The political crisis that has lasted for more than two years has completely blocked the processes of energy and economic transformation.

Because of politicians’ subordinance to lobby interests that call for the continued use of coal, at the end of 2022 Bulgaria lost EUR 100 million from the Just Transition Fund (JTF) due to the missed submission deadline to the European Commission of the Territorial Just Transition Plans (TJTPs) for the three coal regions: Stara Zagora, Pernik, and Kyustendil.

Thus, at the end of 2023, Bulgaria remains the only country out of all the EU Member States that does not have approved Territorial Just Transition Plans. 

At the end of September, we saw trade union protests blocking major highways while holding and chanting anti-EU slogans, targeting the European Green Deal and the TJTPs. This showed the continued trend of manipulating the people in the Stara Zagora region.

In fact, these protests have further blocked the government’s work to finalise and send the plans to Brussels. They have also led to the signing of an absurd agreement between the government and the trade unions, which contains unrealistic demands and promises. However, a further outcome is a situation in which the interests of Pernik and Kyustendil are not taken into account in any way.

In fact, the funds from the Just Transition Fund are of crucial importance for Pernik because this region is ready to undertake the energy transition. It is evident that the municipality of Pernik has very ambitious plans to make an economic and energy transition, with work already underway on some of the projects.

The resources from the fund, which amount to around EUR 92 million, could attract and multiply private capital and make the process of the region’s energy and economic transition even more certain. Pernik has the desire and the opportunity to become a positive example of a successful energy transition that could unlock the process for other regions.

The municipality is implementing the replacement of public transport buses with new and environmentally friendly ones in connection with the ambition to improve the air quality in the city. Improving the energy efficiency of buildings is also an important part of the measures that are set out in the municipal plans, along with the replacement of the heating appliances of some households in the city with environmentally friendly alternatives. An industrial park relying on renewable energy technologies is also planned.

These ambitions of the municipality, combined with the low level of unemployment in Pernik and in the region, are good precursors of a successful energy and economic transition.

For more than seven years, Za Zemiata (Friends of the Earth – Bulgaria) and CEE Bankwatch have enjoyed good cooperation with active civil society organisations in Pernik on important issues for the city, such as clean air and illegal coal mining, and in the last four years, there has also been favourable cooperation with the municipality. 

The blocking of Pernik and Kyustendil from receiving funds due to the lack of readiness in Stara Zagora and the surrounding region cannot continue, as the time frames for the preparation, submission, funding and implementation of activities under the JTF projects are very short and rely on quick action and timely planning.

We urge the government to take immediate action to ensure that the adoption of the Territorial Just Transition Plans by the European Commission is no longer delayed and to make the necessary changes to the plans in order to unlock the much-needed funds for the coal regions.

Politicians should remember that the TJTPs and these European funds are intended for the development of small and medium-sized businesses, the creation of new, green jobs and the reskilling of those employed in the sector, where necessary and if they are willing.

Blocking and delaying the energy transition process due to lobbying interests will worsen the consequences of the inevitable, gradual closure of the coal industry for economic reasons. And with the closure of the mines and the coal-fired power plants due to lack of capacity to compete with other players in the European energy market, there will no longer be the possibility to use the Just Transition Fund and other EU funds to mitigate the effects of this change on those employed in the sector.