Published on February 27, 2020

European Commission visits Bulgarian coal regions to talk just transition

, Todor Todorov (Za Zemiata, Bankwatch)

A delegation from the European Commission visited several Bulgarian coal regions last week, meeting with mayors and civil society representatives, to discuss among others the newly launched Just Transition Mechanism. The visit was organised upon invitation by Greenpeace Bulgaria, with support from Za Zemiata (Bankwatch member group).

Catharina Sikow-Magny (DG ENER), accompanied by Brieuc Posnic (DG ENER), Dinko Raytchev (DG ENER) and Cecilio Aurelio (DG REGIO), represented the Commission on this trip to Bulgarian coal regions, which included Pernik, Bobov Dol, Galabovo and Stara Zagora.

During the trip, the Commission representatives could meet with local stakeholders, including mayors, civil society representatives and citizens, and the importance of the active involvement of the local communities in planning and implementing the transition was highlighted during all the meetings. Establishing a direct channel of communication between Brussels and local stakeholders in Bulgaria is bound to play a positive role in the coal regions’ transition, especially in the context of central authorities continuing to insist on coal reliance.

Not long before the Commission visit, on January 31, the Bulgarian parliament had adopted a motion asking the government to “take all necessary steps” for Bulgaria to join the European Commission’s Platform for Coal Regions in Transition, while also calling for the country’s continued reliance on coal beyond 2030.

The fact that Bulgaria finally expressed an interest to participate in the EC’s Platform for Coal Regions in Transition was an important step leading DG ENER and the EC Representation in Bulgaria to organise a stakeholders’ meeting in Stara Zagora, the heart of the Maritsa East mining region. The meeting was included in the schedule of the Commission’s visit to Bulgaria’s coal regions last week.

During the Stara Zagora meeting, EC representatives were asked to comment on Bulgaria’s intention to continue relying on coal past 2030. While diplomatic in their response, the Commission representatives did hint that the Bulgarian government’s stance might be anachronistic: “The idea of conventional energy resources would be very different in 2030, or 2050, and in fact it is already quite different today”, they said, adding that the EU economy was not engaged “in a race to the bottom” in order to keep old polluting appliances afloat despite unsustainable financial operations – this is not a message that people living in the region which is the heart of the Bulgarian coal sector can hear every day.

Controversially, during the meeting, Catharina Sikow-Magny (DG ENER) assured that the Commission is there to support the regions in the transition, following their pace – “if you want to go fast, we are with you, if you want to go slow, we are with you”. Nevertheless, the EU’s 2050 decarbonisation goal means not any rhythm of change is plausible.

Bulgarian green NGOs taking part in the meetings took the opportunity to share some major concerns about transition in the Bulgarian context: the NGOs cautioned against businesses of energy mogul Hristo Kovachki being recognised as stakeholders by the Platform and eventually receiving JTM money, which the NGOs argued would only help the oligarch to preserve a feudal economic model existing at present in the coal regions. NGOs also warned against fake solutions such as waste incineration.

Bulgarian green NGOs involved in the meetings, such as Greenpeace, Za Zemiata (Bankwatch member group in Bulgaria) and WWF, agree that the Commission visit to Bulgaria was a success, and that it created an opportunity for Commission, local leaders and citizens, NGOs and other stakeholders to communicate directly and establish patterns for future cooperation. Like in other countries in central and eastern Europe, citizens in coal regions might be more aware of the need to transition than their own governments.

Photo by Greenpeace Bulgaria, showing Commission representatives during their visit to Pernik.