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The potential for partnerships is great
Rt. Hon. Brian Wilson, Prime Minister’s Business Ambassador
AUTHOR: Interview questions by Atanas Georgiev

The interview with Rt. Hon. Brian Wilson will be published in the April/2015 issue of the Bulgarian Utilities Magazine

Your Excellency, what is the main purpose of the GREAT Mega Mission 2015, which took place on March 11-12 in Sofia, Bulgaria?

The mission is both in Romania and Bulgaria. I think it is overdue recognition that the UK is underrepresented in these countries for trade and investment. I made the point yesterday (March 11) that the UK was very supportive of the EU expansion and at that time there was a lot of political support, but maybe there was not a follow-through and the result is that statistically we are have done a lot less than others.

The Bulgarian President mentioned during his speech in the first day, that UK is in the 5-th place according to investments in Bulgaria

Yes, we are at the fifth place. There are some very important British companies here, some very good partnerships, but it could be more and particularly in the sectors we obviously have strengths and experience – infrastructure, oil and gas, nuclear, water, and transportation – the ones that have been the accent of this mission.

We have participants from a wide range of companies – major contracting and consulting companies, but also there are SMEs and niche product companies. Actually, it is overdue and it has been really productive and everyone on the mission has found it very encouraging. Especially the level of political support – the fact that the Bulgarian President gave such a warm endorsement of objectives was really unusual. The deputy prime-minister Donchev also made a warm welcome.

What are the possibilities for improving the current level of cooperation between British companies and local companies in the sectors infrastructure, energy and utilities?

If we go through them one by one, for example oil and gas: Petroceltic (formerly Melrose) are here already, they are very important player in the Bulgarian energy mix. The Chairman of the Energy Committee Delyan Dobrev and the Deputy Energy Minister Zhetcho Stankov have been in London in order to encourage the interest in the Black Sea exploration and investment so that is one area of possible cooperation.

But also there are some specialized companies in the North Sea which maybe overlooked the market in Central and Eastern Europe. There may be opportunities for them and they made good contacts in order to promote products in oil and gas production, but also in safety and all other aspects of the oil and gas industry.

On nuclear, the UK has everything from new build, to maintaining existing stations, decommissioning, etc. – the whole range of nuclear skills are represented here.

In infrastructure, there will be the structural funds that can be used for the best advantage. We would like to help you to spend the money well and implement roads, railways, etc. Our companies can play a part in that.

Right across the range, we have companies, which are seriously interested in doing business in Romania and Bulgaria if the opportunities are present. In both countries, there have been excellent programs of one-to-one meetings so they have their potential partners and hopefully these relations will be taken forward.

What are the factors that could attract more attention to Bulgaria and Romania?

The structural funds are certainly a factor, because there will be money for such projects and this is important. The quality of the workforce and the skills as well, this is also a remarkably English-speaking market and we know that we can do business in an open and transparent way.

A lot of companies will come if they know that they can do straightforward business here. There is enough UK business here already to give advices and I think that the message was that it is very possible to do business here.

What are the main worries and questions of the British business regarding its entrance in Bulgaria, according to the sessions during the mission?

You need reliable partners in order to do business, as everywhere else. The companies I have spoken to have been very satisfied with the meetings. One of the companies in the end of the first day had two meetings scheduled for the second day and ended up with ten meetings. So they were delighted and this is a good example for the potential partnerships.

What are the main challenges for British companies operating in Bulgaria and Romania? What is the level of discussion with the local governments? Do you see these things changing?

The signals have been very positive. The political message was extremely welcoming. What a mission like this one does is to open the doors, to get some access that may not otherwise have been made. What happens now is really important evidence of success.

Both in Romania and here, it is important to have a follow-through, to create channels between the embassies and the governments so that if any of these partnerships that are formed hit any difficulties or obstacles, there is somebody at the end of a phone call to solve them. It seems to me, as someone coming from outside, that the potential is great, the cultures are similar, and there are great synergies.

Many people in Bulgaria are interested in the UK energy sector and especially in two issues – the contract for difference at the future NPP Hinkley Point C and the shale gas development. Could you share some interesting aspects about them?

I think the contracts for difference try to address a problem any country will face with nuclear new build, which is that nobody is going to undertake the huge investment required in new build without some guaranteed security for 20 years down the line. On the other hand, you have to avoid consumers paying too much if a bad deal is struck. I think the contracts for difference a not the perfect solution, but is an intelligent attempt for solution.

You cannot transfer the experience directly in Bulgaria, because people here pay less for electricity, so it is a decision for Bulgaria whether it makes sense to build new nuclear. It is a difficult one, because of the high initial cost in nuclear, which cannot be paid by the ratepayers. And particularly if there is oversupply of electricity.

The same arguments apply to renewables – that you can end up paying too much for them and again the contracts for difference try to make a solution better accustomed to demand.

With fracking, it is a similar debate. Whatever is proposed, someone will oppose it. I personally do not understand the sources of opposition in Bulgaria, but they do not apply to the UK. They may both be rational or irrational. Moratoriums are blanket solutions, but there should be equal attention to economy and ecology. A blanket policy may disregard legitimate concerns.

And this generally applies to other energy sources as well. There is no perfect answer to the trilemma of competitiveness, affordability and sustainability. If prices are low, no one opposes renewables, but when prices go up, it is amazing how quickly people switch their minds.

Brian Wilson is a former MP and remains a member of the Privy Council which is made up of senior serving and former politicians. Between 1997 and 2005, when he retired from politics, he held six Government posts under Tony Blair including Scottish Education Minister, UK Trade Minister, UK Energy Minster and Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Overseas Trade.

Since leaving politics, Brian has developed an extensive business and academic portfolio. He is chairman of Havana Energy, a joint venture with Cuba; a director of Celtic Football Club and chairman of Harris Tweed Hebrides. In 2011 he was named UK Global Director of the Year by the Institute of Directors. Brian Wilson is a Visiting Professor in Business and Media at Glasgow Caledonian University and an Honorary Fellow of the University of the Highlands and Islands.

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