Commission President José Manuel Barroso discussed with the county's new Prime Minister Boyko Borissov further support for decommissioning of the Kozloduy nuclear power plant's units, the EU executive announced yesterday (10 September).
Bulgaria had made a strong case, he said, and the Commission would provide the funding up to 2013.
But Barroso warned that an appropriate legal basis for such spending was needed and that resources needed to be found in the EU budget. For this, full support of member states was needed, Barroso explained.
"The EU budget is already under very serious constraint. However, I believe the EU has a duty to support the Bulgarian people in this matter," Barroso said. He added that the Union needed to be fair to Bulgaria, and treat the country on an equal footing with Slovakia and Lithuania, which secured higher financing to close ageing nuclear power stations (see 'Background').
It also emerged that the Commission was unfreezing some of the funding that was withheld under the previous government over bad management of EU programmes.
Barroso said he was pleased to announce that the Commission was now able to resume payments under the SAPARD agricultural programme.
Barroso said that 6.85 billion euros of structural funds are available for Bulgaria, but that the country's "absorption capacity" remained a problem as it is still constrained by a lack of trained people.
"The reality is that there are weaknesses that consist in control procedures and also preventing conflicts of interest," Barroso said.
"This is a clear signal that if rules are followed, we can solve the problems together," said Barroso, adding that the EU executive would try to grant a request from Sofia that deadlines for the ISPA programme, which addresses environmental and transport infrastructure priorities, be extended. The priority is to get the control system in place, he added.
Zero tolerance on corruption
Barroso said he expected the new Bulgarian government to show "zero tolerance” on corruption and organised crime, a enduring problem in Bulgaria which triggered the launch of an EU Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) when the country joined the 27-member bloc in January 2007.
He added that he expected to see significant progress over the next six months on the 21 concrete recommendations recently made under the CVM mechanism (see EurActiv 23/07/09)
"I cannot stress enough how important the next six months are for Bulgaria. There is a huge amount at stake, in terms of Bulgaria's image in Europe, and showing that Bulgaria can deliver on its promises," Barroso said. "The prime minister [Boyko Borissov] asked me a credit of trust. I give him this credit of trust."
Borissov pledged to take swift action to tackle the problems. He thanked Barroso for accepting that the country's accession to the Schengen borderless area would not be made conditional on progress under the CVM.
The Netherlands had recently indicated that due to slow progress in Bulgaria and Romania, it would ask the Commission to freeze funding, including sums to be made available under the Schengen facility (see EurActiv 03/09/09), a move which would affect the two countries' plans to join the EU's borderless area by 2013.
Major energy projects to be reassessed
Borissov also said he would ask the Commission's opinion on the three major energy projects with Russian participation, negotiated by the previous governments: the South Stream gas pipeline project, the Burgas-Alexandroupolis oil pipeline and the new Belene nuclear power plant (EurActiv 03/09/08), which is still in its initial construction phase.
Conflicting news had emerged over the new Bulgarian government's plans to pursue energy projects with Russian participation (see EurActiv 14/07/09). Meeting Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Poland recently on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the beginning of WW II, Borissov told his counterpart that he needed a few months to study the projects and make a decision.
Barroso said he did not discuss big energy projects such as Nabucco during this first meeting with Borissov, but said he was looking forward to such discussions in the very near future.
Bulgaria not seeking IMF loan
Speaking to the press on a separate occasion, Bulgaria's new deputy prime minister and minister of finance, Simeon Djankov, said that the country was expecting an exit from the crisis by the end of the first quarter of 2010.
He said his government was trying hard to reduce public expenditure and increase tax and customs revenues, and the results so far had been encouraging.
Asked by EurActiv if Bulgaria would seek an IMF loan, as crisis-hit Latvia, Hungary and Ukraine had done recently, he was categorical in saying that the country did not need or seek such support at this stage.
He said that Bulgaria would seek an external audit on its economic situation. He explained that the country's balance of payments was stable, and if exports were to increase, then the country would need no external financing.
Djankov said the banking system of the country was sound, adding that the fact that the system had been "more conservative" than in Western Europe had kept it out of trouble.