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EU Cohesion policy: Commission supports the development of the Bulgarian research and innovation ecosystem

EU Reporter Correspondent

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On 14 January, the Commission published a set of strategic recommendations to 14 newly created research and innovation (R&I) centres, co-funded by the EU Cohesion policy in Bulgaria. The recommendations aim at improving the management and helping the centres reach financial sustainability. They were elaborated by a team of internationally renowned experts during 1.5-year-long fieldwork, coordinated by the Joint Research Centre, as well as through exchanges with peers from Spain, Lithuania and Czechia.

They will support the Bulgarian authorities and researchers in strengthening the country's R&I ecosystem, building up capacity for transfer and dissemination of knowledge, and strengthening the cooperation between research institutions and businesses in areas like green and digital transitions as well as in advanced medicine. Cohesion and Reforms Commissioner Elisa Ferreira (pictured) said: “Thanks to EU support, these Centres will provide scientific infrastructure and equipment, making them attractive for young Bulgarian researchers. I urge all actors involved to make use of the experts' work, laying the ground for an efficient and modern research and innovation system.”

Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Commissioner Mariya Gabriel said: “The EU's investment in the 14 Centres of Competence and Centres of Excellence has a great potential for transformation of the country's economy and its integration in Global Value Chains. I am confident that the findings of the JRC report will be well received by the Centres, and that the government, academia and industry stakeholders will take action to promptly implement its recommendations.”

The initiative has been launched in 2019 and will be extended to other European countries. The Commission is also assisting Member States and regions in designing and implementing their smart specialisation strategies and through the smart specialisation platform. The EU is currently investing €160 million in the centres, in the framework of the 2014-2020 Bulgarian ‘Science and Education for Smart Growth' programme. In 2021-2027 Bulgaria will receive more than €10 billion under Cohesion policy, with a substantial part dedicated to supporting innovation and competitiveness and green and digital transitions.

Bulgaria

OLAF recommends recovery of nearly €6 million after alleged abuse of power at Bulgarian ministry

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The Bulgarian Ministry of the Interior breached the terms of its grant agreement by using EU money to buy SUVs from older stocks instead of new all-terrain police cars, according to an investigation closed recently by OLAF, the European Anti-Fraud Office. OLAF has recommended the recovery of nearly €6 million in European funds and that criminal proceedings could be considered against officials of the Ministry.

OLAF’s investigation began in July 2018 following allegations of fraud and the misappropriation of EU funds from the EU Internal Security Fund grant agreement managed by the Bulgarian Ministry of Interior. The agreement concerned the delivery of 350 all-terrain vehicles for use by the police.

During the course of its investigation, OLAF collected and analysed all the relevant documentation from the Bulgarian Ministry of Interior and interviewed all the key participants in the preparation and implementation of the tender. All parties concerned in the investigation cooperated fully with OLAF’s investigators.

OLAF discovered that the Ministry of Interior had breached the provisions of the grant agreement by unilaterally changing its conditions. In particular, the Ministry opted to purchase a number of SUVs (sport utility vehicles) instead of the all-terrain vehicles that were the subject of the grant agreement. OLAF also concluded that there were grounds to believe that a criminal act (abuse of power under the Bulgarian Penal Code) affecting the financial interests of the EU could have been committed by officials of the Ministry.

The investigation was closed by OLAF in December 2020 with recommendations to the European Commission (which manages the fund) to recover €5,948,569. Further recommendations were made to the Bulgarian Prosecutors’ Office to consider opening a criminal investigation for abuse of power to the benefit of a third party.

It is for the competent EU and national authorities to examine and decide on the follow-up of OLAF’s recommendations. All persons concerned are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty in a competent court of law.

Ville Itälä, OLAF Director-General, said: “Manipulated tenders allowing potential fraudsters to line their own pockets at the expense of citizens is a typical fraud pattern seen by OLAF’s investigators all too often. It is all the more worrying when such a vital public service as the police could have been the victim of this sort of activity, and I urge the Bulgarian Prosecutor’s Office to give proper consideration to our recommendation of legal action. This would send a clear message that nobody is above the law and that OLAF and its partners across Europe will continue to work tirelessly to protect European taxpayers’ money.”

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Bulgaria

Commission approves €79 million Bulgarian scheme to support micro, small, and medium enterprises affected by coronavirus outbreak

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The European Commission has approved a €79 million (approximately BGN 156m) Bulgarian scheme to support micro, small, and medium enterprises affected by the coronavirus outbreak. The scheme was approved under the state aid Temporary Framework. The scheme, which will be co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund, will be accessible to enterprises active in certain sectors and meeting certain requirements defined by Bulgaria, which have had their activities suspended or limited by governmental restrictive measures to limit the spread of the virus. The amount of grant each beneficiary may receive will be calculated by comparing its turnover (excluding VAT) during the affected period with the same period of the previous year (or the turnover for October 2020, for beneficiaries opened after 1 January 2020).

The grant will amount to either 10% or 20% of that turnover, depending on the beneficiary's sector of activity, up to a maximum of BGN 150 000 (approximately €76,694). The support will help the beneficiaries to cover part of their operating costs and support activities necessary to overcome the shortage of funds or lack of liquidity resulting from the coronavirus outbreak. The Commission found that the Bulgarian scheme is in line with the conditions set out in the Temporary Framework. In particular, (i) the aid will not exceed €800,000 per company; and (ii) aid under the scheme can be granted until 30 June 2021.

The Commission concluded that the measure is necessary, appropriate and proportionate to remedy a serious disturbance in the economy of a member state, in line with Article 107(3)(b) TFEU and the conditions set out in the Temporary Framework. On this basis, the Commission approved the measure under EU state aid rules. More information on the Temporary Framework and other actions taken by the Commission to address the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic can be found here.

The non-confidential version of the decision will be made available under the case number SA.60454 in the state aid register on the Commission's competition website once any confidentiality issues have been resolved.

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Bulgaria

Huawei and Sofia University to co-operate in AI and other new high-end technologies

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Huawei Technologies Bulgaria EOOD signed a Memorandum of Understanding(MoU) with Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski recently. Both parties will co-operate in the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other new high-end technologies. Besides, they also agree to conduct an Huawei ICT Academy programme and to develop a joint scientific laboratory at the Sofia University.

Both parties will establish joint engagement on future, funded by EU and other AI, R&D and commercial projects. They will build the ICT infrastructure for, Sofia University in general and specialized AI labs jointly.

Cooperation will include not only R&D and Infrastructure project, but will also include education, trainings and workshops for students, academic societies and industries in Bulgaria.

Rector Prof. Anastas Gerdjikov pointed out that, with the Universities for Science, Informatics and Technologies in eSociety (UNITe) and the Institute Big Data for Smart Society (GATE), Sofia University. St. Kliment Ohridski is a leading research centre in the field of information technology and artificial intelligence. Gerdjikov expressed satisfaction with the signed memorandum and expected the co-operation to be useful for researchers and students at Sofia University.

Prof. Anastas Gerdjikov, Rector of Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski

The mission of the university is to develop the scientific, educational and cultural potential of Bulgaria, whereby the new emphasis is on creating models for social development both by revealing the intrinsic ability of institutional change and the social results of such a change. The Faculty of Mathematics and Informatics (FMI), one of the biggest among sixteen Sofia University faculties, is a national leader in the field of higher education in Mathematics, Computer Science and ICT, as well as a center for research in the same areas of European importance and international recognition.

Huawei is a leading global provider of information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure and smart devices. Huawei already built 23 R&D institutions across Europe. In Bulgaria, Huawei established its operations in 2004, with headquarters located in Sofia. Thanks to its high investment in R&D and customer-oriented strategy, as well as its open partnership, Huawei is developing advanced end-to-end ICT solutions, allowing customers a competitive advantage in terms of telecommunications, network and cloud computing infrastructures.

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