Silvana Lyubenova – voluntary standards in Bulgaria

Silvana Lyubenova“Accession negotiations means making a time schedule for your reforms.”

Silvana Lyubenova was on board Bulgaria’s EU team from the get-go. In 1992, having graduated from Sofia University with a degree in computer science, she joined the Ministry of Industry, at the time the only part of Bulgaria’s administration to have a unit devoted to European integration. It was this unit, staffed by only a handful of people including Lyubenova and Juliana Nikolova, that in 1993 completed negotiations for an accession agreement with the EU (then called the “Europe agreement”). With such experience under their belt, this small team was subsequently put in charge of negotiations for membership in the World Trade Organisation (or GATT, as it was known at the time) and CEFTA. It was later involved in the negotiations for EU accession.

In early 1996 Lyubenova left the ministry and began working for an insurance company. Less than two years later, however, she was back. “I thought I needed a change,” she says, “but then I realised that I could not find the sort of challenge that work at the ministry entails anywhere else.”

If a new challenge was what Lyubenova wanted, it was exactly what she got. The European Commission had just published its opinions on the EU membership applications of the 10 East European countries. With Bulgaria having suffered a disastrous economic and political collapse just a few months earlier (see ESI’s text “From laggard to EU member”), there was little ground for optimism.

“A lot of people didn’t believe we would ever join the Union. Even colleagues from the administration said, ‘Oh, okay, we’ll do this, but why? They will never take us into the club.’ It was very difficult to make people believe that this was possible.”

It certainly was, as far as Lyubenova was concerned. The first real sign of encouragement arrived in December 1997, when the European Council declared Bulgaria – together with nine East European states – a candidate for EU membership. While the Council only launched accession negotiations with the frontrunners, a group that did not include Bulgaria, it decided to do everything possible to prevent the others from falling further behind. This included also paving the ground for negotiations.

“The so-called ‘analytical screening’ of legislation was the first preparatory phase for the negotiations. In 1998 we went through the ‘multilateral phase’ with the second group [of applicants], Bulgaria with Romania, Lithuania, Latvia and Slovakia. The European Commission explained to us the scope of all the legislation and its purpose. Then in 1999, in the second phase of this screening, we had to explain in detail our legislation: what was already similar to EU standards, what still needed to be changed, and how we planned to do it.”

In 1999 Lyubenova was promoted to head of department. She was placed in charge of the working group on “free movement of goods”, a huge and demanding negotiation chapter laden with regulations concerning products circulated on the EU market – from industrial machines and office equipment to toys and food. During the second phase of the screening process she spent a whole week in Brussels, having countless meetings with specialists from the EC.

A second turning point came with the start of membership negotiations in February 2000.

“Starting the negotiations was a key turning point, because when you start something there is also an end. Then it is a process where you fulfil the requirements, step by step. Then it’s a matter of planning, how and when to do this. This is what negotiations are about. It is not that you negotiate in a way that you can change the Union – no, you must change yourself. And finally you negotiate the timing of such changes. Accession negotiations means making a time schedule for your reforms.”

In 1999 Lyubenova started with a team of 10 people; at any given time a maximum of 20 ministry staff worked with her on the “free movement of goods” chapter. Like for every negotiation chapter, a special working group was set up for the “free movement of goods” chapter, including many people from other ministries and various other bodies. Lyubenova’s working group was one of the biggest, eventually growing to 209 people, divided into sub-groups for different issues.

“Free movement of goods” touches upon the activities of various ministries, including transport, health, agriculture, environment, even interior. Coordinating all the institutions involved proved to be a big challenge.

“My minister could not sign regulations that were under the responsibility of another minister. So if we could not manage to agree at the expert level, we went to the deputy minister level; and if the deputy ministers could not agree, then the ministers would need to talk, sometimes involving also the minister for European affairs or the chief negotiator… and then the job is finally done. Sometimes it was very difficult. There was, for example, a ten year war between the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture about who would have the leading role on food safety.”

At the end of 2006, on the eve of Bulgaria’s EU accession, Silvana counted all the directives and amending directives that needed to be implemented for the “free movement of goods” chapter. They amounted to 680. This meant a dramatic change in how Bulgaria’s institutions had to operate. “Only the agency for metrology and technical surveillance employs about 2,000 people. They all had to change the way they worked.” The agency had previously been responsible for checking products and product specifications. This had little in common with EU-style market surveillance, Lyubenova explains:

“Changing the way of work is very difficult because you have to change all the procedures, the practices – even new expertise is needed. It is easier to sit and wait for somebody to come and show a paper and then look at it, at the stamp and the specifications. Now you must go and see the product and try to guess whether it fulfils the requirements and, if you have doubts, to check the documents.

At the Ministry of Health they used to approve documents pertaining to the production of certain foodstuffs. If they approved the document, the producer was free to produce – but nobody controlled whether what was on paper matched what was being produced.

It was very difficult to convince them that they didn’t need to check the documents, that they didn’t need to approve the technical specifications of a product. They had to control the market and make sure that the products which reached the consumer were safe, which had nothing to do with what was on paper.”

These changes also strongly affected Bulgaria’s industrial producers. Like the administration, they had to change their ways of doing business.

“Most of them also didn’t believe that we would join the Union. They said, ‘Oh, why should we do this? It’s the rules of the European Union and we will never join.’ Most of the companies eventually had to change because most of the regulations we had now we didn’t have before. More or less everybody was affected by all these changes.”

In some sectors, particularly dairy and meat, a number of companies had to close down because they did not meet the new requirements. Others simply could not compete in the new environment. Bulgarian businesses needed time to get used to the new rules of the game:

“It was very difficult to make people working in this field understand that, for example, standards needed to become voluntary. We in Bulgaria used to have obligatory standards, so this was a kind of revolution. Nobody imagined that industry could work with voluntary standards. Everyone thought there had to be rules that they had to follow.

But then companies understood that they had a strong incentive to produce according to such standards: you could sell your product [more] easily if you followed a standard. If you produced according to a standard, everyone understood what your product was like. This is the main role of standards – to help the industry exchange products that are comparable.”

Silvana Lyubenova is still head of the European Integration Department at the Ministry of Economy and Energy (as the ministry is now called). She continues to chair the working group on the free movement of goods, which now endeavours to facilitate changes in EU legislation. With all her experience, Lyubenova could easily thrive in the private sector and earn a considerably higher salary. What keeps people like her on the job?

“For me, it is personal. You must personally believe that this is worth it, otherwise it is impossible. It is really difficult, it takes a lot of effort to work twelve hours a day. It’s not because someone told us that this is important; you must feel it.

I personally think that if we hadn’t made all these efforts Bulgaria wouldn’t be the place that it is now. We needed strong guidance on how to do things, how to change. And I think the rules of the European Union gave us a chance to find the way much faster. Maybe we could have eventually ended up with the same principles without the accession process – but much later.”

19 January 2010