Iskra Mihailova: The more simplified procedures, the more effective cohesion policy

I appreciate the Construction Chamber and I want to present its role in the European Parliament

Reneta Nikolova, Brussels Mrs. Mihaylova, we are in Brussels to attend the seminar “Simplify cohesion policy to boost results” which is organized by you as chair of the Committee on Regional Policy in the European Parliament and ALDE. What does this topic put on the agenda? This is one of the topics on which there are many discussions both in the Committee on Regional Development and the European Commission and also among the member states. Two years after the new package with reformed cohesion policy was adopted, still remains the question with extremely complicated and unnecessarily burdensome procedures that prevent a large part of the potential beneficiaries of the programs to apply. Often they simply refuse. When they try once and cannot cope with the procedures, they no longer turn for help to the structural funds. So the subject of simplification is on the agenda. We discuss it in the Committee on Regional Development to the European Parliament. We discuss it also in plenary. We have adopted with a large majority in Parliament a resolution on simplification. Now we continue further. Today’s seminar is an initiative of the party ALDE (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe). It is important to note that the European Commission set up a special high-level group, which includes 12 experts from EU member states. It is headed by Siim Kallas, former commissioner for administrative affairs, audit and anti-fraud and former vice-president of EC. He presented the results of the work of the group. Our other guest is the chairman of the Committee on Budgets to the EP Jean Arthuis, who with very great interest refers precisely to the issues of simplification. We share with him the view that the more simplified the procedures are, the more effective cohesion policy can be and more clearly can be traced the spending of money and thus to guarantee that this money goes for meaningful projects. What is the vision for the future of cohesion policy and what concrete steps are discussed to simplify cohesion policy? Do the Commission and Parliament think in one direction? The future of cohesion policy depends on many factors. During the exchange of data with European Commissioner for Regional Policy Mrs. Corina Cretu at the meeting of the Committee on Regional Development on 01.12.2015 we talked that the new cohesion policy package after 2020 should be prepared in advance. It is important that this happen by 2019, which means that in the coming years of this parliamentary term we have to work in this direction. Since 2017 it is necessary to carry out the preparations for the new cohesion package. In all reports and all themes we discuss, we always talk about what will happen after 2020. I am making a special report on European territorial cooperation and a separate part of it refers precisely to this period, for simplifying cooperation, for financial instruments, public-private partnership and development of macro regional strategies after 2020. This component is present constantly in our work. I know that after 2020 we will use more financial instruments. We definitely go in this direction. However, there are many interesting developments and reports related to certain macro regional strategies, such as a report on the development of mountain regions that will fight to set the requirement for a certain limit of investment in this type of territories. There are special conditions for development. What will happen after 2020 largely depends on how we work now. A fact, however, is one important condition and it must be very clearly understood by everybody. Currently the European Union is experiencing a severe test. This is the migration crisis. When one third of the EU budget is spent on one type of policy, then we have to see how this policy responds to such a big challenge. Can we make effective use of the money without disturbing the main objectives of cohesion policy to help the refugee crisis? This is the main question. If we succeed, there will be future for cohesion policy, and if we fail we will face the need to say honestly: is the policy that cannot respond to the most important issue of the day alive? Things are connected and we have to find a solution. If we find it, then we can speak of different topics in the future cohesion policy. If not, then we will talk about defense in the future of cohesion policy. We are at the end of the year and also at the end of the programming period 2007 – 2013. What is your overall assessment of the European Union and in particular of Bulgaria? How do you determine the period? As a whole for the European Union 2007 – 2013 is a successful period. There are many countries that implemented the programs at the level to 95% already in the middle of the year. Other countries forced the activities in emergency at the very end – among them is Bulgaria. But this is understandable for a country that is in the first planning period. I can define it as irregular. I say this with regret because we had periods of rapid and successful start, especially on “Regional Development”. Then we had a drop and then again progress. Now, at the last moment we strive to fulfill the program. On OP “Environment” there were several falls in the same way. But these are serious infrastructural programs that are supposed to be implemented rhythmically in all years of the period. But this period ends. Whatever we could we did and now remain only three weeks. One who can decide anything for this period, let him act. The bad thing is that the second year of the new period 2014 – 2020 is running. We go again in the same way. Something similar to the steps of the complex Bulgarian chain dances – not in particular rhythm but in more complicated one. In the same way we drop behind. Two years have passed and remain only five. We will again speed up the bulk of the work in some stretch of the planning period. This is my greatest concern with regard to programs in Bulgaria in particular. But we are not alone. There are a number of other countries that like us start slowly and with difficulty and then there is a period of catching up. Can you tell which are the best performers we can draw experience from and are there any common problems that occur everywhere? The common problems are really the same for all. We talk mostly about the late start of the new period and forcing the implementation of the programs at the end of the old one although as I said there are countries which have fulfilled earlier 95% of them. Of course, there are excellent performers. These are, first, countries that have long been members and work with structural funds and have built administrative capacity. But one Poland is among the countries that show excellent managerial potential for performance of the programs. As to errors that are allowed, if you look at the report of the Audit Office most weaknesses are found in public procurement, in state aid, in the implementation of programs. Here can be seen examples of irregularities in the Czech Republic, Italy, the United Kingdom, so that there is no infallible. I hope that the implementation of the new directive on public procurement will harmonize things to a great extent and there will be fewer gaps.. Otherwise reports on the release of responsibility of the EU budget are still a challenge for the parliament because the two groups encounter. Some people express the view that cohesion policy spends too much money and at the same time are made a lot of mistakes which for them is a disgrace. And others who say this is the most important policy that has contributed to the development of Europe. For them errors are acceptable, the question is to be limited to the normal limit. Currently we are again in such a procedure and there will be talks and meetings. Commissioner Mrs Cretu is in the Committee on Budgetary Control at the beginning of this week. To the next meeting of the Regional Committee we will invite the rapporteur on the procedure. We in the Committee on Regional Development are in the second group – for us this is the most important policy, it helps for the development of European regions and we should make efforts to reduce the percentage of irregularities. As you said errors, what we should not repeat? Give your advice to government authorities, beneficiaries and contractors. What we should not repeat? In no case we should allow ourselves to change the rules of the operational programs in the course of implementation. In no case we should allow ourselves to put beneficiaries in a situation to have applied for one thing and to get another. They have filed documents in some conditions; they receive a contract in others, but report in third ones. This creates a problem. These are not intentional violations but mismanagement of the programs. We need to fix these things. We should not forget that we cannot develop only one region, because it is more sympathetic or only one municipality, because the mayor is of a particular political party. Regions have the wonderful ability to be connected. When one region develops less, then the whole country develops less. If a region in Europe is lagging behind, the entire European Union is lagging behind, as paradoxical as it may sound. This is the other thing we should not assume – retardation of entire regions and neglecting their needs. And another thing I think should not be done – to transfer to Bulgaria directly, without own analysis and refraction, EU policies. These are general policies but it is assumed that they will be improved by the national participation, not blindly applied. What of the work done by your committee during the year you would describe as the greatest success? The best we have done is that we defined the priorities of the committee and the focus of our efforts. Currently we perform some legislative work – the package of laws is already adopted. Now we should focus primarily on parliamentary control and enforcement. Control on EC and the Council, member states and on the implementation of programs. The Committee is engaged with these things. It is a success that we actively work on individual topics of cohesion policy, preparing very interesting reports that come in plenary. I am glad that our resolutions are voted by large majority. When you have over 580 “for” of total 710, this means that the topic indeed is adopted and the approach is approved. Success for me is that we found a good tone for cooperation with the European Commission and the European Council. We are in a very good interaction – their representatives participate in the meetings of the committee, report, present their priorities. I participate in the informal meetings of ministers of cohesion policy. We are synchronized with the EC. Mrs. Cretu often visits the Committee on Regional Development. We even recently commented with her that she last was present in September twice at our meetings. This is a success that helps us in difficult times when urgent decisions should be taken to work more operational. I will give an example with the special measures for Greece. We managed to deal in August, September and October. This is very good and I think we have created favorable conditions for Greece – now we shall see if the country will benefit from them. What are the priorities for 2016 and what you will start the New Year with? We start already in January when the commissioner for regional policy will again be with us in the Committee on Regional Development. A number of very important reports are on the agenda, opinion on the report of the budgetary committee for the financial framework, report on territorial cooperation, of which I am the rapporteur, reports on the Alpine strategy, on macroeconomic conditions, on intelligent specialization and innovation. What I missed in successes was that we have a special working group to the committee, that meets with representatives of EC and they inform us operationally on the latest initiatives and actions of the Commission, so that we will immediately begin with meetings of the working group. We have a lot of work. We will manage to do it. You already mentioned the biggest challenge facing the EU – the migration crisis. Is there anything else you expect as a general problem that should be solved by joint efforts? There are some problems. Some of them are caused by the refugee crisis. They are associated with cohesion policy and the multiannual financial framework. Let us see how the policies that are already funded by this multiannual financial framework respond to the crisis at the moment and is there any need to change it or will it be enough to make a review and find that it works. That would be the best; we have to assess how it will be. The EC should prepare this review. There is inclination that this will happen as early as 2016. The digital single market also comes up again in connection with migration and opportunities for digitalization of services and data exchange. Here in front of EU already stands with great force a very serious case. We, liberals, do not miss to mention it. We cannot afford to confront security against human rights. There can be no security at the expense of human rights, although some colleagues want this. It is very easy to say “we stop”, to set the boundaries again, but in this way we give up everything we have achieved so far. If we build walls again, what territorial cooperation can we talk about, what joint projects at the borders when there are fences? What European values and human rights, when e-mails, telephone calls will be controlled and in the name of security? Yes, I agree. I accept all checks on aircraft. I accept the exchange of passenger data and liberals also accept them. Yes, this is necessary but is it not better to exchange data between security offices than total control over the individual rights of European citizens? If we do that those who attack European values will have succeeded. In practice we will abandon what united free Europe represents. Does the image of Bulgaria in Europe improve? I think this is a process that is constantly ongoing. Very large is the role of people working with EU structures in different institutions. I want to emphasize that Bulgarians who work in the EU offices are highly respected and competent people, very well accepted by their peers and enjoy great confidence. What we need in Bulgaria is more information on what is done in the European institutions. We need a little more self-confidence. When we have a Bulgarian representative, for example, in the group for simplification, and we have one, we have to boast. Let us say that the members of this group are only 12 and they are not from each of the member states. But Bulgaria has a participant – this is Mrs. Malina Krumova from the team of Deputy Prime Minister Donchev. When in something we are ahead of others, we have to say it and to show it. Let us do exhibitions in Parliament, let us organize all kinds of forums and hear more about Bulgaria. I believe in that and do not face bias against our country. I work fine with colleagues from all member states and all institutions. I had the pleasure to host a dinner which was again on simplification. It gathered Commissioner, Vice-President of the European Investment Bank, Vice-President of the European Court of Auditors, Deputy-Chairman of the Committee of the Regions, representatives of two presidencies, current Luxembourg and future Netherlands, colleagues from different political groups. That is, the Bulgarian representative can unite these people if he speaks with them in a language about the things that interest them and we have to work in this direction. Let us talk more about Bulgaria but also respect other people’s problems and get interested in them. Your cooperation with the Bulgarian Construction Chamber (BCC) is dynamic. You jointly organized a major forum for cohesion policy, which was widely attended. You also participated in another event that was about the prospects in construction. How do you assess the importance of an organization like the Chamber of Builders? I have had the opportunity to say it before but I will repeat it now. I very much appreciate the Construction Chamber. BCC represents a sector but it is not just an ordinary economic sector. These are builders and contractors, those who realize 90% of the projects taking place in Bulgaria. We can make the best quality project and we can protect it in EU, we can finance it but eventually must come someone who knows his job to do it on time and with the required quality, the necessary certificates, with professionalism, with the necessary self-confidence sometimes. He can come out and say: “We do it the way companies do business anywhere in Europe and over the world.” The engineer with the helmet who works on the site – we need that to finalize the project. This represents BCC. It is representative of those who carry things in practice and through them we have the opportunity to see ideas realized. In this sense the Chamber is an important partner to all, I insist on its ties and will not give up. I hope for good cooperation and will find a way to present the role of the Chamber here, in EP. You have sent this invitation officially and it was assessed as recognition of the leadership of the Chamber and of the sector. How do you see in time the implementation of the initiative? In the coming year, before the summer vacation it seems appropriate to make an exhibition in EP. We will invite representatives of the Chamber and will gather Bulgarian MEPs. We will invite the entire Committee on Regional Development, as well as journalists. With this exhibition we aim to see what Bulgarian builders make. This is what I want. I will defend my idea before Parliament services and then we will discuss with the Chamber how exactly this will happen. What would you like to wish from the pages of “Stroitel” newspaper to our readers on the eve of the New 2016 Year? This is a privilege for me. I want to wish all readers and all who are associated with the industry and are called builders to be alive and healthy in the coming year. Let it be very successful, with a lot of projects and a lot of work, less administrative burden, more understanding, much self-confidence and many happy moments to all.