By Nevena Krasteva
The EU’s Recovery Plan is an unprecedented exercise in solidarity in Europe but it has also raised questions whether the money will be put to the best of use. Do you see reasons for concern that the countries in SEE might miss this opportunity to avail themselves fully of the funds, or that the money could be misused?
The Recovery and Resilience Facility requires a control framework that is tailored and proportionate to its unique nature. Member States’ national control systems will serve as the main instrument for safeguarding the financial interests of the Union.
Member States will have to ensure compliance with Union and national laws, including the effective prevention, detection and correction of conflict of interests, corruption and fraud, and avoidance of double funding. They are required to explain the relevant arrangements in their recovery and resilience plans, and the Commission will assess whether they provide sufficient assurance. For instance, Member States need to collect data on final recipients of funds and make this available upon request.
For each payment request, Member States will provide a ‘management declaration’ that the funds were used for their intended purpose, that information provided is correct, and that the control systems are in place and funds were used in accordance with applicable rules. In addition, the Commission will implement its own risk-based control strategy.
OLAF, the Court of Auditors, the European Public Prosecutors Office and the Commission itself may access relevant data and investigate the use of funds if necessary.
The Commission has on a number of occasions voiced its concerns about the rule of law in EU member-states in Southeast Europe. Do you see progress in this area?
Last year, the European Commission introduced its new Rule of Law Mechanism. It consists of the annual Rule of Law Report and the horizontal and Member State-specific discussions in the European Council.
The Mechanism is a yearly cycle to promote the rule of law and prevent problems from emerging or deepening further. Our goal is to focus on improving understanding and awareness of issues and significant developments, as well as to identify rule of law challenges and help Member States find solutions with support from the Commission and the other Member States. It also allows Member States to exchange best practices, discuss among themselves and learn from each other. The objective of the Mechanism is preventive. It is important to understand that it is decoupled from the other elements in the EU’s Rule of Law Toolbox.
It complements, but does not replace, the Treaty-based mechanisms for the EU to respond to more serious rule of law related issues in Member States. There is also a close link to EU policies aimed at economic recovery: strong justice systems, a robust anti-corruption framework, and a clear and consistent system of law-making, the protection of the EU’s financial interests, and sustainable growth. This is a key driver for the work of EU instruments, which promote structural reforms in Member States.
The annual Rule of Law Report is the result of close dialogue with national authorities and stakeholders, and covers all Member States on an objective and impartial basis, looking at the same issues.
The qualitative assessment carried out by the Commission focuses on significant developments since the adoption of the first annual Rule of Law Report and ensures a coherent approach by applying the same methodology to all Member States, while remaining proportionate to developments.
Coherence and proportionality are of crucial importance, as we also need to be careful to recognize Member States’ efforts and progress made.
This year’s report, adopted in September, looks at the new developments since last year, and deepens the assessment of issues identified in the previous report and taking into account the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Overall, the report shows many positive developments in Member States, including where challenges identified in the 2020 report are being addressed. However, concerns remain and in certain Member States these have increased, for instance when it comes to the independence of the judiciary and the media.
The 2021 Rule of Law Report starts a new cycle of dialogue and monitoring. The Commission invites Member States to take up the challenges identified in the Report.
We stand ready to continue encouraging and assisting Member States in these efforts and to work collectively towards strengthening the rule of law culture across the European Union.
The acute demographic crisis in SEE has an impact on all spheres of economic and social activity, ultimately even threatening to erode democracy. What should the governments in SEE prioritise in their approach to tackling this problem?
For many, people demographic change may feel like something that is far away in time. However, this is not the reality. Population ageing, brain drain, depopulation is happening right now and we can see it.
This change is happening everywhere in Europe, and we can see that some of this is affecting Southeast Europe particularly, for example when it comes to brain drain. However, we must also be careful and not generalise as there are differences across the countries. But it is clear that the demographic situation in the region follows the overall trends, with an ageing population, decline of birth rate and labour emigration. These are phenomena that are likely to be exacerbated by the economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Brain drain is certainly one of the biggest challenges for the region. It is both a symptom and expression and means young and skilled people leave their region behind to search for better opportunities elsewhere because they do not find the necessary conditions to thrive at home. For the citizens of member states of the EU, this is of course enshrined in the principle of free movement, which is a fundamental right and one that we promote and support. It is a consequence of an overall more educated population in the region, in particular the youth, which has more opportunities and options to choose a place to work and live than previous generations.
So we need to look at the empowerment of the youth. When we enable young people to find decent jobs, participate in political processes and have real influence in our societies, they will create a better future.
Any programme or strategy must keep young people at the centre. It is important to strengthen the mainstreaming of youth empowerment into a number of policy areas, including education, employment, career counselling, health, culture and sports.
Investing in the quality education and skill development of young people and creating the necessary conditions for their employment in both the public and private sectors, is crucial in addressing youth unemployment and the resulting brain drain and emigration. Creating opportunities for young people to prosper in the region is essential. This requires structural reforms, good business climate, sound public governance and respect of the rule of law, a modern education system and strong regional cooperation and integration.
From the EU side, we are supporting such efforts for example with initiatives like the Regional Youth Cooperation Office, the Western Balkan Youth Lab, or a regional Youth Guarantee scheme.
As ageing affects all of us, we also must not lose out of sight the needs of an ageing society and older people. This means we need to ensure that the needs and preferences of older persons are met and at EU level we are looking in particular into the increasing demand for long-term care.
Ultimately, demographic change requires anticipation and a response at many levels – at political, societal and individual level. This is about responsibility and solidarity between generations.
And while this sounds like a big task, I strongly believe that every challenge comes with an opportunity to innovate, to grow and to prepare for the future. This is what we should keep as a guiding principle in our work.