[Nacional] Zovko: With the EU funds Croatia has a great opportunity to diversify its economy
Zovko: With the EU funds Croatia has a great opportunity to diversify its economy
The European Parliament approved urgent measures for fight against the Coronavirus, including financial support for the member-countries and their national health-care systems, the two of the measures being the most significant – Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative and EU Solidarity Fund Extension. Within the Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative, EUR 37 billion will be allocated to regions and the countries that are the most affected by the Coronavirus pandemic as support to health-care systems, small and medium-sized enterprises, labour markets and other vulnerable components of the countries’ economies. It is important to mention that according to the Commission estimation, Croatia will have access to EUR 1.158 billion out of the activated total of EUR 37 billion. The second measure, mentioned above, is related to extension of the EU Solidarity Fund to cover health crises, resp. support to the most difficult extraordinary situations in public health system, including medical help and measures of disease prevention, supervision and control. The European countries will through this measure have access to EUR 800 million.
The advanced European Civil Protection Mechanism-rescEU is another important tool in dealing with the actual crisis. When the Croatian MEP, Željana Zovko, who had participated in the last term in creation of the Mechanism, presented the advanced Mechanism two years ago in Split, she mentioned a need to set up a response to biological war and similar disasters as well. NACIONAL asked MEP Zovko how Europe and the Republic of Croatia would survive the Coronavirus crisis and how life would look like afterwards.
NACIONAL: In what way will the approved funds, EUR 37 billion, will help the member-countries in their fight with the Coronavirus crisis?
ZOVKO: That will certainly depend on the way of funds management, as well as on the level of preparedness and flexibility of the member-countries’ governments, which must come up with the best possible way to allocate the funds approved for recovery of the damage caused by this crisis. These funds will not be used for banks recovery, as it was the case in the 2008 crisis, but exclusively for restoring and maintaining the economy. These funds are purposed for jobs. People must not lose their jobs, but their salaries should be reduced instead. These funds should be oriented primarily to SMEs in order to help them to repair the damage and adjust to the new circumstances which they will face once the health crisis is over. Some of the funds will be allocated to social funds, the poorest and those who cannot work. Nothing will be the same after this. New strategies are required and the money is secured for them.
NACIONAL: Did the decisions come at the most critical moment for Croatia?
ZOVKO: Right, the decisions were made at a critical moment for the Republic of Croatia, which found itself amidst two serious crises. The accepted proposals are a key for mitigation of the circumstances of the health and humanitarian crises that struck our country and the City of Zagreb. The Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative will mobilise the unused and so much needed funds from the existing European funds that will relieve the pressure on the citizens, economy and the health-care system of our homeland.
NACIONAL: Croatia will have an opportunity to use EUR 1.158 billion within the Coronavirus Response Investment for the projects in the areas mostly affected by the crisis. Will Croatia use this opportunity?
ZOVKO: These funds guarantee sufficient capital for Croatia not only to survive the crisis, but also to successfully recover from the crisis, however under one condition only – to manage the funds wisely. These funds are intended for structural reforms, reforms of public administration and reform of overall economy. Croatia has been very much dependant on tourism and that is something we must change by focusing the uttermost of efforts to securing self-sustainability and development of agriculture, self-sustainable small farms, small and medium-sized enterprises and most of all – digitalisation. We are all dependant on communication via social networks and technology and that will not change in the future. We have to learn living without the shopping centres and products imported from abroad.
NACIONAL: What does it mean exactly that the mentioned funds offer a great opportunity to Croatia?
ZOVKO: Actually, with these funds available Croatia has an excellent opportunity to come out of the crisis with a diversified economy that will not depend on tourism and nice weather only. It will become more dependent on people and how much they work, on people’s creativity in developing the so-far underdeveloped areas, which were depending on the import. We will have a new Marshall’s Plan of our own and we expect a proper response and involvement of the stakeholders from all relevant fields – social, political and economic circles, experts, entrepreneurs and the citizens themselves. We all must play our part in the process of developing a country that is not dependant on the imported food – fruit, vegetables, raw materials, various derived products. We must completely develop the production, bring back our granaries, revive agriculture, develop small and medium-sized farms and enterprises. It is very important to have in mind that huge industries from socialism-time belong to the past. We have to encourage development of small production and motivate and educate people to buy the stuff produced in their vicinity, within a 5-kilometer circle. Even during the pandemic, citizens in France are encouraged to buy local products. That is a financial injection that might help the self-sustainable and healthy economy. This is our chance to change Croatia!
NACIONAL: Croatian politics has many times in the past failed when it came to economic strategies. The politicians were unwilling to consult the relevant experts, no consensus was reached, individual interests were given priority, political protegees were getting jobs, nepotism and clientelism are well known terms in Croatia. The question is whether we are really capable of a change.
ZOVKO: The most important thing now is that the ruling party and the opposition are capable of identifying together the excellence among those who will be offering the most efficient solutions. They will need to reach a consensus. There is simply no use of utopian solutions, offered now from the opposition with the uttermost purpose to win points in the public. I think that the Croatian Government has been doing a marvellous job, looking for ways to properly prepare the country for going out of the crisis. It is very important for the Government to communicate in a transparent way with the public. It is good that all parts of the society and the institutions are fully involved in the process. That is exactly the way how the competent governments and their leaders respond to the crisis. This is actually a test for Croatia, as a new EU member. With such a responsible approach, Croatia is certainly the brightest example in the Union, better than some countries of the Old Europe. I’ve been in contact with my colleagues, MEPs from other countries, on a daily basis, who keep telling me that Croatia is a real role-model for other member-countries in this crisis, giving priority to excellence and letting its experts instead of political intrigues to manage the crisis.
NACIONAL: One of the most topical issues in the Coronavirus context is supplies of medical equipment. In the last term in the Parliament you participated in creation of the advance European Civil Protection Mechanism–rescEU. It is now one of the tools used by the Union in tackling the crisis. How?
The most important thing is that understanding has finally been reached that no member-country must prohibit export of medical equipment to other member-countries. Solidarity is what we all need now. For example, we witness that the well-equipped German hospitals accept patients from Italy, as well as from hotspots in France and Luxembourg. I strongly welcome the decision of the Commission to create strategic supplies of medical equipment and to co-finance 90% of the supplies for the member-countries in their fight against Coronavirus. The main purpose of the rescEU mechanism is to provide protection to all EU citizens regardless of where they are.
NACIONAL: Your proposed creation of common strategic reserve as early as in 2018?
ZOVKO: When I was presenting the advanced Civil Protection Mechanism in Split in 2018, I could not imagine that at a certain point of time in the future it would have such an important role. That was when I first mentioned a need to set up a response to biological war or similar dangers. It sounded impossible to everyone that Europe might find itself in such a situation. Everyone found such dangers unimaginable. The idea of needing special mobile hospitals and special medical supplies seemed so far away. Unfortunately, my predictions became true. The Union did not have those supplies and could thus not react and help Italy. Even more so, some member-countries prohibited export of medical equipment, in order to keep them for their own needs. However, everyone understood that we have to have common supplies and that Commission must be prepared to react promptly and send supplies and aid when needed. We finally see solidarity at work, we see that the North and the South realised that fires and epidemics know no borders.
NACIONAL: May Croatia expect to get necessary additional equipment from these supplies?
ZOVKO: Absolutely! After the earthquake, Croatia requested and already got approved support from the European Civil Protection Mechanism. I expect Croatia to get respirators and other medical equipment as soon as the first supplies of medical equipment are delivered. I personally asked the European Commission, the Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid, Janez Lenarčič, to put Croatia on the priority list for distribution of medical equipment, considering the circumstances. The first delivery is expected in a couple of weeks. Croatia is one of the most vulnerable countries of the Union, because its capital was heavily affected by an earthquake.
NACIONAL: Will the aid reach Croatia on time, considering the peak of epidemics is expected around Easter?
ZOVKO: Well, that depends on the European Commission and efficiency of its services. The Croatian Government and I personally have satisfied all the requirements in the process of applying for the activation of the Civil Protection Mechanism. Besides, the Government has been continuously procuring the equipment from all available markets. I sincerely hope we will have sufficient equipment at our disposal when it is needed. I also do hope that the citizens of Croatia are going to respect the measures introduced by the Civil Protection Headquarters. We all have to be aware of the fact that not even four million respirators will help us unless we all fight in this war together.
NACIONAL: Should Europe have closed the borders and stopped the air traffic from China and South Korea immediately after the epidemic breakout?
ZOVKO: We all have heard of Henry Kissinger’s famous question: “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” Europe is not the USA. On the contrary, we have always been striving to come to a consensus on key issues, because if not, the will of the bigger would be imposed on Croatia as a smaller country. We had first to come to a consensus on the crisis. But the consensus was reached only after we became aware of the lack of epidemics control in Italy and rapid spreading of the virus in other countries. The USA stopped the flights from China and even from Europe some time ago, but have not succeeded in stopping spreading of the virus to their continent nevertheless. This disease, just like any other epidemics, may not be stopped by any borders or walls.
NACIONAL: Should Croatia have closed its borders immediately?
ZOVKO: Croatia could not have closed its borders primarily because of its citizens who work or study abroad or happened to be abroad at that point of time, particularly in the hotspot-countries – Italy, Germany and Austria. However, Croatia acted responsibly and referred to isolation all its citizens who returned home from abroad. Croatia is not an island. The President of the European Commission condemned in her speech the countries which self-isolated themselves, because nothing can save them in this situation apart from solidarity and looking with the joint forces for solutions for a way out the crisis. If you don’t help extinguishing the fire around your house, even if your house itself is not on fire, the fire will spread to your house sooner or later.
NACIONAL: The City of Zagreb is entitled to the funds from the European Social Fund, which is now not restricted to natural and manmade disasters only?
ZOVKO: The European Social Fund extension to health crisis will allow allocation of the funds in response to Coronavirus crisis and will improve preparedness and speed up response. I especially welcome the proposed increased limit of advance payment from the current EUR 50 million to EUR 100 million, that will enable faster inflow of preliminary support from the European Social Fund for the member-countries affected by natural disasters. This measure will enable preliminary financial support to the City of Zagreb and help it to recover more quickly from the disastrous earthquake.
NACIONAL: Some MEPs called for setting up of the European Unemployment Fund. There was a proposal that the national banks offer loans at 0% interest to private individuals and companies. Is that feasible?
ZOVKO: Those ideas are somewhat utopian. It may not be expected from the banks to approve interest-free loans, but on the other hand, subsidies may be approved from the state instruments for development projects. I don’t think we really need the Unemployment Fund, because the activated support is intended for the social funds as well and in that manner, it will always be at disposal to those who need it the most. What we expect is a constructive way of using the funds in development of our economy and in allowing everyone to express through his own work.
NACIONAL: Heads of the EU member-countries invited the Commission and Council Presidents to prepare an exit strategy for post-epidemic time in consultation with other institutions, primarily the European Central Bank. What does it mean?
ZOVKO: This situation is entirely without precedent. Europe will be a different place after the pandemic. It will be changed and it will have to remain as self-sustainable as possible, without being dependant on other markets. What we need is a comprehensive plan for economy development, particularly for those economies that were depending on import from far-away markets. In the field of service industry and intellectual services, Europe was very much dependant on the third countries. That must change. Many companies will go bankrupt, especially in Northern Italy. The question is how to finance their recovery, but also the recovery of the overall European economy. The European Central Bank will certainly have a significant role in that process. Economies of the member-countries are compatible with each other and that is the basis for building of our European future. We must rely on each other.
NACIONAL: Schengen has practically disappeared. Borders of the European countries were closed. Is this a test for the survival of the European Union?
ZOVKO: This certainly is a very important test. Media will have a huge role in covering the process of recovery of economy and whole European society. In some parts of Italy, there are Russian and Chinese flags hanging, as if Europe had left them. What I’m trying to say – if we allow such populism to develop, that will not be good for us.
Unfortunately, Europe is the weakest in public communication. That is something we have to work on. Europe will survive – there is not doubt in that. Europe must survive, because there is no security without Europe. Those out of the European Union has been suffering the most in this crisis and will suffer the biggest consequences of the epidemics.
NACIONAL: Zagreb received support from Bosnia and Herzegovina, from Sarajevo?
ZOVKO: We have seen once again that people love Croatia. Croatia accepted more than 500.000 refugees from BiH during the war. Furthermore, over 1,100,000 citizens of BiH received Croatian citizenship. Everyone in Sarajevo has a Croatian passport. That is the reason for such huge support. Besides, the Herzegovina-Neretva Canton donated KM 100,000 to the City of Zagreb after the earthquake, even though they do not have a single respirator in their hospital. This does not come as a surprise. For example, many citizens of Konjic are treated in the Oncology Clinics in Mostar, which was financed mostly by the City of Zagreb. Only the Old Bridge of Mostar was not in the colours of the City of Zagreb, even though its reconstruction was, among others, financed by the citizens of Zagreb. Many messages came from Belgrade and from across the region, telling us about civil responsibility, solidarity and affection. It was about humanity and that is what we all need in times like this in order to exit the crisis as new people. Now it is the most important to not be selfish and to practice solidarity.
NACIONAL: Is there any chance that this virus was modified, resp. produced in a laboratory intentionally, as a biological weapon in bio-terrorism?
ZOVKO: Everything is possible, but I firmly believe that conspiracy theories may have serious detrimental effect on people. This virus is a warning, for me personally too, that we invest too little in research. It is very difficult to fight for a larger budget for research and education. I wonder why we spend so much money on pointless projects without purpose and objective. There would have been no medicine for pneumonia or vaccine for flu, if it hadn’t been for the scientists, on who our lives now depend. I really hope we will be wiser after this and we will give stronger tools and instruments to the scientists to help us prevent dangers like this one. That is the reason why in the debate on the Multiannual Budget in the European Parliament I fight for the Horizon 2020 programme. This programme helps science and independency of Europe in that field.