site.btaBTA Holds Kick-off Conference for EU-Backed Project Aiming to Raise Awareness about Cohesion Policy in Bulgaria
The new aspects of the EU cohesion policy in 2021 and the results achieved during the 2014-2020 programming period were in the focus of the kick-off conference for a EC-backed project titled "EU in BG: Cohesion Future". The project is implemented by the Bulgarian News Agency (BTA) with the support of the European Commission.
The project aims to raise awareness about the EU cohesion policy and encourage open dialogue on cohesion, the results on local level and the role of the implementation of the political priorities of the EU.
The kick-off conference was opened by BTA Director Kiril Valchev and was addressed by EU Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, Mariya Gabriel. Among the participants were the Deputy Prime Minister in charge of EU funding, Atanas Pekanov, Deputy Labour Minister Natalia Efremova and officials of the Ministries of Finance, of Environment, of Education and of Regional Development.
For the 2014-2020 programming period, the Cohesion Fund provided a total of BGN 63.4 billion to 15 Member States: Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia. For the 2021-2027 period, the EU is allocating EUR 42.6 billion to the Cohesion Fund. In June of 2022, the EC adopted an EUR 11 billion Partnership Agreement with Bulgaria, which sets out the country's investment strategy in cohesion policy.
In his opening remarks, BTA Director General Kiril Valchev said that the point of the cohesion policy is to keep Bulgarian people in Bulgaria. "At the start this conference, I have two very important messages about things that cannot be bought with the EUR 330 billion that will be invested between 2021 and 2027 in cohesion policies, through structural funds and through the Cohesion Fund. The first thing that cannot be bought is friendliness. As long as countries in the EU are opposed to Bulgaria's - and possibly Romania's - accession to Schengen, whatever money is poured, the feeling will remain that we are not close. Some people just cross from one country to the other without noticing there is a border while others have to wait for hours at the border," Valchev said. The second thing that money cannot buy is knowledge about one another. "No matter how much money is spent on educational programmes, knowledge about each other cannot be crammed into people's heads. We, the news media have a huge responsibility to help people get to know each other. BTA is an example of what the future of cohesion through knowledge is", said Valchev.
EU Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Mariya Gabriel spoke about the European Innovation Agenda and innovation cohesion. She said that regions have a huge role to play in fostering innovation and that innovation happens locally.
According to the Commissioner, local authorities are the ones who can support the development of innovation ecosystems. Involving all actors in this project is also the aim of the new European Innovation Agenda, she noted. Its strategies prioritise investments based on local assets, promote the transition to a circular economy and strengthen cooperation between all stakeholders in regional and investment ecosystems, she said.
Creating local regional investment projects is of key importance, she said. There will be EUR 170 million available at European level through centralised calls for proposals to support cross-regional innovation projects. To make sure that all EU funds contribute to innovation in the regions, it is crucial that the Horizon Europe programme and the Cohesion Fund are used together, she stressed.
Gabriel thanked the BTA for taking the initiative to inform Bulgarian people about cohesion policies.
Bulgarian caretaker Deputy Prime Minister for EU Funds Management Atanas Pekanov said that Bulgaria will receive BGN 20 billion-plus under the EU cohesion policies. He specified that one third of the EU financial resources are earmarked for cohesion programmes, adding that the disbursement of these funds is not subject to such demanding conditions as those under the Recovery and Resilience Plan. "We must cite the good examples so that citizens would be aware how these funds reach them in all priority spheres: education, regional policy, social policy, economic development, speeding up GDP growth," the Deputy PM pointed out.
He noted that cohesion funds are often used to address short-term crises like the pandemic, energy crisis, and Russia's aggression in Ukraine. "We must find a solution to these crises but cohesion funds must become a long-term investment policy of the EU so as to assist the regions that confront challenges. Long-term projects will make us stronger and more resilient tomorrow," Pekanov said.
He reported that eight of the ten operational programmes have been approved, and approval of the remaining two is expected. The Deputy PM dismissed as speculation the allegation that the process has been delayed and explained that a number of EU regulations had to be amended because of the pandemic.
Ivan Ivanov, Director of the government's Central Coordination Unit, said that success is impossible without reforming the sectors which attract public funding and EU funding. "We should never forget that cohesion policy is only a small part of these common policies and that it is a project we have to defend because it is vulnerable to speculation. We have seen in recent years that we tend to blame Europe even for our own internal problems, he said.
"It is our common responsibility to make Bulgarians continue to believe in this common European project and not to take it for granted," he said.
In his words, the cohesion policy has proved that it works. "When we joined [the EU] in 2007, we had about 30% of the European GDP, now we are nearing 60%".
Ivanov said that the analyses his office has started preparing for this programming period show that regional disparities continue to widen and there is a significant difference between regions that are depopulated and several enclaves that are booming economically and nearing the living standards in the economically advanced countries. The cohesion policy exacerbates these processes: large municipalities are attracting resources, while those that lack skilled people are struggling, he said. "This is the opposite of what we aim for," he said.
Ivanov went on to say that Northern Bulgaria has been largely ignored: an analysis of the partnership agreement found that only 18% of the EU funding for Bulgaria has ended up in the North of the country, and that now this trend must be reversed. "We have made a commitment that at least 50% of the funds from the new programming period should go to this part of the country," Ivanov said.
He also said that it is important to make sure the programmes do not overlap. "Now we have two parallel systems - the National Recovery and Resilience Plan and the cohesion policy. "Huge resources, huge challenges, but we have to make sure that there is no double funding," he said.
The final focus of Ivanov's speech was transparency. He said that the popular perception of the EU funds is that it is money for the elite. "It is very difficult to fight such a phenomenon. There is no easy solution. The only way is to be transparent. If there is no trust among people, then our job is half done," he concluded.
In his closing remarks at the kick-off conference, BTA Director General Valchev said that it is important for cohesion to be understood as unity in diversity rather than as sameness. "It is important for our friends and partners, with whom we are together in the European Union, to also understand that the purpose of cohesion is not to 'make it here the same as there', to impose models and lifestyles that have nothing at all to do with what we are used to and with our tradition," said Valchev.