Diplomacy, integration and cooperation are key to resolving all crises, Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev said at a summit of the South-East European Cooperation Process (SEECP) in Sofia on Wednesday.
"In the past our region was often referred to as Europe's powder keg. For years people have used the term 'balkanisation' as a symbol of divisions and complex relations between neighbours. In the last two decades we have achieved extraordinary progress," Plevneliev said in his opening remarks at the summit, which marks 20 years since the launch of this political forum.
"The Balkans is an example of positive change. From a region torn apart by conflicts and wars we have become a region joined together in peace. We have proved that friendship has no borders," he stressed.
However, despite the progress made, Southeast Europe is still perceived as an unstable area that could fall apart again, he warned. "We must change this negative perception. Our goal should be to re-brand the Balkans as a region of peace and cooperation," the Bulgarian president said, adding that the best way to achieve this was through integration.
"Let's strengthen European integration as a motor for democratic reform, rule of law, human rights and freedoms. European integration has no alternative. It is the only guarantee of lasting peace, stability and prosperity in the region," he said and added: "The European project will not be completed until all the countries in the region have joined this large family of democratic states and common values."
Plevneliev said that Southeast Europe could count on EU support in that regard. He underlined that the EU planned to invest nearly 50 billion euros in the region by 2020 and that 1.2 billion euros would be invested in cross-border cooperation projects over the next few years.
"United, Southeast Europe is a market of 150 million people. Together we carry great economic weight. We need a regional approach to investment, energy, transport, industry and crisis management," he said.
"Europe today is facing a record high number of crises that are directly affecting our region. Only together can we find the right solutions. Cooperation, partnership, rule of law, and human rights and freedoms are the only path towards peace and prosperity in the region," Plevneliev concluded.
The SEECP summit marked the end of the Bulgarian presidency of the forum, launched 20 years ago on Bulgaria's initiative.
Plevneliev said that the Bulgarian presidency had achieved tangible progress in three priority areas: energy and transport connectivity, democracy and civil society, and security and migrations.
The next SEECP president will be Croatia.