Joining the EU is entirely in the hands of Western Balkan countries

I would not worry about funding; the capacity to include a new Member State is there thanks to the option to review the 2021-2027 financial framework

I hope so, since the summit was rather unique; there has not been a meeting of such nature over the past several years. Bulgaria's EU Presidency identified the integration of the Western Balkans into the European Union (EU) as one of its priorities, and it was only natural that Sofia organised such a summit. The very fact that it took place is a step forward and shows the EU's commitment. The gathering's goal was not to fix deadlines and concrete results. The general timeframe had already been laid out by the Commission's president, while concrete results, as it was pointed out, depend overwhelmingly on the countries themselves.

Close-up: Iskra Mihaylova is a member of the European Parliament from the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe/Movement for Rights and Freedoms (Bulgaria). She is now in her second mandate as chair of the Committee on Regional Development of the European Parliament. She is a member of the Conference of Committee Chairs and substitute of the EP Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety. Iskra Mihaylova is a former 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 MP, she chaired the Committee on Environment and Waters of the Bulgarian parliament.

- Ms Mihaylova, the EU-Western Balkans summit is among the most important initiatives of Bulgaria's Presidency of the Council of the EU. But will the decisions made in Sofia become cornerstones in the European future of these six countries?

- I hope so, since the summit was rather unique; there has not been a meeting of such nature over the past several years. Bulgaria's EU Presidency identified the integration of the Western Balkans into the European Union (EU) as one of its priorities, and it was only natural that Sofia organised such a summit. The very fact that it took place is a step forward and shows the EU's commitment. The gathering's goal was not to fix deadlines and concrete results. The general timeframe had already been laid out by the Commission's president, while concrete results, as it was pointed out, depend overwhelmingly on the countries themselves. They must overcome the differences, do all that any EU membership candidate country has to do, and then we can talk about clear perspectives in terms of dates for these countries' accession.

- In the draft for the 2021-2027 EU budget, the European Commission (EC) does not earmark funds for the inclusion of even one new Member State. Is this not a discouraging signal for Serbia and Montenegro, for which the outlined credible accession perspective was 2025?

- First, the 2025 perspective is really just a probable date, and second, one of the distinguishing traits of the EC's proposal for the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) is the option for it to be reviewed and brought up to date in the 2020-2025 period in accordance with the needs of Member States and the Union as a whole. So there is room to include a new Member State with this revision of the financial framework and to me this is not a concern. If candidate countries meet the requirements, there will be enough funding in the MFF.

- The draft of the next long-term budget introduces some new priorities and flexible mechanisms but how does it actually look without the UK's contribution, the second-largest net donor to the EU coffers?

- The expectations for the post-2020 financial framework were very diverging and there was a time, a year and a half ago, when the question was raised of whether traditional policies, like the Cohesion Policy and the Common Agricultural Policy, should be kept. But gradually, thanks to constant dialogue, in the European Parliament, with Member States and between EC agencies, we arrived at a proposal that we believe is more than acceptable and balanced, considering the various challenges and, most of all, the fact that the common financial resource is expected to shrink, following the UK's exit. The Commission insists on an increase in contributions from Member States, albeit a slight one of 1.1%, and I think it is a good option. The EP's report had suggested a 1.3% increase. The envisioned lower rate is in order to achieve consensus in the European Council. With the raising of contributions, combined with moderate reduction of some expenses, the EU will be able to meet the funding needs for the new priorities. This allows for work to be done on the financial framework, making it more flexible and better suited to address new challenges.

- As chairperson of the EP REGI Committee, how do you view the reduction of Cohesion Policy funding by 7%?

- Not long ago, the Committee on Regional Development's concern was that we will have to defend the very presence of the Cohesion Policy among EU policies. In the current draft budget, the net reduction reflects what would have been the UK's share, were it still a member of the EU. Despite the decrease, we see plenty of opportunities in some other instruments, including the continuation of the European Fund for Strategic Investments, which is well-developed in the next MFF. Besides, the more flexible budget allows for attracting private resources and employing financial instruments. At the same time, part of the funds earmarked for new or considerably enlarged programmes, like digitalisation, will be realised on the territory of European regions. The same applies to the Connecting Europe Facility, which promotes transport infrastructure and is of great importance to the development of the regions. The increase of funds devoted to education is also going to work in favour of the regions. We are inclined to view the Commission's proposal as a little different from what we are used to seeing as fixed amounts for the Cohesion Policy. With this approach, there is more flexibility, and we urge all Member States to view this financial framework as a source of opportunities, to adapt their structures and so be able to take maximum advantage of these opportunities. A year ago, President Jean-Claude Juncker presented the White Paper and there was talk about multi-speed Europe. Now, the Commission puts the multi-speed decision in the hands of Member States. It offers them to either use only the traditional instruments, which would put them in the “slower” group, or use all available instruments and be part of the group moving forward at a faster pace.

- How will the new Omnibus regulation on EU financial rules make funds more easily accessible for beneficiaries, and easier to manage?

- We, at REGI, did a lot of work on the Omnibus dossier. We earned the power to have our own competencies and responsibilities on some of the texts regarding common provision regulation for the Cohesion Policy. Our efforts were aimed in several directions. The first one was true simplification of rules and procedures, which manifests itself in several measures that are actually very simple but address very real obstacles for many programmes and managing bodies. I am talking about using common rules for certain expenses. For example, expenses for the posting of experts in some projects would not require special accounting paperwork but will reflect the average level of secondments in the Member State. The same applies to certain expenses that fall under regulations and standards governing the pay for certain labour. In the Omnibus, we insist on uniform rules for auditing, eliminating any discrepancies between the national audit offices and the European one, which can be seen at times. We have taken steps to make it easier to use financial instruments and combine different types of funds, which will take effect in July.

- In your opinion, what should be the share of grants in the Cohesion Policy past 2020?

- I support the view that grants should be used for projects that have no economic aspects, do not produce profit for the beneficiaries and yet can have impact on the region's development or make social sense. Some examples are funding the reconstruction, modernisation or equipping of a school, a library or a community centre in Bulgaria, or homes for the care of children with special needs or the elderly. These project are not viable candidates for crediting because they cannot produce return on investment. But when we talk about investing in projects in the water supply sector, for example, where a company will set a price for the service and therefore earn profit, there are options to use various types of financial instruments.

- Do you approve of the proposal to link providing EU funds with rule of law and how well it is observed in Member States?

- We, the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) in the EP, accept this provision with one asterisk. We want it to be constructed in a way that will not affect the end beneficiaries. In other words, if there are any indications that rule of law is not being observed in a particular country, this should not hurt farmers, students or municipalities there. We would support measures that stimulate the central government of a country to improve its regulations. More than just spelling out the fact that rule of law should be observed and that anything to the contrary would be sanctioned, this requires us to make it abundantly clear what rule of law is. The Commission should propose a mechanism, criteria and clear indicators in order for this to be implemented. I think this is a sensible position that would save the EU a situation in which it is obligated to support certain countries because of signed contracts, the Cohesion Policy and operational programmes, while those same countries do not fulfil their duties as Member States. The ALDE Group has a proposal that envisions a centralised management of funds by the EC instead of the Member State whenever there is a rule-of-law problem.

- The topics addressed by your committee are very close to the European citizens. What dossiers are currently on the agenda?

- The REGI just finished a report on the role of cities in the institutional framework of the Union. Our committee prepared an extensive report based on the Seventh Cohesion Report, and we adopted on 15 May a proposal for a resolution on the Cohesion Policy and rural regions. We are still working on a special report on the emergency measures that were voted for Greece; I was the rapporteur on that one. What we have concluded is that the approved measures have resulted in very high percentage of funding utilisation in Greece, GDP growth, and increased employment rate. We continue our work on the issues in border regions and cross-border cooperation. We are waiting for the legislative proposal for the new long-term budged, where we will focus on ERDF, the Cohesion Policy and related programmes. We will also be active in the digitalisation, security and education programmes and the European Social Fund. All of this is on the REGI's radar. We are coming to a very busy stretch, geared towards preparing the approval of the MFF. In the EP, we have a strict schedule dividing competencies between the different committees. The EP's goal is to approve, at least at first reading, not only the MFF but its accompanying legislative packages, by the end of the current term. It took the previous parliament 30 months, and we want to finish the job in nine months.

- We are one year away from the next European Parliament elections, but in some parts of the continent Euro-scepticism and anti-European sentiments are picking up speed. What are the new ideas about Europe's future with which the liberals intend to combat that trend?

- The European liberals are carrying serious responsibility for Europe's day-to-day life and its future. We have eight prime ministers and the liberals are also involved in some coalition governments. We are aware of all existing challenges and are keeping a close eye on the French President Emmanuel Macron's proposals for changes in the EU, but I have to say that the liberals were talking about such reforms at the very beginning of this EP's term. If you look at the statements made by Guy Verhofstadt, he was saying the same things four years ago. Many of the changes never happened, but what we intend to offer the European citizens above all is the undeniable EU values, which seem to be easily forgotten or taken for granted. But they are not guaranteed and should be protected every day. We take into consideration what citizens tell us. The Europeans' main concerns are in the fields of security and defence, environment, and competitiveness. These are also the liberals' messages.

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