Mrs. Mihaylova, for the third consecutive year together with the Bulgarian Construction Chamber (BCC) and Stroitel Newspaper you organize the conference “Challenges for the cohesion policy 2014 – 2020”. This year the theme is “Flexible European budget and financial instruments in support of the construction sector”. What will be the main highlights of the forum?
It is my honor that for the third consecutive year together with BCC we organize an annual conference. I hope it will be just as innovative, interesting and constructive as the previous two. This year we have tried to focus on the new developments in cohesion policy in the context of the European Union’s common investment policy. That is why special guests at the conference will be Vice-President of the European Commission Jyrki Katainen, who is responsible for the EU investment policy, and Vice-President of the European Investment Bank Mr. Vazil Hudak, who is responsible for the investment policy and the link with the cohesion policy of EIB. Two people who are currently leading the process of investing in the EU and who are personally responsible for the future of the Union’s investment policy after 2020. I hope their presentations are interesting. I am looking forward to a very constructive discussion because BCC can contribute ideas and suggestions for a more effective policy in the sphere.
Your initiative was also the new program to support structural reforms. What happened with it?
I have been negotiating with the EC and the Council. We exchanged greetings. At the last session in Strasbourg I met Commissioner Dombrovskis. We drank a glass of champagne because we have the full confidence that we deserve it. The program has a very low budget at present but it is with very large opportunities. It is to support the member states to implement the necessary reforms. We are trying to make sure that when the European semester has a recommendation for the country to carry out a reform in a certain area and the country has no potential at the moment or has lost its focus on what it is doing, as in some cases, then it may turn to the EC and say: we agree that we have to make the reform. Help us, tell us how. Then the Commission sends a team, experts, models are made, scenarios. All this is played out with the member states and the requirement for structural reforms is realized. This is the program. I hope that we will be flexible enough in Bulgaria to use it in the areas where such reform measures are needed so that we can then invest in them. The program is already working. There is a budget; there is a structure to the EC. Literally, after the summer vacation, requests will be received from the member states.
Discussions of the EU budget 2018 have begun. How does it differ from budget 2017?
I am the rapporteur for the opinion of the Committee on Regional Development on the budget for 2018. We had a meeting with the main budget rapporteur who has set two priorities. One is growth and employment and the other is security and protection. This is the reality. It follows the budget parameters. I can say that with regard to cohesion policy payments there is an increase of more than 20% of the funds foreseen. Still, we want more.
Last year the cohesion policy rate was very low. But I have to admit that it was realistic. The payment requests are slowly running. I hope this year there will be more requests – at least these are the estimates and I expect much more. So, that’s the news. We will have a higher budget for cohesion policy within what is planned; the distribution by years is higher than last year.
You have a look at the overall picture how the implementation of the operational programs takes place. What is the performance at EU level and where is Bulgaria?
I will start with the second question – Bulgaria is somewhere in the middle. It is not one of the excellent countries but it is not one of the worst. But the overall picture is not very good. This makes it difficult for us to defend cohesion policy and say how important it is. There are already over 60% agreed funds but this is at the end of the fourth year of the period. Unfortunately, there are still operational programs with non-accredited managing authorities. For example, there is a program in Bulgaria – OPSEIG. There are countries with more operational programs. This is a problem. Four years since the beginning of the period these programs have not even started. I do not want to be critical but when you do not have accreditation, you do not have structures and on the condition that we had a battle for this program, this is, to put it mildly, irresponsible.
At our last meeting at the conference of committee chairs with the negotiators for Brexit on the part of EP and EC – Mr. Barnier and Mr. Verhofstadt warned us that on one of the themes in this year’s plan – financial arrangements between the United Kingdom and the EU there is a possibility for the UK not to contribute for 2019 and 2020. This means that part of the programs will be suspended due to lack of money. If a member country thinks that because of the rule n+3 it can rely on 2019 and 2020 – it is wrong. Failure to pay contributions is a variant that may not happen but we have to be prepared, which translated into a pragmatic language means that 2017 and 2018 should be absolutely efficient – we should have negotiated 100% and should have a commitment to these payments. To rely on contracts in 2019 is risky. It is more likely that the UK will not pay its contributions. Unfortunately, it is the case. The Bulgarian government should have an option.
How can our country best benefit from the Presidency of the EU Council in 2018?
By bringing its national priorities to complement the Trio priorities; we had a meeting with Minister Pavlova together with all MEPs from Bulgaria. She presented her idea of national priorities. I am glad that cohesion policy is among them. The Western Balkans and their relations and eventually the Black Sea – these are all important topics for Bulgaria. That’s first. The second very important is to turn our country into a center of events that are not just routine in the course of the presidency; events that will enable us to enhance our role in some institutions. For example, holding a meeting of the Committee of the Regions – this is great and is the way to increase our influence there. Otherwise, our role will be quite serious. Energy package – during the Bulgarian Presidency, multiannual financial framework – during the Bulgarian Presidency if Commissioner Oettinger presents it at the beginning of 2018, which is exactly what this means. Cohesion policy – during the Bulgarian Presidency. We even had a joke at the meeting of the committee chairs. When one of the colleagues asked Estonian minister “what else will you leave to the Bulgarians”, because there are several topics that go over the Presidency of Estonia and are transferred to the Bulgarian Presidency. So, our Presidency will be serious and responsible. We will be discernible from a distance.
On what other topics will the EP’s Regional Development Committee work by the end of the year?
By the end of the year we have to finish a few things. We have completed a dossier on which I am a rapporteur on typology of the EU’s regions; designation of urban regions, designation of remote regions. This is a technical dossier but concerns cohesion policy. We have to negotiate with the Commission and the Council. We have already a decision of the Regional Committee; we go to a plenary hall the EP to approve it. We are entering into negotiations with the EC and the Council on changes to the current multiannual financial framework, for simplification. That is ahead of us. We look forward to the Seventh cohesion report. Several dossiers connected to the demographic situation are ahead of us. This is about many less populated regions, about young people, about elderly people, etc. We continue with reports on major programs. We will have a hearing – in July of two commissioners in the committee. The Estonian Presidency will present its priorities. In September we invite Commissioner Oettinger to present his ideas on the financial framework. The work in the Committee is quite busy.
How will your interaction with BCC continue? What new initiatives are you planning?
For now, we are concentrating on the July meeting, which is very important and on a high level. I expect a number of initiatives to emerge from this meeting. I want to be more flexible and with BCC not to limit our contacts only in the form of conferences and meetings. Let us open a platform for dialogue with regions and builders across the country. In this way they will present their problems connected not only with the focus of investment resources but also with the quality of the staff, training and participation of construction companies in training programs, innovations, new technologies, the opportunities for innovative steps – these are topics that are open and maybe they will find some form. I am convinced.