Iskra Mihaylova: We will work for the security of the European citizens

We have informed Mr Manfred Weber that we will not be backing him in a potential parliamentary vote

The whole idea of lead candidates put forward by political parties no longer seems suitable to us. We are looking for more clear-cut consensus figures that can ensure the formation of coalitions and facilitate the pursuit of policies promoting a strong and united Europe, says Iskra Mihaylova, MEP, Vice-President of the Renew Europe group in the European Parliament, in an interview to Europost. 

Ms Mihaylova, several days ago you were elected vice-president of the Renew Europe group in the European Parliament (EP). What priorities will the new group have?

On 19 June, the new EP group Renew Europe (formerly known as ALDE - editor's note) elected its leadership. We first elected a new president - Dacian Ciolos, an MEP from Romania who has served as EU commissioner for agriculture and heads a large delegation from Romania representing a new liberal party. Counting 108 MEPs, the new group is the third largest in the EP. It includes parties that traditionally are part of the coalition of liberals and democrats in the EP as well as new parties like the one in Romania, new liberal parties from Germany and a new one from Hungary. We have a very strong delegation from the UK, which puts the matter of avoiding Brexit high on the agenda of Renew Europe. Of course, there is also the strong delegation from France representing President Emmanuel Macron's party. In this new environment, the group decided to hold an anonymous voting process to elect its vice-presidents, and I am happy to say that 88 out of 106 voters supported me to become one of the eight vice-presidents. Our priorities are very clear and they were outlined in the manifestos and election campaigns of all parties that are now members of the group. We are going to work to promote the security of the European citizens and the rule of law in all Member States, make climate change a key consideration for every European policy, and encourage strong coordination between economic development and support provided under the structural funds and other financial mechanisms. We will work towards protecting all basic human rights within the EU. Together with our British colleagues, we will endeavour to avoid Brexit, if possible, and restore the European family.

What commitments will your high-ranking position entail?

As a vice-president of the group, I will oversee the regional policy, the agricultural policy, financial mechanisms such as Invest in Europe and all investment programmes of the EU. This is what my area of responsibilities will cover as part of the group's leadership team.

Extremely important and heavy decisions regarding Europe are looming on the horizon, and your group will play a key role in those. Under what conditions is Renew Europe willing to join the so-called grand coalition?

As a democratic, liberal and centrist group comprised of representatives of parties that have shown themselves to be undeniably pro-European during the EP elections, we will support any type of coalition and partnership with the rest of the political organisations that will contribute to strong EP and European institutions and therefore strong and united Europe. This is a core value of ours and we will uphold it. We are prepared to coordinate our actions with the European People's Party (EPP), the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and the Greens alike. It is impossible for us to accept the stances of the Eurosceptical parties, the nationalists, and the far-left organisations such as European United Left/Nordic Green Left. We have worked with the European conservatives and we look forward to seeing what they will offer in the EP, even though their number has dwindled. We keep our options for negotiations wide open. Experts from our group work in contact groups with other political organisations in the EP to compromise and forge a shared position on EP priorities.

Does your group support the principle of spitzenkandidat, used in the election of the European Commission's president, and what will be the criteria that your group sees as most important in the rest of the appointments to major positions in the EU?

Even prior to the EP elections in May, our group (then called ALDE) maintained that the lead candidate system will not be suitable for the configuration of the next EP, which we anticipated to be more fragmented. Time proved us right because there is no overwhelming majority in the new parliament. Both, the groups of the EPP and the S&D have shrunk. The only group that actually has grown is the centrist one, which now calls itself Renew Europe. In that context, the whole idea of lead candidates put forward by political organisations no longer seems suitable to us. We are looking for more clear-cut consensus figures that can ensure the formation of the abovementioned coalitions and facilitate the pursuit of policies promoting a strong and united Europe. We are talking about not so much the political presence of figures as about their impact on creating such policies. At the very first meeting of the group, we gave President Dacian Ciolos mandate to inform Mr Manfred Weber (the candidate of the largest party in the EP, the EPP - editor's note) that we will not be supporting him in a potential parliamentary vote. With all due respect for his experience and prior work in the EP, we do not consider the lead candidate system to be appropriate in the current parliament configuration. The 20 June decision of the European Council essentially echoed this sentiment. There was no support for any of the proposed candidates - Manfred Weber, Frans Timmermans or Margrethe Vestager (who is from the Renew Europe family). As President Macron said, “We are in a situation where it is clear that the lead candidate system is not embraced or working.” We need to change our approach and seek other types of figures (for the various vacant positions) who will be welcomed by all political groups. We need to have a holistic view for the distribution of these positions - for the European Commission, the EP, the European Council, the European Central Bank and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

Have you already discussed any concrete names in that respect?

When I say that the names have to be discussed in package, I have a good reason for it. I have read the commentaries by some analysts who maintain that Renew Europe has to take up the leadership of the EU Council, which is one of the options, another option is the EP. We do not rule out the right of the EPP, which is the largest group in the Parliament, to shoulder the responsibility for the EU Commission. At this junction, if we are talking about names, they are discussed only within the context of the general picture.  

Would your group support Michel Barnier, for instance?

At a sitting of the group's leadership we have not discussed any names.

The flank of the Eurosceptics in the EP has grown. Do you believe that they may bolster their influence?

No, definitely not. Their flank has grown but not to the extent that was predicted and not as much as we feared that it might happen. As always, the EU citizens proved to be very rational and pragmatic, and despite the fact that some of them did uphold the nationalist and Eurosceptic parties, they ensured a certain balance in which these parties have a total of 120 seats. This is not enough either to change, distort or sabotage the policy of the entire Union.   

What are the most important achievements of the REGI Committee, which you chaired during the previous EP mandate?

The Committee on Regional Development of the European Parliament is among the committees that bear very serious responsibility for the implementation and drafting of the EU budget. First of all, I would stress that we put a lot of effort in the Budget 2014-2020 implementation control, monitoring and improvement. Over this period, the EU has allocated for regional development more than €350bn, i.e. one-third of the overall EU budget. In the first place, we have done a lot to speed up the activity under operational programmes. Secondly, we tried to facilitate and simplify the work under these programmes, as we worked a lot on the noted 'Omnibus regulation'. And thirdly, we have taken steps to ensure that Member States are able to use structural funds in case of natural calamities and catastrophes. Regrettably, the reason for that were the disastrous earthquakes in Italy which made us give a serious thought to the fact that long-term planning has to envision more flexible reaction to such emergency situations and allow for the use of structural funds in order to restore the elements of basic infrastructure and support the settlements in the affected regions. And, last but not least, the Committee on Regional Development launched a new programme for structural reforms.

When we approved the programme it was worth only €143m, but for the next target period the sum grew to €25bn. I'm happy to report all these details of the budget implementation as they immediately affect Bulgaria too, with a view to acceleration, facilitation and more flexible utilisation of structural funds. In no small part, I would also like to mention the connection between structural funds and implementation of structural reforms in the Member States. For instance, Bulgaria struggles from the fact that the country meets difficulties in investing EU structural funds in the national healthcare system, for one simple reason - this system is so unreformed that we have no chance to secure any project, and have to reduce our efforts only to the support of emergency aid. This is only part of our work which, in my opinion, was very effective and helpful to all Member States. To this end, we have worked in close cooperation with the European Court of Auditors as well as with the European Commission, NGOs and the Committee of the Regions.          

What would you describe as most typical of the other activities of your Committee?

The second part of our work was related to the next target period, the new multiannual financial framework, and the preparation of regulations for the future Regional Development Fund, Social Fund, Cohesion Fund, the cross-border cooperation fund INTRREG and a new mechanism for cross-border cooperation. We had a package of four legislative proposals and 19 legislative opinions on other programmes. This made the Committee work under enormous strain in the past year and a half. Before the mandate of the EP expired, we managed to craft the strategy of the Parliament by the middle of the current year.

All of these legislative files were adopted at first reading. Negotiations with the Council and adoption at second reading are pending. We have laid a good foundation, and I wish success to our colleagues who will keep on working towards the achievement of these goals.   

May the delay in the accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania discourage and derail these countries on their way to joining the EU?

One of the questions asked to the newly elected chair of the group pertained exactly to the Western Balkans and the accession negotiations with these countries. It was posed by my colleague from the Bulgarian party Movement for Rights and Freedoms, Ilhan Kyuchyuk. The answer was that the policy of Renew Europe will be aimed at stepping up the negotiations and rendering support to these countries. However, there are certain issues which make us be more objective. When Bulgaria became an EU member we were fully aware of the fact that we had met all the requirements set to our country. We have amended our legislation, changed the administrative structure, mechanisms of work and the philosophy of the state administration's activity. To a great extent we had to change our position on the international arena too. We did it in full awareness that to us the EU membership is top priority. I am sure it was worth the effort. But I am also sure that any country that aspires for EU membership must do the same. Maybe we could render more help to these countries, but they have to meet all the criteria and requirements set to them. Otherwise they won't cope with the EU, and the Union will have problems with them. We, as a responsible EU member, have to take such a stand. We want our neighbours to join the Union but they have to be treated on equal footing and fulfil their commitments.

 

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Iskra Mihaylova is a member of the European Parliament from the Renew Europe group/Movement for Rights and Freedoms (Bulgaria). On 19 June she was elected as the group's vice-president. ALDE member in the previous term of the EP, Ms Mihaylova chaired the Committee on Regional Development. She was also a member of the Conference of Committee Chairs and substitute on the EP Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety. Iskra Mihaylova is a former Bulgarian minister of environment. From 2001 until 2005, she served as advisor to the political cabinet of the Bulgarian minister for regional development, and later as deputy minister for regional development and public works. As a Bulgarian MP, she chaired the Committee on Environment and Waters in the National Assembly.

 

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