Ideally, people should judge projects funded by the European Union (EU) on the basis of their usefulness. After interviewing more than 30 residents of two towns in Bulgaria, however, my impression is that the everyday experiences of EU-funded projects have little to do with the way the project is perceived on a local level. These interviews were useful in generating some hypotheses about Europe and everyday life as experienced and lived by its citizenry. Below, I hypothesize that local perceptions depend on the economic well-being of the town, the advertisement of local councils and the general sense of corruption in regard to EU finding.
The Puzzle: Overly Appreciated EU Projects vs. Under-Appreciated EU Projects
I compared the residents’ perceptions of EU-funded projects in two towns in Bulgaria called Plovdiv and Pomorie. Plovdiv is the second largest city in Bulgaria with a population of about 340,000 and Pomorie is a seaside resort town with a population of about 13,000. The striking discovery was that people’s appreciation of EU projects was greatly inflated in Plovdiv and, in my mind, it was greatly undervalued in Pomorie. While I was conducting the interviews, I was in Pomorie, talking to people who lived in Plovdiv. The locals were singing praises about the way Plovdiv has been rejuvenated by the reconstruction of the old excavations in the pedestrian zone. They all said that the renovations had made a difference to lives of the town’s residents. In great contrast to the residents of Plovdiv, those living in Pomorie treated new projects funded by the EU with lukewarm enthusiasm. Such projects included, the fisherman’s pier, the new kindergarten, bike lanes, the reconstruction of the pedestrian zone and the summer cinema.
When I visited Plovdiv, I was in for a big surprise. My bewilderment grew with every step I took. At the beginning of the main street, there is a huge hole dug in the ground, which is laid bare. It is surrounded by a fence so that people do not fall into the trap. It is a work in progress and there is nothing appealing about it. The main street as a whole looks nice but it is not nearly as grandiose as it had been described to me by the interviewees. The logical question, then, was why did people in Plovdiv think so highly of some EU-funded projects, especially in comparison to the locals in Pomorie?
Photos: Not much of a revival? The dilapidated sites on the much praised high street in Plovdiv are an unsightly view.
Hypothesis One: Everyday Experiences of the EU Projects depend on Advertisement by Local Councils
It seems to me that the actual value-added of EU funded projects is rarely the main factor defining public appreciation. Of course, some projects are more appreciated because they fulfil an actual demand in the population, such as the Plovdiv centre for autistic children “I can too” and the food delivery service for the elderly. Other projects are not needed so badly, so demand is elastic and is dependent on enlightening the public about their use. The bike lanes in Plovdiv are a case in point. Demand-rich projects have a fixed and strong demand and demand-neutral projects have an elastic and weak demand. By default, demand-rich projects will be greater enjoyed, at least at the beginning.
Beyond these concerns, however, many other factors coloured the public’s appreciation of the EU. First and foremost, is the importance of advertisement that these projects get in the public space. Plovdiv will be the European capital of culture in 2019, and this distinction lives a life of its own, quite independent from the actual (lack of) improvements on the high street. The local council has organized a full cultural program and all the theatres are busy. Recently, I went to a performance in a theatre hall that was under re-construction. The visitors had to jump over ladders on their way to their seats. But the posters in front of the theatre were full of events. Tickets were hard to find months in advance.
By contrast, the open air summer cinema in Pomorie is a case demonstrating the lack of effort by the local council to put EU-funded projects to good use. The revamping of the summer cinema cost the European Union 400,000 Bulgarian leva (204, 606 Euro). The summer cinema offers a great setup for entertainment as the cinema-goers can watch movies on a big screen, while facing the sea. However, this brand new facility has remained closed for the duration of the whole tourist season!
My hypothesis, therefore, is that in Plovdiv’s case EU projects were coupled with a purposeful advertising campaign which made the best of the town’s improvements. By contrast, the reconstruction projects in Pomorie were not advertised beyond some scant efforts to change the town’s logo and send a few brochures to Russian tourist agencies. The efforts were local, and the results were slim. Advertisement turns the primary benefits of the projects, such as better facilities, into secondary benefits for the residents, such as greater enjoyment, more revenues from tourism and better reputation.
Photos: The local council in Plovdiv has done a great job organising and publicising various cultural events.
Hypothesis Two: Everyday Experiences of the EU Projects depend on Economic Recovery, the Importance and Size of the City
It seems to me that EU projects are also appreciated more in Plovdiv than in Pomorie because Plovdiv is doing better economically. A recent article in the Financial Times (28 August 2016) pointed out that Plovdiv has undergone a splendid economic recovery. It has attracted more than 4 billion Euro since 2011. Its unemployment rate is 4.9%, sharply lower than the nationwide 8.1%. By contrast, the unemployment rate in Pomorie is 6.6% and there is little industrial activity beyond farming and tourism. As a more general argument, one could conjecture that bigger towns tend to deliver more enjoyment of EU projects than smaller towns. This is so because of the enhanced reputation of big towns, the way they are regarded by the rest of the country and by Europe and the increased economic opportunities they offer. Interestingly, the economies of scale might have an effect on everyday enjoyment of EU projects.
Individual family income is also a big factor in experiencing EU projects. Milena, an owner of a firm selling food additives said: “There is a huge difference of the perception of Europe, depending on the family’s income. Some of our friends do not go downtown often because they do not have extra money to spend. How could they appreciate the renovations then?” Similarly, many people do not use the highway to the seaside because of the lack of reliable cars, petrol and a place to stay in the resorts.
Hypothesis Three: Everyday experiences of the EU Projects depend on the Public’d Sense of Corruption
My interviews revealed a wide-spread public impression that most of the EU funding goes into the pockets of the project managers, the contractors and the political agencies awarding the contracts. This sense of corruption comes from all sides, the people who take over the EU projects, the people who inspect them, the people who use them and the people who have nothing to do with them. Angel, an inspector at the anti-corruption unit, said: “We get paid to check whether EU infrastructure projects are built properly. But there is no way to prove anything or punish anybody. We might measure that the road is too narrow (i.e. the constructors have saved from materials) but it is useless to report the wrongdoing. The people who I report to accept bribes from the project managers who I will be reporting. I am happy with my salary of 600 leva and I keep quiet.”
Sasho, an owner of a country house for tourists, confessed: “We bought a house in the country stating on the application documents that we will rent it out to encourage country tourism. This was just a bluff to attract EU subsidies. We never intended to make it work.” Of course, there are some positive examples. Georgi, an owner of an engineering firm, said that the EU subsidies have allowed him to enlarge his factory buildings twice. But negative examples taint the overall perception of EU projects. For example, my neighbour from Pomorie, Didka, a typist at the local court, said that the reconstruction that was done in one of the school yards “was a joke.” The poster in the middle of the school yard says that it cost 284, 957 Bulgarian leva (145, 970 Euro) but for that price they have only painted the facade of the school and installed four new fitness tools in the forecourt.
Photos: People are suspicious of corruption. The installation of a few fitness tools in this school yard in Pomorie cost 145, 970 Eur.
It is beyond the scope of this blog post to discuss whether EU funds get used properly or not. The point here is that a prevalent number of interviewees are convinced that EU funding gets abused and that the final results are sub-optimal. They have a sense of being cheated. This sense of being robbed of EU subsidies (by the contractors) totally spoils the everyday experience of EU projects. Plamen, an owner of a firm importing wine, said: “I remind myself that Bulgaria is in crisis every time I am overtaken on the highway by an expensive car, when overtaking is not allowed. I believe that the biggest crisis comes from the lack of judicial independence.” Somehow, this feeling of unfairness taints the enjoyment of EU projects.
Dr Gergana Dimova is a non-resident fellow at Centre for the Study of Democracy (Bulgaria) and The Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation (Ukraine). She holds a PhD from Harvard University and is in the final stages of completing a monograph, Democracy beyond Elections: Government Accountability in the Media Age. Gergana recently participated in the EuEVE’s first workshop at Aston University.