Interview with Cvetan Kyulanov, Head of the Representation of the European Commission to Bulgaria
The acting Head of the European Commission’s Representation in Bulgaria on connecting with citizens, the EU’s response to the coronavirus crisis and the consequences of Covid -19 for the European programmes and projects, Interview for TheMayor.eu, ASENIYA DIMITROVA:
Mr Kyulanov, would you briefly outline the work of the Representation of the European Commission in Bulgaria: what are its mission and activities?
The idea of the European Commission Representations in each of the 27 Member States lies in the fact that the European Union must be closer to the people and speak their language. Our role is to explain how the policies of the European Union affect the citizens in Bulgaria and how they contribute positively to different aspects of our daily lives.
The Representation provides information related to the Union to both the Bulgarian authorities and all media and stakeholders in Bulgaria. We organize a large number of initiatives and events to engage public interest towards further knowledge about EU membership’s benefits rules behind them.
13 years after Bulgaria's accession to the European Union, many Bulgarians are not familiar with their rights as citizens of the Union and with the practical dimensions of the work of the European Commission. In what specific ways does the Representation help them?
I want to emphasize that I am proud of the Bulgarian people, and the way we have consolidated our place as true Europeans over the course of those 13 years - we have scientists, artists, musicians, doctors, entrepreneurs and countless of other professionals, recognized not only in Europe but worldwide as well.
If we look at the Eurobarometer survey at the end of last year, we see that the share of Bulgarians who feel like citizens of the EU has increased to 56%, or 4 percentage points higher than in the spring of 2019. More than 60 percent of our fellow citizens have a positive view of the EU and its institutions.
Despite this high credibility, we still have a lot of work to do, to keep up raising awareness among citizens about the functioning of the Union, which can sometimes be complex. Not everyone is, of course, obliged to be a legal expert on the EU Treaties and to know in detail the competences of its institutions.
However, we at the Representation are working on different fronts to simplify the topics and to communicate them in an understandable and clear language to the various stakeholders. Therefore we hold meetings, seminars, trainings and many other events with teachers, students and pupils, where we try, by using specially prepared information materials in an understandable language, to present the role of the European Commission as a ‘guardian of the Treaties’ responsible for the application of the European laws and as the only institution with right of legislative incentive.
An information event in the town of Shoumen. Source: EC in Bulgaria
We communicate actively with representatives of municipalities, regional governments, trade unions and employers' organizations. We maintain intense contacts and participate in events with various representatives of the scientific, cultural and business circles. We also actively engage with the national and regional media, providing journalists with detailed information on specific European policies, in order to help the mass media better inform about their concrete benefits to Bulgarian citizens
As for the increased protection of citizens' rights as a result of the EU membership, the fact is that it is a challenge both for us and for the national authorities to strengthen our information activities. Because European laws are also Bulgarian laws, and together we must ensure that people are familiar with them.
For example, another recent Eurobarometer survey on passenger rights stated that less than half of the travellers were aware of their rights. That is why we work intensively with all European information networks in Bulgaria to make as much as possible useful information about consumer rights available to the citizens across the country.
The Information Centre of the European Union at the House of Europe, established back in 2001, has responded to nearly 1,200 inquiries, 450 complaints and has registered around 6,500 visits in the last year alone, and continues to work remotely in the current situation. Of course, we are looking forward to receiving visitors once again in person in the near future.
In general, however, I think that Bulgarian consumer has become much more demanding than before. We see people begin to claim their rights much more than before - whether through the National Commission for Consumer Protection, through the courts or by uniting in civic associations.
I am glad that the topic of consumer rights is very much covered in the media as well, and this can be felt especially after our accession to the EU - there are numerous specialized TV and radio broadcasts that we also cooperate with to help them analyse the issues that are most relevant.
Could you list some current or recent initiatives of the Representation in this direction?
The European Commission Representation in Bulgaria organizes or co-organizes hundreds of events per year (nearly 500 in 2019) that engage tens of thousands of participants. I will share a few of our recent initiatives aimed at citizens across the country: each year we hold information days in different cities as the main goal is to acquaint people with their rights as citizens of the European Union and the practical benefits of our membership.
Emphasis is put on educational programs (such as Erasmus Plus) as well as on policies that promote employment among young people ("Youth Guarantee") and the investment projects (the “Juncker” plan). Naturally, we use this campaign to acquaint the public with the activities of the European Commission and as you mentioned the practice showed that people have difficulty in distinguishing between various EU institutions and their respective competences.
With regards to the epidemiological situation in the country now, following the guidelines of the authorities, the Representation cancelled all physical events and went largely online, but we have not stopped working and are always open to contacts with citizens - be it by email, phone or through social networks.
Expect an innovative celebration of the upcoming Europe Day - 9 May. I will only reveal that among the key messages will be the unity and the solidarity in the European Union, which today is needed more than ever.
We also work hard on the subject of civic education - as you probably know, since September it enters as a separate discipline in the school program for 11th grade, and from next year for 12th grade. We believe that education is one of the main ways for young people in Bulgaria to be made aware of their rights and responsibilities as citizens of the European Union.
How can Bulgarian travellers, jobseekers or students abroad, consumers of goods and services of the single market be informed about their rights and obligations? How can people living outside Sofia reach the Representation?
Europe is very close to the Bulgarians; they do not have to go to Sofia or Brussels to get information. Our team is always up for questions by email or phone.
The employees in the regional information centres "Europe Direct" in many places outside the capital are also available to citizens for personal contact. In addition, all your questions about your rights when travelling within the European Union will be found on Your Europe website.
There is another portal - Europe Direct, as well as a direct hotline for citizens 00 800 6 7 8 9 10 11 . Of course, we are very active on social networks, such as our Facebook page ECinBulgaria, as well as through our Twitter profile. A lot of useful information and contacts, of course, are available on our official website.
How do you cooperate with cities and local administrations in the country?
We regularly organize events outside Sofia – our Europe Direct centres in 14 Bulgarian cities carry out a number of initiatives specifically targeting the local audience. Of course, we coordinate any such initiative with the respective municipality or district government.
We also have the practice of organizing regular information visits for representatives of local authorities in Brussels, where they meet with representatives of the European Commission, even at the highest level. This is the time to thank our colleagues from the Regional Information Centres and the Central Coordination Unit of the Council of Ministers. Not only do they provide extremely useful information to citizens about the Structural Funds, but they also help us whenever we organize initiatives in their respective regions.
One of our latest initiatives was under the European Green Deal in February. Employees of the Directorate-General for Energy made an important tour in the regions of Bulgaria, heavily dependent on the coal industry. They visited Galabovo, Stara Zagora, Pernik, Bobov Dol, Golemo Selo and Sofia to learn first-hand about the problems of the people and their concerns, the challenges local business and social partners are facing in the context of the transition of the European economy towards more sustainable development.
These meetings were also possible thanks to municipal authorities and district governments, with which we successfully cooperate. The meetings allowed our experts to understand what the most important expectations of the people are and, accordingly, gave the Commission the opportunity to make its professional analysis of how to most effectively channel the necessary financial resources and measures to support the green transition for these regions, so that they and the people living there do not to feel abandoned.
The coronavirus pandemic has put the brakes on a number of initiatives and economic activities, especially those involving travel. How does Covid- 19 affect the implementation of European programs in Bulgaria?
The pandemic has put the whole world in an unprecedented situation. Let me emphasize that it is of the utmost importance for the European Commission to safeguard the health and life of citizens. The Commission therefore directly supported the EU Member States' health systems with EUR 3 billion from the Union budget, supplemented by EUR 3 billion from the Member States, to finance the Emergency Support Instrument and the total stock of RescEU equipment.
This initiative provides vital equipment - from respirators to personal protective equipment. Medical teams are mobilized to help the most vulnerable.
The first country to hold such a reserve is Romania, with production of the first respirators already underway. The Emergency Support Instrument will enable the Commission to directly award contracts on behalf of Member States. It will finance and coordinate the transport of medical equipment and patients in cross-border regions. At a later stage, the Commission will help to increase testing efforts.
We are currently discussing with industry representatives how to reorganize production lines so that more personal protective equipment can be delivered. For example, textile manufacturers to produce masks.
The Commission also provided manufacturers with guidelines for increasing production in three areas: masks, hand cleaners and disinfectants and 3D printing. In addition, we launched four centralized calls for tender for personal protective equipment. Some contracts have already been signed and we expect deliveries to all participating countries, including Bulgaria, soon.
As for the European programs in Bulgaria, they have undergone significant changes, because emergency situations demand emergency solutions. The Commission presented an investment initiative to provide Member States with immediate liquidity. It consists of unspent funds under the Cohesion policy funds within the current long-term budget by the end of 2020.
In practice, we have temporarily changed the strict rules for spending funds on certain projects so as to enable Bulgaria to redirect the available around EUR 812 million towards measures against the coronavirus and the economic impact of the crisis.
Administratively speaking, the initiative provides 100% EU funding for crisis management measures so that Bulgaria does not have to pay these funds in advance; allows the flexibility to reallocate funds between programs and regions to fund coronavirus actions; provides support for fishermen and farmers.
I am pleased to observe that the Bulgarian authorities are acting decisively through this funding from the operational programs, which already goes to the assistance of the Bulgarian medics, hospitals, laboratories, for the social patronage in Bulgaria, for the care of the elderly and the disabled, for the scheme to support the short-term employment, for financial assistance to Bulgarian small and medium-sized enterprises that are in need of liquidity during the crisis, and others.
There is no sector that does not need help, and we strive to not only provide available resources, but also to alleviate the pressure on people and businesses by reducing red tape. For example, in order to increase the cash flow to farmers, the European Commission will increase the advances for direct payments (from 50% to 70%) and payments for rural development (from 75% to 85%).
Farmers will start receiving these advances from mid-October. For additional flexibility, Member States will be able to pay farmers before all on-the-spot checks are completed. The Commission also offers flexibility in the timing of checks.
What shall citizens who had to leave on educational exchanges, organizations with successful European project applications whose implementation is incompatible with social distancing related to the coronavirus do now?
The coronavirus crisis has caused major disruption to transport and travel in Europe. Like all other travellers, this also affects Erasmus Plus students, scholars and professors, for example, or volunteers from the European Solidarity Corps.
However, our top priority is the safety of these participants. We constantly adapt our actions to the epidemiological situation. The participants in the mentioned initiatives should contact the national agency in Bulgaria, which coordinates and is responsible for the projects.
It could recognize the additional costs associated with the emergency that prevents the implementation of the projects. For Erasmus Plus and the Solidarity Corps, these additional costs cannot exceed the total pre-approved budget of the projects.
Deadlines for all ongoing projects can be extended by up to 12 months. Thus, several thousand Erasmus Plus partnership projects, planned for spring 2020, have the potential to be delayed. The Commission is working with a number of student organizations and the relevant national authorities, to help students on a case by case basis.
Meanwhile, the European Commission has prioritized improving the coordination between Member States so that the border control does not paralyze the European economy. We have already achieved the activation of the so-called "green lanes" along the land borders and are working together with governments to address the problems in the aviation and shipping sectors.
We have also prepared a roadmap for a gradual return to normal travel schedules when medical experts say the danger has passed and restrictive measures are loosened.
What are the most important steps the Commission has taken so far to protect citizens, the NGO sector and businesses? How would you respond to people who have doubts about the European Union's ability to cope with the crisis and act in unison?
No European country could withstand the economic storm created by the coronavirus alone. When people are scared, it is understandable that they often express their thoughts and feelings in a negative direction.
But I am convinced that Europeans and their leaders are clearly aware that we are all in the same boat and the combined strength of the 27 countries can achieve a great deal. It is because of its unity that the European Union is a global economic power, and it is solidarity that will help us in the recovery process, which, it is important to note, is in the individual interest of each country and every citizen.
Such unity we see in recent weeks and its financial terms clearly refute sceptics by proving that a united Europe will overcome this crisis thanks to solidarity.
Joint actions – of Member States together with the European institutions - led to the mobilization of nearly 3 trillion euros in the form of various initiatives and instruments to urgently address the economic consequences of the pandemic. This is a colossal amount and it should not be underestimated.
Part of that money comes as financial measures from the European Central Bank with its EUR 750 billion financial asset purchase program in response to the pandemic. The Eurogroup has proposed three immediate backstop mechanisms worth EUR 540 billion. In order to help people keep their jobs during the crisis, the European Commission has offered Support to mitigate Unemployment Risks in an Emergency (entitled SURE).
The scheme provides loans to Member States of up to EUR 100 billion to cover part of the costs associated with the establishment or extension of national part-time schemes. The European Investment Bank Group will set up a pan-European guarantee fund: loans of up to EUR 200 billion for businesses with a focus on small and medium-sized enterprises.
This is complementary to the EUR 40 billion already mobilized to meet the short-term financing needs of SMEs. The European Union amended its budget for 2020 by adding EUR 3.1 billion for the purchase and distribution of medical supplies, including protective gear and ventilators, boosting the production of testing kits, building of field hospitals, transferring patients for treatment in other Member States, repatriation of EU citizens stranded abroad.
I have already mentioned the redirection of funds from the remaining 7-year budget: EUR 37 billion to support healthcare systems, small and medium-sized enterprises and labour markets via the Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative; up to EUR 28 billion of structural funds, from 2014 – 2020 national envelopes not yet allocated to projects, are eligible for crisis response and up to EUR 800 million from the EU Solidarity Fund, directed at the countries hardest hit, thanks to an extension of the scope of the fund to public health crises.
More important, European solutions to overcome the crisis are yet to come. As Commission President Mrs von der Leyen has said, the European budget will be the main driver of our recovery. It will be a sort of Marshall Plan for us. We will allocate funds at the beginning of the new Multiannual Financial Framework so that we can invest them during the vital first years of the recovery process.
We look forward to a rapid agreement between Member States so that the next seven-year budget can unlock large-scale public and private investment. This will boost economies while the rebuilding efforts will contribute to the creation of a more sustainable, environmentally friendly and digitized Europe.
Cvetan Kyulanov has been acting Head of the Representation of the European Commission to Bulgaria since September 1, 2019. An economist by education, he has served as an Economic Advisor at the European Commission Representation in Bulgaria since 2017 and as such is in charge of the analysis of the economic developments in the country and advises the senior management of the Commission on topics related to the Bulgarian economy.
He joined the European Commission's Directorate-General for Economic and Financial Affairs in 2012 as an economic analyst, working on the preparation of the European Economic Forecast, the development of the European Union’s Economic Governance Framework and the macroeconomic imbalances procedure.
He has also worked on the reviews of insurance and pension companies in Bulgaria, which were completed in early 2017. Before joining the European Commission, Cvetan Kyulanov has worked in the private sector as a financial analyst in emerging markets.
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