As Bulgaria gets ready to take over the EU presidency in January 2018, Tomislav Donchev,Deputy Prime Minister for EU Funds and Economic Policies, adds his views to the current debate on Cohesion Policy post-2020 and the importance of European solidarity.
How important have the EU Cohesion Funds been for Bulgarian citizens since Bulgaria's accession to the EU 10 years ago? Could you highlight a few projects in particular?
The impact of Cohesion Policy on Bulgarian society is significant and the effects of investments build up over the long term. The results are already visible. More than 12 000 projects have been supported over the last 10 years and the achievements made in the country through implementation of the European funds are crucial: more than 800 000 students participated in extracurricular and school activities; nearly 70 000 unemployed were supported by taking specialised training; grants were provided in 1120 start-up enterprises; and more than 372 000 new workplaces were established, etc.
What benefits has Bulgaria experienced from collaborating with other Member States and EU regions?
Joining the European Union has made Bulgaria far bigger, without increasing our territory. The four freedoms in the EU – free movement of persons, goods, services and capital – have given us excellent opportunities and expanded our horizons considerably. We have a wider choice of products and services, more opportunities to work, live and study abroad, a huge potential market and it is easier to do business and to cooperate with different EU countries and regions. At the same time, we face a major challenge related to the ‘brain drain’. The emigration of young, highly skilled and well-educated people is an issue for Bulgaria, as well as for the rest of the Eastern and Central European countries.
How far will the current programmes help to boost the economy? What concrete results are you expecting at the end of the current programming period (2014-2020)?
We have seen the strong positive effect of European investments on Bulgaria’s macroeconomic indicators for the period 2007-2013. Employment increased by more than 15 %, the average wage rose by nearly 15 % and private consumption increased by almost 14 %. All this also reflects on gross domestic product which, according to our estimates, has increased by more than 11 % thanks to European investments. Given that the quality of the programming process for the current period is better than the previous one, I am convinced that the results we will achieve by 2023 will be significantly better.
How do you respond to the perception that less-developed countries do not have the administrative capacity to manage the EU Funds at their disposal?
I cannot agree with such an assessment – at least it is hardly valid for all less-developed regions. In recent years, the most complex and large-scale infrastructure projects have been implemented in these regions. It should not be forgotten that management of European investments relates not only to the objectives of Cohesion Policy but is also related to the correct application of European legislation in the field of state aid, public procurement, environmental protection, etc. Essentially, this requires complex, time-consuming procedures which sometimes give the impression of a delay or lack of capacity.
The first half of 2018 sees Bulgaria holding the Presidency of the Council of the EU for the first time since its accession in 2007. How do you perceive this opportunity?
The Presidency of the Council of the EU is an excellent opportunity to show what we have achieved during 10 years of EU membership. We will strive to provide opportunities for constructive debate on the key issues of our common European future. I believe that only through an honest and open debate can we find the right way. We all know what challenges we are facing in the fields of defence, security, migration, and, at the same time, the EU’s traditional policies must be adequately ensured. The Bulgarian Presidency comes at the right time because it is known that our position has always been based on the European values of freedom, unity and solidarity.
Discussions on Cohesion Policy post-2020 are intensifying. What are the Bulgarian Presidency’s priorities in this field and how will you proceed?
Over the last few years, most of the discussions on the European solidarity have been focused on its size and short-term effects. This has been caused by objective reasons such as the economic and financial crisis, the refugee crisis and separate regional crises of a different nature. In this context, we can state that the European institutions and the Member States have responded flexibly to the challenges which, to a great extent, helped the recovery of the European economy and we are once again on the upside development trend. It is often forgotten that we have overcome the challenges because we managed to achieve good results with the European Funds’ investments. The reason Europe can recover from severe crises is the conviction of its citizens, local authorities and business in the strength of European solidarity.
To what extent have you been in contact with the current Estonian Presidency as well as the Austrian one, scheduled for the second half of 2018?
It is clear that the Presidencies’ Trio Programme is a joint effort of our countries, sharing a common vision on the main priorities, trends and challenges facing the Union. We are in close and continuous contact with our colleagues on all key aspects and I think it is already the time to congratulate the Estonian Presidency for the tremendous work done, and not only in the field of Cohesion and regional policies. The Austrian Presidency will be faced with a great challenge to streamline the real negotiations on the Multiannual Financial Framework post-2020 and the legislative package for the EU Funds for the next programming period. We will try to support them not only by launching the first discussions once the dossiers are on the table but also to be a constructive partner afterwards.
The interview can be found here:
Photo: Ivelin Solakov