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I had the pleasure to interview MEP Mrs. Mihaylova, and one of the most influential women in the area of Regional Development in Europe. I was surprised and happily impressed on how much she knew about the importance of project management to implement the vision and policies of the European leaders successfully. She is also a firm believer of the need for simplification and reducing the administrative burden for maximizing the impact of projects, as a whole – in our world, more agile practices.

1. Dear Mrs. Mihaylova, you are a strong supporter of the objectives of the EU in the field of education, science, and innovations; all of them essential for developing a robust, healthy and sustainable economy in Europe. How can we ensure that the objectives, and benefits, are achieved?

Today more than ever, European Union is facing unforeseen challenges like Brexit, migration crisis, terrorism and security concerns, geopolitical challenges, as well as climate change. However, at the same time, “Europe is now visibly regaining its strength” – economic growth is gathering pace, at above 2% this year, surpassing the growth rates of USA and Japan over the last two years, as explained by EC President J.-Cl. Juncker in his State of the Union address on 13 September. Almost 8 million jobs were created thanks to ESI Funds, EFSI, the Youth Guarantee, as well as thanks to the joint actions of European institutions. Therefore, we need a suitable policy mix that ensures sustainable public finances and instead encourages more investment to support innovation, science, education, and competitiveness in a globalized economy.

I would like to stress that we have achieved significant successes in the field of regional policy. I would like to mention that Cohesion policy funding, which counts for one third of the EU budget, is considered the primary instrument of the EU aimed at boosting the competitiveness and growth of European regions, tackling climate change and energy dependence, while at the same time contributing to developing a strong, healthy and sustainable economy in Europe. For many countries and regions, EU funding represents a critical and stable source of investment in jobs and growth. Every region in the European Union benefits from Cohesion Policy. It is estimated to generate 0.2 – 5.9% of additional regional GDP by 2023, with different effects in different EU regions, according to the ex-post evaluation 2007-2013 final report of the European Commission. One euro of investment is expected to generate about EUR 2,7 of additional GDP by 2023.

Building on the experience of previous funding periods, it is necessary to determine the strengths and weaknesses of current cohesion policy and to identify ways to increase its effectiveness, taking into account the newly arisen challenges and crises. This requires effective measures and structural reforms in traditional European policies, as well as establishing an appropriate policy mix, better integration, and coordination between different policies, territorial cooperation, multilevel governance and place-based approach.

New possibilities for cooperation and coordination using different funding sources should be used and further explored – the European Structural and Investment Funds, the European Fund for Strategic Investment, other financial instruments and Community programmes like Horizon 2020, COSME, ERASMUS, etc. Moreover, the alignment of funding calls for specialized knowledge, capacities, and competences, research, and innovations which, as a “consequence”, leads towards new opportunities.

With a constrained budget, it is imperative that the future Cohesion Policy focuses on areas where joint action is most needed, i.e., those actions with a high European value added, such as to promote growth and competitiveness, contribution to climate change adaptation and resource efficiency.

Cohesion Policy needs to be more flexible by allowing operational investing priorities to target specific challenges as they emerge, such as migration, natural disasters, changes in demographics. It should allow easier access to funds, by reducing bureaucracy and shifting priorities to the actual impact of projects. And it should be more connected, by strengthening the links to other EU policies. Stronger priority should be given to territorial cooperation, to build on the extensive experience already acquired all over Europe and foster new partnerships, which encourage innovation and constant improvements in regional public administrations.

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2. Do you believe that sound project management practices are essential for the EU regional cohesion policy to succeed?

I do believe that sound project management practices are essential for the EU regional cohesion policy. Learning from doing and strong competencies are obligatory for improving performance and achieving impact and results. Monitoring tools are also an essential part of implementing a project because they allow project leaders to measure the pace and progress of improvement. Well-organised, well-structured, and easily understood processes are useful for all involved in the project development and implementation. Thus, the importance of simplicity and clarity should not be underestimated.

Simplification should be the first underlying priority for the Structural and Investment Funds management also post 2020, as simplifying access to the EU Funds and reducing administrative burden. This will contribute for maximizing the impact of projects, as a whole. In addition, monitoring and controls systems should be improved and optimized. In this context, I would like to mention the achievements of the High-Level Group on Simplification set up by the European Commission, suggesting measures and actions to be undertaken post 2020, as well as currently reflected in the proposal for the Financial Regulation 2014-2020 and its subordinate acts (the so-called Omnibus dossier). The REGI Committee at the European Parliament, which I chair, has just started the inter-institutional negotiations thereon.

A good practice of project activities comprising learning, connecting, demonstration, commercialization, is the Vanguard Initiative. Stakeholders learn from each other, organizations and activities are connected, and demonstration projects are supported to improve product and service development processes. This is an approach that can be relatively easily replicated across Europe.

3. How could we persuade other political leaders and member states of the need and the benefits of strong implementation competencies?

I am confident that presently all Member State benefiting from EU Funds do their best to develop strong implementation competencies and capacities to achieve more impact from the fulfilled projects. Moreover, they try to look for synergies and complementarities between different financial sources and instrument, to use an innovative form of financing like EFSI and financial instruments with the view to achieving the leverage effect.

I would like to mention that Interreg Europe is in a unique position to promote capacity building and synergies with other funding sources. It can foster cooperation by facilitating interaction, identification of complementarities and gaps and by providing access to practices and operational know-how between different Member States and beneficiaries.

As a Chair of the REGI Committee in the EP, I would like to point out, that the REGI Committee Members support the strong capacity building and improving the implementation practices in the Member States through a numerous of adopted reports and resolutions during current parliamentary mandate – for instance, the INI Report on investing in jobs and growth-maximizing the contribution of ESI Funds, as well as the INI Report on Building Blocks for a post-2020 EU cohesion policy, the INI Report on European Territorial Cooperation – best practices and innovative measures, etc.

4. Did you have any failed projects in your career? How did you overcome them? What lessons did you learn?

I would like to give an example from the period (2007-2009) when I was Deputy Minister responsible for the ERDF-funded Operational programme “Regional Development“ 2007-2013. We incurred substantial delay, and it was impossible to start the implementation health infrastructure projects in Bulgaria, for which we had envisaged over 100 million euro due to the fact that we did not have at that time the required health reforms and national health establishments map in place. That´s why I would like to stress now the importance of ensuring the right framework for investment. In this context, the established Structural Reform Support Service as result of entering into force of the Regulation on Structural Reform Support Programme at the beginning of this year can now provide substantial assistance to the Member States to design and implement reforms.

5. The European Union Project, has it failed? What should we do to re-energize it?

European citizens expect clear answers on how we can work together further. That is why the future of Europe debate, launched by the White Paper of EC President Juncker, is so important. A Europe that knows where it wants to go can also help the world get to a better place for the benefit of all. To some extent despite its negativity, Brexit help unite more the Union. People are less critical now of the union; they want instead to reform Europe – not to leave Europe, not to destroy it. A healthy and effective policies arrangement could be vital for a strong and effective European Union.

What do you think about Mrs. Mihaylova views? 

Do you agree that project management is critical for a successful implementation of the “Project Europe”?

MEP Mrs. Iskra Mihaylova born in Sofia, Bulgaria, has an extensive career in the field of EU cooperation and regional policy. Her path into active politics began in 2001 when she was appointed adviser to the minister for regional development. After the 2005 elections in Bulgaria, Mrs. Mihaylova continued her involvement in regional policy as deputy minister up to 2009. In the period 2009-2013 she was Member of Bulgaria’s 41st National Assembly and Chair of the Parliament’s Committee on Environment and Water.

From May 2013 up to June 2014 Mrs. Mihaylova acted as a Minister of the Environment and Water of Bulgaria. For years, she has worked for the implementation of the European Cohesion Policy in Bulgaria and was actively involved in the Operational Programmes “Regional Development”, “Environment” and in the monitoring committees of cross-border cooperation programmes. Since July 2015 she has become Member of the European Parliament to the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. Currently, Mrs. Mihaylova is Chair of the Committee on Regional Development at the European Parliament.

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