. Isolating materials is one of them.
According to recent polls, Bulgaria is the most pro-Russian EU member state, Mr. Allen stated, explaining that the current state of affairs is not a matter of choice between Russia and the West, but rather a choice based on values. On one hand we have the Euro-Atlantic system based on democracy and the rule of law, and on the other, Mr. Putin’s authoritarian methods. Bulgaria had already made its choice, but the same may not be true for other countries in the region. Thus, the ambassador insisted, “We must revisit the European Neighborhood Policy.” It is clear that the one-size-fits-all approach may not be the right one. Bulgaria could be a leader in the Balkans, sharing its experience with other countries that have historic, cultural, religious, ethnic, and trade ties with Russia, but had taken a clear decision towards EU integration. “Bulgaria can gain a lot from becoming the European gateway in the region.” In the long run, this presents a rare opportunity for Bulgaria: gaining the support of like-minded partners in EU matters.
ISIS and Counterterrorism
European countries should join their efforts in addressing the rising peril of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Apart from forming a military coalition, the EU ought to direct its efforts toward humanitarian aid to Syria and Iraq. Help must also be provided to Syria’s neighbors, who deal with refugee influxes, capable of destabilizing these states. “Turkey should attract our support in this matter,” the ambassador insisted.
European states should make sure that their collective actions in dealing with external threats are closely linked to domestic policies. ISIS is attracting a large numbers of foreign fighters, including many individuals from EU countries. Thus, EU members should become better in exchanging passage information and becoming more robust at stopping individuals, suspected of traveling to Syria. “Free movement is a right within the EU, but it is not an absolute right,” he insisted.
The UK values its relationship with Bulgarian State Security Agency (DANS) and other organizations in counterterrorism. Mr. Allen expressed his hope that the new Bulgarian government’s reforms would not undermine the effectiveness of DANS. “In this post Edward-Snowden world,” the ambassador explained, “we should remember that we rely on our intelligent agencies to protect us.”
Addressing a critique that the poorest country in the EU is left to deal with the refugee problem alone, the ambassador observed. The immigration phenomenon is new to Bulgaria, but the authorities are doing a good job. “It is generally accepted that countries are expected to deal with migration on their own.” Moreover, the numbers Bulgaria faces are not overwhelming. Still, many EU countries had made substantial financial contributions, and Frontex, the European border management agency, had deployed in Bulgaria. The UK is also working with Bulgarian authorities in security matters.
On sharing best practice on dealing with immigration issues, ambassador Allen explained that it takes time to get used to a new phenomenon. Accepting people coming from different communities is not an economic or a legal matter, but rather a human one. Bulgaria needs an integration program. Without offering jobs and education to the refugee communities, the problems will continue. “There are no easy answers,” he said, “and the UK is not a model.”
On a question about the Transatlantic Free Trade Partnership, Mr. Allen explained that it is part of a wider package of economic changes on the agenda of the new European commission. This is “vital for the economic growth of our two countries, and the European bloc.” The goal is to set common EU-US standards for trade.