I met Ms Elzbieta Bienkowska in Sofia where she was invited by Tomislav Donchev, Bulgarian minister of EU funds management. As a minister of regional development of Poland, Ms Bienkowska chaired the meetings of the Council of Ministers devoted on the future of cohesion policy in the next EU budget 2014-2020 during the Polish presidency of the EU. While I was watching these debates, I was impressed by her strong leadership and competence, combined with a delicate sense of humour. Our face to face meeting confirmed that impression of mine.
euinside: We all know about the Polish miracle in terms of absorption of EU funds. Could you point the three main reasons for your success?
Elzbieta Bienkowska: I don`t want to call it a miracle, although I must say that before our accession we were quite afraid how we will be able to use this real money, as I call it, I mean structural funds, which were also seen by Poland and by other countries as very difficult ones. But I think the first thing is that we really used in a good way the experience that we gained through many years with the pre-accession funds and we used this experience not losing the people. We tried to build a system throughout the years, as far as the salaries are concerned, not to lose the people working in the system. So, for example, me and my colleagues, who are here with me, we have been working with this issue for many years - I started in 1994, becoming a minister 5 years ago. So first the people - not losing them - because really this kind of administrative capacity is, I think, crucial.
Second thing is to build a good structure of institutions controlled by us and by the [European] Commission. The third thing is this - that we were trying to build a system of public finances in this way that we could have a lot of money to prefinance the European money. Of course, the Commission is giving some money in advance but generally you have to pay own money for the project and then get the money back from Brussels. The total amount of investment in Poland is 115 billion euros for the period 2007-2013 as 68 billion euros come from the EU side and the rest is from Polish side. So we tried to build a system of public finances that to enable us to have the money in our own pocket.
Also, we tried, of course it is not very easy and I think it is not in 100% successful, but through the first few years we really discussed with many beneficiaries how to make this money simpler, if it was possible of course. So we were discussing mostly with the SMEs and NGOs, for example, because local governments they can really do everything because they are an administration. But for the SMEs, for the companies, sometimes there were some problems. So we tried to build a system of simplification firstly, but secondly, for example, we built a system of prefinancing, advanced payment for companies. In the previous period we had a prefinancing system only for the public authorities but for the companies it was not existing. We build a system of prefinancing money or advanced payment for them, because we started this period in 2009 almost, because it was a late start, as always with the structural funds, and it was the time of crisis. So, we wanted to give the money to the market just to make it work as fast as possible.
euinside: Could you say any numbers in terms of amount of the EU money absorbed by the SMEs?
Elzbieta Bienkowska: We have one programme which is completely dedicated to SMEs. It worths around 10 billion euros. But additionally in the regional programmes, because we have in Poland regional programmes which are managed and which are owned by the regions, I think maybe 2-3 billion euros additionally, so altogether around 12-13 billion euros out of this 68 are dedicated to companies.
euinside: So could you say that this helped the SMEs survive during the crisis?
Elzbieta Bienkowska: Yes. But we in Poland were in such a lucky situation that our companies were not weak, they were not in such a bad situation, bad environment, so they really could take this money, they had money for cofinancing. But the European money was something very crucial for them in the worst years - 2008 and 2009 - this money really helped fuel the market.
euinside: How did you make it easier for the SMEs to get this money?
Elzbieta Bienkowska: The first thing was the advanced payments because it was the most important for them. Then we tried to make these forms, everything they have to fulfil, to make it simpler – just five questions at this very formal approval, first line, it was very simple. Then we tried to make the system as fast as possible. It`s not as fast as someone could imagine but on the other hand I always say that this is a very difficult money. This is public money of European taxpayers, our money, of the Polish and Bulgarian taxpayers, which is given generally, in 95%, as grants. So it has to be checked in the period while a project is realised and after that how this is used. Quite normal. You know, when you are going to the bank for a loan you are checked, together with your family, because they want to be sure that you will be able to pay the money back. With this money we don`t want you to give the money back, we just give you the money, so we must be sure that the money is really properly used. That’s it! It will never be easy money. Some say ‘make it easier, easier, easier’. It`s stupid. The system can be easier, the money can be faster but it cannot be easy this way 'a very simple form and give me one million euros'!
euinside: I know that decentralisation was an important success factor. Could you elaborate more on decentralisation, on your regional programmes?
Elzbieta Bienkowska: We had in Poland traditional regions. We made a huge administrative reform in 1998 and then we created 16 self-governed regions with regional parliaments. You can compare it with German "Länder", although they are not as independent because we are not a federal state. We gave the regions the power to manage regional programmes. We, as a ministry, are responsible for the coordination, at the very end we are responsible before the Commission for the whole money. But some part of this money is given to the regions for their management. We have a very precise line dividing the so called national programmes managed by my ministry and regional programmes. They have smaller projects but, for example, our regions are managing their own roads, we have regional roads, so this kind of projects is in the regional programmes. But also it must be said that our regions and also municipalities, they have quite a lot of their own money, they have part of the taxes, so they have their own money for cofinancing and this is not on the side of the state budget. So this is really a factor of great success because I deeply believe in the county scale of Poland but also in other countries, if you do not have this intermediate budget linking you with the ground, with the municipalities, it is really difficult to conduct everything.
euinside: Do they have the right to initiate their own projects or they must ask you to allow them or to coordinate?
Elzbieta Bienkowska: No, no! They are not asking for anything. At the very beginning they were not used to such a situation because in the previous period 2004-2006 we had one regional programme for all Polish regions, called Integrated Regional Programme, and they had to ask for decision. They were choosing the projects but we had to approve them. So at the very beginning in 2007 they were asking us about everything. And we were just giving them letters saying 'Dear Marshalls*, you are the managing authorities for the programmes, it means every decision is on your side. If you do it good, its OK, when you do it bad, its also your fault, not ours. Thank you!' But it was quite a painful and a really long process to make them believe that this is their own programme.
euinside: Do you have any observations what are the main challenges facing Bulgaria in terms of EU funds absorption?
Elzbieta Bienkowska: I`m the last person to pick anybody and to show where are the problems, because every country is specific and I must say, and probably in Bulgaria it is also seen, that Bulgaria made a huge progress starting from the last year. I will tell you two things how the things are going in Poland. The first is the very independent level of local authorities, which I think is a factor of success, as you said. And the second thing is the very specific system of implementation when one ministry - the ministry of regional development - is responsible for all of the programmes. There are different programmes – environmental ones, transport, science etc. and different strong ministers and strong ministries. But when a decision is taken on the projects with European money my voice is stronger than the voice of the sectoral minister and I must say that in Poland it`s working. We decided that in the future budget 2014-2020 the situation in Poland will be built in the same way. One ministry - of regional development - will be responsible for the managing of the programme. In the previous period we had a different situation where the sectoral ministries were responsible for the programme and it was not working as good as now.
euinside: In Bulgaria we don’t have this local autonomy and right of initiative …
Elzbieta Bienkowska: No, the situation here is different. In Bulgaria you have managing authorities in different ministries, Minister Donchev is coordinating them, but his ministry is not a managing authority according to European nomenclature.
euinside: What did you discuss with minister Donchev, what did he ask you?
Elzbieta Bienkowska: You, in Bulgaria, are at the point and it was the same with Poland, where theoretically we new everything. And now on the current period Bulgaria doesn`t have to ask any questions. They know how it is going, they just have to put it in the framework of your own circumstances. But what we were discussing mostly, which is obvious for the time being, is the future. How the future budget will look, where we can support each other. I had also a meeting with the deputy minister of foreign affairs [Ivan Naydenov], who was previously ambassador to Poland and whom I know quite well. He said one very wise thing - that we have to support each other, especially during the negotiation of the Muliannual Financial Framework (MFF), on the money, because, he said, later on everybody will have different interest and then we will have to just act, of course searching for support throughout Europe. But first things first is to have as strong as possible group of the countries who are supporting the idea of strong cohesion policy. This is our task for now.
euinside: Poland has a very strong and clear position on the next MFF, how would you assess the negotiations to date?
Elzbieta Bienkowska: It's very strange because we have two things – first thing, the first side of the page, is the money; the second side is regulations. With the regulations we are going step by step forward. But it is not the money, this is the content of the money, how the policy will look like. But as far as the money is concerned, it is strange, as I said. Because we are going from one European crisis to another. The atmosphere, the situation in Europe and in some southern European countries really influences a lot the atmosphere of the negotiations. So when the atmosphere is good, when everybody is optimistic, like after the latest European Council when there was some decision on Spain and everybody was quite optimistic, then there were some words in the conclusions saying that cohesion policy is a development tool for the future ...
euinside: ... part of the Growth Pact.
Elzbieta Bienkowska: Yes. But what will happen if in September the atmosphere is not so optimistic? It is really strange, but it is natural, I really can understand it that eurozone is thinking mostly how to keep it together. The second thing is that everybody is thinking how to keep the EU together and then how to build the budget. And we need the budget by the end of this year because otherwise we will not be able to start it in 2014. And I thing it is possible to have the budget by the end of the year.
euinside: Do you have already an analysis of the impact of the European football championship on the Polish economy - how much money have you invested and what are the expected benefits?
Elzbieta Bienkowska: The whole investment is around 20 billion euros. But we have not built just for the Euro 2012, we are building for the country. There were investments needed for the country, of course, they were made faster because of the Euro 2012 but we would for sure build them anyway, I mean the highways, airports etc. But the main added value is that because of the perfect organisation people will be coming back to Poland. Of course, we have 5 huge stadiums which will be quite difficult to maintain and to fill them.
euinside: They are impressive.
Elzbieta Bienkowska: Yes they are, but you will not find enough Madonnas to fill them.
euinside: I am quite impressed by Polish initiatives and ambition to make the Polish voice heard in Europe. How do you manage to make your voice so strong?
Elzbieta Bienkowska: I am for the second term minister and I must say it happened because of our work, because of what we are doing inside Poland. Meeting after meeting, starting from 2007, I was observing how I am treated, step by step in a different way than it was before. And it was only because of the effects that we have - that we were the only country that did not suffer recession throughout these years, not one year; that we are using the EU money, which is very difficult money, in a very proper way and we are praised for this in Europe. These things, together with some kind of activities of our Prime Minister and our Foreign Ministry made us to be quite visible on this scene. We are beside quite a big country in Europe, of course. But we were somewhere aside because, you know, a new member state, a post communist country ... In Germany Polish economy was subject of jokes but in the latest years there was a series of articles praising Polish economy. So it is really kind of result that we have achieved through 20 years of work, nothing else. Not PR, only work.
euinside: Thank you!
*Governors of the regions in Poland