By Svetla Dimitrova
Bulgaria has to launch reforms that will be in line with the goals in the EU’s Europe 2020 strategy as EU funding will go “only to reformed sectors where it will produce the best possible effect,” experts and officials said.
The Bulgarian government adopted a draft partnership agreement with the EU for the 2014-2020 programming period outlining the priority areas and operational programmes for which it wants to use about 6.3 billion euros of the total assistance of more than 7.1 billion euros set aside for the country for the next seven years.
The rest of the financing would remain effectively blocked until at least 2016, or is outside the operational programmes funded under the Union’s structural and cohesion funds. It includes the money under the EU’s new Connecting Europe Facility, the reserve the country is obliged to keep, standing at 5 percent of the total amount, and about 150 million euros earmarked for cross border co-operation.
Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Minister Zinaida Zlatanova attributed the drop in the funding for some of the effective operational programmes to the unprecedented overall reduction in the EU budget for 2014-2020.
“The money for Bulgaria for the next programming period must be allocated for the different operational programmes on the basis of what we have available and in accordance with the national priorities and the EU requirements,” she said at a press conference in Sofia on August 21st.
Nearly 3.65 billion euros are being set aside for operational programmes “Transport and Transport Infrastructure,” “Regions in Growth” and “Environment” for the next seven years, down from the more than 4.4 billion euros earmarked for the programmes in the same areas for the 2007-2013 programming period. The financing in the area of human resource development is also being cut, while money for operational programmes “Innovation and Competitiveness,” “Science and Education” and “Good Governance” will increase to a total of 1.9 billion euros.
The resources for the operational programmes are “indicative, providing a framework,” officials at Zlatanova’s office told SETimes, noting that only “minor, if any, changes may be made in them eventually” after the EC’s comments that Bulgaria expects to get within the next eight weeks.
The government is determined to have a programme focusing on science and education. Education Minister Aneliya Klisarova listed four specific priorities that would include scientific research and new technologies, the education-business-labour market link, the role of education in social inclusion and lifelong learning.
Since “education is the key to success and personal development … undoubtedly, there is a need of bigger investments,” Yanka Takeva, the head of the teachers’ union, told SETimes. The efforts should focus on raising “the teachers’ qualification, and improving the [schools'] material and technical and didactic base, i.e., the technical devices,” she said.
“The funding for any of those sectors hinges on a specific requirement — be it amendments to a certain law, the adoption of a new one, or of a strategy,” Tomislav Donchev, former Bulgarian minister responsible for EU funds management, who was involved in the negotiations on the new package, told SETimes.
Donchev noted that the EC will keep an eye to ensure that the strategy is implemented and that the respective law is observed. “Meeting the ex-ante conditionality and, particularly, the reform requirements will be the main challenge,” he said.
At the end of 2016, if the EC sees no progress in the implementation of the required reforms, it will have the right to block the funding for the sector where reforms have not been implemented.
But if Bulgaria fulfills its commitments and is seen in 2018 as making good use of the EU funding, the reserve will be unblocked and the country will have “the right and obligation” to use that funding, allocating it to areas where it will produce a stronger effect, Donchev said.
Therefore, those resources should be treated as part of the financing for the operational programmes too, he added.