Bulgarian EU Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva: European Humanitarian Aid Touches Hearts and Minds around the World
Exclusive interview of Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency) with Kristalina Georgieva, EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid, International Cooperation and Crisis Response.
Kristalina Georgieva was born on August 13, 1953, in Sofia, Bulgaria. She earned her MA in Political Economy and Sociology in 1976 and her Ph.D. in economics in 1986 from the University of National and World Economy. Until 1993, she was an Assistant/Associate Professor at the same institution. She later became a research fellow at the London School of Economics, and taught as a visiting professor at the University of the South Pacific, Fiji; the Australian National University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Georgieva joined the World Bank in 1993. In 2000-2010, she was the head of the World Bank directorates on Environment, Strategy and Operations, and Sustainable Development; she also served as the World Bank Director and Resident Representative in Russia.
In 2008-2010, Georgieva was the Vice President and Corporate Secretary of the World Bank Group, directly reporting to the President, and Interlocutor between World Bank Group senior management, its Board of Directors and the 186 countries shareholders of the World Bank Group.
In February 2010, she became the European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid, and Crisis Response in the second commission of Jose Manuel Barroso. She was nominated by the Bulgarian government of the GERB party and Prime Minister Boyko Borisov after the initial Bulgarian candidate – then Foreign Minister Rumiana Jeleva – gave an unconvincing performance during her European Parliament hearing, which was also marred by allegations that she was involved in a conflict of interests.
Georgieva is married, and has one child. She is fluent in English and Russian, and has basic knowledge of French.
After working at top positions at the World Bank for more than 15 years, you are now an EU Commissioner. What are the major things that you have brought to the EC from your World Bank experience?
I bring to the European Commission four things from my 18 years of work in a truly global institution.
The first is a global approach, and a global professional network. I was very fortunate to be at the World Bank at a time of tremendous transformation around the world, to build up first-hand knowledge from more than 70 countries, and participate in important negotiations at national, regional and global levels.
The second is my operational experience in developing countries in coping with really complex problems that affect people’s lives. This experience is directly relevant for the humanitarian aid portfolio I am in charge of in the European Commission. Probably the most important thing in that respect is that I have been touched by the many human stories I came across in my work, and carry a deep sense of commitment to the people who need help.
Let me give you just one example. One of the places where I have worked is Sumgayit in Azerbaijan. In the 1090s, Sumgayit had the highest mortality rate in the former Soviet Union for children under 5 years of age. The problem there was industrial pollution. Not only did we have to solve this problem, but we also had to create a platform and conditions so it would never emerge again.
At that time there were many competing priorities and making Sumgayit one of the top ones was not easy. I believe it was my closeness to the problem and to the people which helped me make their case in the high corridors of power, in the Government and at the World Bank.
The third thing I bring is related to one of the big tasks before us at the European Commission -- the creation of a strong and reliable European system for crisis response. This is one of the issues that unite the European citizens – more than 90 percent of them want to see Europe acting as one when a disaster hits.
While working in the World Bank, I was responsible for a long time for developing a program to address climate change. This experience is directly relevant to my portfolio. It has helped me think about fighting disasters as a sequence of four equally important steps – preparedness, prevention, response, and rehabilitation. This cycle has to be applied in Europe.
And finally, fourth, I have a sound knowledge of economics, which is very helpful in my work, including when the EC discusses topics relevant to Bulgaria.
Even though they are both part of “the West”, the United States and Europe are different in their ways of thinking and doing things in politics, economics, and society. What are the things that the EU should learn from the US?
It is good to have diversity of cultures. I don’t expect and don’t want to see Europe exactly the same as the US, and the US exactly the same as Europe. But we can learn from one another, and I think there are two things that the EU can learn from the way things are done in the USA.
The first one is the feeling of optimism and the desire to always seek a positive angle, and to mobilize people on these grounds even in the most complicated conditions.
The second is that there isn’t much relying on the government in the US. People there rely on themselves, first and foremost. There is this notion that responsibility starts from the individual. This can be very useful for Europe especially as we have years of belt tightening ahead of us.
The EU has no “hard power”. In international affairs it relies primarily on the so called “soft power” of which humanitarian aid is a crucial part. How do you see the importance of your portfolio for the development of the foreign policy of the EU? Can it help the EU acquire the international influence that it needs?
The EU’s relations with people in need in the rest of the world are based on the principle of solidarity – and rightly so, because this is the very foundation of our Union. It is not easy to show solidarity and compassion for someone else’s grief in a hard moment, all the more so when you have got problems at home. But when you do so, it leaves a lasting positive impression, and creates a very good image of Europe and Europeans around the world.
Humanitarian aid has one very important quality – it is politically neutral. In this respect, I don’t think of my portfolio as an instrument of EU’s policies. I see it as a demonstration of Europe’s values, and as the softest of the “soft power” that you are referring to - but also as the one thing that can truly touch the hearts and, therefore, the minds of people around the world.
An example of how it works is my very first policy initiative as the EU Humanitarian Aid Commissioner, adopted on March 31, 2010. It led to a change in the EU food assistance policies - we made a very important decision to provide food aid without binding it to our own food surpluses.
We require from our partners, such as the World Food Organization, to first check and see if they can procure the food we need for emergency assistance on the local or the regional market. Only when they are unable to find it there, or when it is too expensive locally, they can buy it from foreign markets, including the EU.
The reason for this new policy is very simple – bringing cheap food from Europe may feed the hungry today, but it may ruin the local farmers and cause more hunger tomorrow. Humanitarian action has to meet the urgent needs around the world, but it also has to be part of a wider development platform – because humanitarian crises are going to disappear only when countries achieve progress in their own development.
In your capacity of an EU Commissioner in charge of a foreign policy portfolio, how do you see the development of the EU several months after the coming into force of the Lisbon Treaty? Do you think the EU should become a “super-state” with full-fledged foreign, security and defense policies and respective institutional apparatus?
The process of integration within the EU must continue to deepen. This is absolutely clear and unconditional. We have witnessed the necessity of deepening integration in the context of reacting to the economic crisis.
In my portfolio, this means advancing the mapping of resources for crisis response that our member states have, and using them more efficiently, so that we can make the whole bigger than the sum of its parts.
In the foreign policy field, perhaps the most important thing at present is the setting up of the External Action Service so that there can be an institutional platform for a more consolidated European foreign policy. I am doing everything I can to support the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Lady Ashton, in her work.
You’ve mentioned the EU response to the economic crisis. As an economist and a former Vice President of the World Bank, what do you think of the predictions made by a number of top global analysts – from Nouriel Roubini to Joseph Stiglitz – that the euro zone and the common European currency are likely to collapse as a result of the financial crisis in Greece and trouble in other Southern European states? Do you think that the bailout plan for Greece adopted by the EU and the International Monetary Fund is sufficient to resolve the existing problems?
Not so long ago there were predictions and forecasts about the end of the US dollar, now it is the euro’s turn. The euro will survive this crisis – and the euro zone will continue to attract new applicants. Just last week we at the Commission gave a green light to Estonia’s application.
The euro is facing threats on two fronts. On the one hand, there is the “objective” threat of the increased budget deficits, both in the euro zone and in the rest of the EU. Most countries have deficits that are higher than the 3 percent threshold in the EU’s growth and stability pact, stemming from the need to finance anti-crisis measures.
The second attack against the euro comes from speculators who are trying to use the fluctuations of the exchange rate. When there is a large-scale attack against a certain currency, there are consequences. But the exchange rate of the euro – and of the euro zone and the EU as a whole – objectively is based on the strength of our economies. The EU is about one-fourth of the global economy, we are the major trading partner of a lot of countries (and for the export sectors the lower exchange rate for the euro is actually a good thing).
Of course, we should not dismiss the concerns about the euro light-heartedly. There is a risk for Europe’s future if we don’t take measures to keep the deficits under control, and to make our economies more competitive. But I am confident we will take these measures and that the euro is here to stay.
Do you agree with the criticism that the present trouble of the euro zone is not so much the fault of Greece and Southern Europe, but of France and Germany who “torpedoed” the Stability and Growth Pact several years ago?
In the period when the euro was only rising in value, and the only concern was how this affected the export capabilities of the euro zone members, all countries, including France and Germany, were more relaxed about the need for a truly consolidated, unified policy.
I dare say – however unreal this may sound – that what happened in Greece may serve the whole EU well. It is a real wake-up call, from Germany and France to Greece and the rest, and made us realize that we cannot play around with the Stability and Growth Pact, we have to respect it, and work hard for it, so that it works for all of us.
Given the present situation with Greece and the euro zone, do you think the Bulgarian government should keep aspiring with all means possible to enter the ERM II and the euro zone, or should it slow that process down and wait?
For a country like Bulgaria whose currency is pegged to the euro under a currency board, joining the euro zone is a logical step.
The alternative is to unbind the Bulgarian lev from the euro, which is totally pointless for an economy already so deeply integrated with the euro zone. This will only create a potential for a destabilization of the Bulgarian economy.
Bulgaria has benefited more than it has lost from the currency peg. Of course, it is not easy to be pegged to a strong foreign currency, such as the euro – and in this sense, a lower euro exchange rate has some advantages. At present, Bulgarian companies exporting their products outside the euro zone are benefiting from the lower euro exchange rate and this strengthens their competitive advantages.
Leaving aside what is happening with Bulgaria’s neighbors and with the euro zone, and taking into account only the measures that the Bulgarian government is implementing in order to be a candidate for the waiting room, we should say that these measures are in themselves good for the Bulgarian economy, especially under the present conditions. Therefore, the Bulgarian government should stick to its goal to enter the waiting room, ERM II, and the euro zone. It has to evaluate realistically its capabilities and to find the best moment for that.
The Bulgarian government of the GERB party and Prime Minister Boyko Borisov are often criticized for acting primarily tactically by focusing its attention on operational tasks but that it lacks a grand strategy for the nation. In your view, what must be the grand strategy of the Bulgarian government? That is, what sectors of the economy should Bulgaria concentrate on in order to achieve a better standard?
This government came to power in time of great uncertainty around the world. In the conditions of a very complex and protracted crisis countries are careful to say that they have a grand strategy, and are promptly following it. The present economic crisis is like a tunnel with many turns inside it – you can see every now and then that there is light at the end of the tunnel but you keep losing it.
In addition, GERB is a party which has not been in power before, with people who have not been in the government and are now learning to work as a team.
It is these two reasons that explain why sometimes the Borisov government takes decisions that later have to be revised and corrected. But I think that in the recent weeks the government’s positions, especially the clear commitment to reforms, shows they are learning from experience and keeping focused on implementing their pre-elections promises.
As far as the grand strategy is concerned, the Borisov government says it has three priorities – and so far it has been sticking to them.
First, restore people’s trust in law. Second, preserve fiscal discipline and keep the budget deficit under tight control -- which in the current situation, in the context of the Greek case, is extremely important for Bulgaria. And third, focus on economic anti-crisis measures, especially in infrastructure, where we can create jobs quickly, and can give people all over the country the feeling that something is improving in their daily lives.
Of course, the government has to go all the way with reforms in the healthcare, pension, education and justice systems – but there has to be one economic sector where there is tangible change, and this sector should be structurally important for all the other sectors – for everyday life, for tourism, for trade, for the investors that we wish to attract.
These are things that I have spoken of before – and especially that there has to be one engine of growth which is understandable for the Bulgarians, which is not that complicated in terms of management so that it can bring quick results, and which has EU funds available for absorption to fuel it. This is what the government needs to do for the Bulgarians to feel that something is changing for the better despite of the crisis.
You have declared you support and affiliation with the government of the GERB party and Prime Minister Boyko Borisov. Why did you select exactly this government and this political party in order to appear in Bulgarian politics by filling the key position of Bulgaria’s EU Commissioner?
Let me first say that only a couple of weeks ago I swore in Luxembourg in front of the European Court of Justice not to serve any national government – this of my country, or any other.
So I will focus on the part of your question that predates my job as EU Commissioner – why I accepted first to be an advisor to the Prime Minister and then the nomination of this Government to become EU Commissioner.
I did this for two reasons. The first one is that this government came on the wings of the hope of 2 million Bulgarian voters. It came with ideas that I share and with people showing that they really care about restoring the Bulgarians’ belief in their state in a really hard moment. In a very complex global situation there is one party that mobilizes the hopes of the Bulgarians but does not have a long history or much expertise, and needs expert support. This is the first reason I have supported them.
The second reason is that Mr. Borisov -- and his team – has adopted a very direct and open approach. Wen he called me in Washington about the EU Commissioner nomination, and said, “We are in a very tough situation, we need support,” he did that very directly and honestly -- and the only possible answer on my part was “yes.”
You were practically the last trump card of the Borisov government in the crisis with the nomination for Bulgarian EU Commissioner, and you have emerged as one of the best specialists that Bulgaria has produced on the international level. What has to happen for Bulgaria to be able to “produce” more “Kristalinas?”
Bulgaria has got to have more confidence in itself, and to cheer more for its people. We must show pride for our “brand Bulgarians”, whenever they are. I think this will help more Bulgarians stand up and serve their country.
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