Meglena Kouneva, a former European Commissioner and former minister in three governments, said on February 13 that she would not stand as a candidate MP in Bulgaria’s March 26 2017 early parliamentary elections.
Kouneva made the announcement at a news conference by her Citizens for Bulgaria Movement, a constituent party of the centre-right coalition Reformist Bloc, which was part of Boiko Borissov’s 2014-2017 government. Kouneva was a deputy prime minister and education minister in that government.
She said that her decision not to be a candidate in the March elections was personal and was connected to a desire to make way for young people in politics.
Kouneva said that she was remaining in politics and would still be part of the Reformist Bloc’s political council.
Her decision had nothing to do with the call by Radan Kanev – who led his Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria, in a break with the rest of the bloc, into opposition and now has founded the New Republic platform – for Reformist Bloc leaders to give up their seats.
Asked if she was preparing to be nominated as Bulgaria’s European Commissioner (to replace Kristalina Georgieva, who left her EC vice-presidential post in January 2017), Kouneva said that the nomination was a matter for the government and would have had more basis if it had been made while Borissov was still in power.
Kouneva said that the absence of a Bulgarian commissioner from the EC was an unprecedented situation. “To have had no candidate from December to now is an argument that for Bulgaria it is not important if we have no commissioner,” she said.
She said that as a politician, her priority remained Bulgaria’s holding of the rotating presidency of the European Council in the first half of 2018. Another important issue was education, Kouneva said.
As former education minister, a post she held from early February 2016 until the departure of Borissov’s second cabinet, Kouneva’s name has been linked to a controversy in recent days over EU-funded projects in the Operational Programme Science and Education for Smart Growth.
She said that no EU funds would be suspended. Kouneva said that in summer 2016, she had stopped projects because of suspected irregularities and even had handed them over the prosecution. The two projects involved Roma integration at pre-school and school age. Administrative penalties had been imposed on those responsible, she said.
Because these projects had been stopped, no EU money was blocked, according to Kouneva.
Separately, on February 13, caretaker Deputy Education and Science Minister Vanya Stoineva said that an EC audit had found problems in eight projects under the Operational Programme Science and Education for Smart Growth programme.
A “financial correction” would be imposed regarding the eight projects, which have a total value of 180 million leva (about 92 million euro).
Stoineva said that a warning letter regarding the projects had been received from the EC last week. Should the problems be dealt with timeously, future payments under the Operational Programme would not be affected.
Last week, caretaker Education Minister Nikolai Denkov laid the blame for the problems at Kouneva’s door, saying that frozen interim payments would have to be made up with money from Bulgarian taxpayers.
Borissov, leader of Bulgaria’s centre-right GERB party, hit out at Kouneva, saying that her appointment as education minister had been a “major mistake”. Kouneva hit back, asking why Borissov was making education a priority (GERB lists it as such in their March 2017 election platform) when he had cut funding for education in previous budgets.