Interreg VA Greece - Bulgaria 2014-2020

The Cooperation Programme “Greece-Bulgaria 2014-2020” was approved by the European Commission on 13/12/2016 by Decision C(2016)8708.

Greece and Bulgaria, two neighboring countries with a rich past, since the end of the 1990s have entered an era of closer co-operation, due to the INTERREG Programme “Greece-Bulgaria”.

The main idea behind “INTERREG” is that countries have issues which can be better solved if they work together with their neighbors than if each one remains confined within its borders. So for this reason, in our Programme we promote activities that bring our people closer. One needs to look no further than the land and the rivers we share and move on to roads and then to culture, food and traditions. In every case what happens on the one side of the border affects the other side as well. The need for joint actions is gradually becoming the normal than the exception.

Eligible Area

The eligible area of the Programme consists of the Region of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace (Prefectures of Evros, Kavala, Xanthi, Rodopi and Drama) and the Region of Central Macedonia (Prefectures of Thessaloniki and Serres) in Greece and the South-Central Planning Region and South-West Planning Region (Districts of Blagoevgrad, Smolyan, Kardjali and Haskovo) in Bulgaria.

The Greece-Bulgaria cross-border cooperation area for the programming period 2014-2020 is identical to the current ETC programme. It extends to 40.202 km2 and has a total population of 2.7 million inhabitants. It covers four territorial units at NUTS II level (Regions), and 11 territorial units at NUTS III level (Districts). The eligible area extends across the entire Greek-Bulgarian border and is neighboring with Turkey (east) and FYROM (west), both countries aspiring to access to the EU. It is part of the most south-eastern non-insular area of EU, and it is situated between three seas: the Black Sea, the Mediterranean Sea and the Ionian-Adriatic Sea. Finally, it sits at the crossroad of strategic fossil fuel pipelines supplying the EU market and TEN transport axes. The settlement structure of the area is characterized by the presence of 10 medium-large cities (>50.000 inhabitants) which accumulate 38,2% of total population, and 25 small cities (10.000-50.000 inhabitants). Despite the historically relatively small amounts of funds allocated, there is a long history of cooperation in the eligible area, which started with Community initiative INTERREG I (1989-1993).

The priority axes are:

PA 1: A Competitive and Entrepreneurship Promoting Cross-Border Area

PA 2: A Sustainable and climate adaptable Cross-Border area

PA 3: A better interconnected Cross-Border Area

PA 4: A socially inclusive Cross-Border area

PA 5: Technical Assistance


The total budget (ERDF and national contribution) for the European Territorial Programme “Greece-Bulgaria 2007-2013” is €130,262,835.00 .The total financing consists of €110.723.409,75 (85%) ERDF funding and €19.539.425,25 (15%) national contribution.

General Level of Development

The Greece-Bulgaria cross-border cooperation area is one of the poorest in the European Union, as the GDP per capita is below 50% of the E28 average. This has not changed considerably in the last 10 years, even though short-lived improvements were noted during 2002-2004 and then again in 2006-2009. The CB area is also characterized by large internal disparities, especially as it concerns the dichotomy between Bulgarian and Greek territories. Bulgarian districts exhibit a much lower level of economic development (below ¼) than their Greek counterparts, mainly attributable to the fact that

Bulgaria has long been a transition economy. The 2006-2009 period was marked by economic growth on both sides of the border, as was the general trend all over Europe. After 2009, the global recession effects resulted in slowing down the growth rates in the Bulgarian part (0,25% annually) and in negative growth rates in the Greek part (-9% annually).


Even though the CB area has been gradually converting from an agricultural/industrial economy to an industrial/service economy, this conversion has been rather slow. Compared to EU28, the economy remains considerably more agricultural, less industrial, and more service-dependant. However, this is far from being homogeneous. The Greek CB-area is considerably less agricultural and industrial than the BG CB-area part, and more service-oriented. This heterogeneity is even more pronounced at district level. We can discern 2 types of districts in the BG part, and 3 types of districts in the GR part:

Blagoevgrad/Haskovo: industry and trade dominated
Smolyan/Kardzhali: industry and agriculture dominated
Exros/Drama/Thessaloniki: public administration and industry dominated
Xanthi/Rodopi: public administration and agriculture dominated, and
Kavala/Serres: industry and public administration dominated.
More than half of GVA produced in the CB area (59%) is produced in the district of Thessaloniki. All other areas exhibit low percentages. Particularly low percentages are observed in the Bulgarian districts Haskovo, Smolyan and Kardzhali (1-2%). Some of the noteworthy intra-territorial structural developments that have taken place recently include:

A gradual conversion between the two parts in terms of the portion of GVA attributable to the primary sector. Still, there remains a large differential between the two sides, with the Bulgarian territories being more heavily agricultural than the Greek territories, and even more heavily agricultural than the national (BG) average.
A significant diversion between the two parts in the secondary sector, mainly attributable to the considerable losses of industrial activity experienced in the Greek part after 2006 (mainly due to relocations of labour-intensive industries in cheaper neighbouring countries). Total labour productivity in the CB area is significantly lower than the EU28 avg. (approx. 1/5) and exhibits high differentials between the Greek (32800€/employee) and Bulgarian (5800€/employee) parts. CB area productivity is also below the respective national averages for both parts:
for the Bulgarian part: ranging from 60% to 78% of the BG national average, and
for the Greek part: ranging from 60% to 84% of the GR national average.
Tourism – and especially eco-tourism – has long been heralded as the “growth-industry” of the CB area, as it includes a significant number of pristine areas of high ecological value. Yet, it has a rather modest number of accommodation establishments compared to its population (43 establishments/100.000 inhabitants, when the EU28 average is 111), and unevenly distributed. The largest concentrations of accommodation establishments and beds are in the districts of Kavala, Thessaloniki and Smolyan.


Both Greece and Bulgaria have outlined national or regional strategies for innovation in the context of “smart specialization”. Yet, Bulgaria is lagging far behind the other EU countries and is listed as a “modest innovator” in the 2014 “Innovation Union Scoreboard”, while Greece, although in a somewhat better position, falls below the EU average and is listed as a “moderate innovator”. Yet, the CB area possesses significant research facilities currently which are however not collaborating with each other or with the business community. It also possesses similar productive systems, therefore exhibiting important opportunities for coupling entrepreneurship initiatives with innovation. The critical mass of research centres and other academic structures is located in Thessaloniki with the following fields of excellence: biotechnology, advanced production systems for chemical processes, energy and environmental technologies, information processing, virtual reality, security services, etc. R&D activities in East Macedonia and Thrace are concentrated in the public sector and particularly in the Demokritos University of Thrace (with a unique Genetics Department) and to a lesser degree in the Technical Education Institute (TEI) of Kavala. On the Bulgarian part, most important research infrastructure is located outside the CB area (mainly in Sofia and Plovdiv) and only Blagoevgrad seems to have any significant research structures. The South-West University “Neofit Rilski”- with nine faculties[1] – offers PhD programmes in many liberal arts fields (Education and Pedagogy, Literary Studies and Linguistics, History and Archaeology, Social Sciences, Law, etc. and Arts – with a specializations in choreography and cinema). Of particular importance for the CB area are the programmes in Economics (with a specialization in Tourism), Geography and Environmental Sciences, and IT technologies. Also, in Smolyan there are branches of the In Smolyan there are branches of the “Paisii Hilendarski” University of Plovdiv with its Technical College and the Varna Free University “Tchernotisets Hrabar”.

Climate change

According to the ESPON-CLIMATE project, the programme area is substantially more vulnerable to climate change both compared to EU 28 and the Greek and Bulgarian national levels as well. The districts with the highest vulnerability are Thessaloniki, Serres, Kardzhali and Haskovo. Climate change will have major negative impacts to the CB area. It is estimated that it will affect the majority of the urban centers, by rising the number of heat-wave days to more than 50 by 2071-2100. Natural hazards in the area include flood risk zones (mainly in the vicinity of Nestos/Mesta and Evros/Maritza rivers), wildfire risk areas (mainly in the mountain ranges) and erosion risk areas (especially on the coast). Floods and wildfires can quickly spread across borders and their effective management is of cross border importance. Finally the areas with the highest risk of landslides are located in the basin of Maritsa East and in the coal development area in the South-west region. The largest studied landslide is located in the district of Smolyan at the location “Smolyan’s Lakes”.

In addition, the combined adaptive capacity of the CB area to climate change is similar to the national levels and the lowest in Europe. On the Greek side the district of Thessaloniki and on Bulgarian side the district of Blagoevgrad show a rather high adaptive capacity relative to the national values but still lower than the EU28 average.


The CB area is characterized by many and important natural resources, including a large number of protected natural sites (86 Natura 2000 areas, 5 Ramsar wetlands, etc.), many of which are of pristine character. The CB landscape consists of densely forested mountains, straits of rivers, valleys, plains, lakes, coastal wetlands, seasides and river deltas. The area comprises the mountain ranges of Rila, Pirin and Rhodopi, featuring outstanding forests, the cross-border rivers Strymon (Struma), Nestos (Mesta), Ardas (Arda) and Evros (Maritsa) and more than 400 kilometers of coastline. These important natural resources have not been sufficiently exploited for development purposes in the past. In terms of the state of the environment, industry is among the major polluters on both parts of the border, and pollution hot-spots are concentrated in southwestern Bulgaria and near the Kavala urban area. Both cross-border rivers – Nestos and Evros – are polluted with urban as well as industrial effluents (e.g. BOD). The major problems in the management of urban wastewater result from the lack of sewage treatment infrastructure in settlements between 2,000-10,000 inhabitants. The problem is more acute on the Bulgarian portion of the CB area. In Bulgaria only 46% of the population is covered by wastewater treatment systems and most of the treatment capacity (71%) is located in the Danube and Black sea river basins (which are outside the CB area). On the Greek portion 88% of the population is covered by wastewater treatment systems.


The area possesses significant transport infrastructures. It is served by three ports of national/international importance (the Thessaloniki port, the double port of Kavala and the port of Alexandroupolis) and three main airports (the International Airport “Makedonia”, at Thessaloniki, the Airport “Great Alexander” at Kavala and the Airport “Democritus”at Alexandroupolis), all of them on the Greek side. The most important transport infrastructure is the road network and overall connectivity has improved significantly in the past:

with the construction of the Egnatia motorway and several vertical axes connecting Greece to Bulgaria and
The construction of large portions of motorways A3 and A4 in Bulgaria.
Nevertheless, lower-level roads are at various stages of disrepair (especially on the Bulgarian part) making interconnections difficult and reducing mobility especially in the mountain ranges. At the same time, several Egnatia vertical axes as agreed in the Transnational Agreement between Greece and Bulgaria in 1998 still missing or under construction (such as the connection of II-86 to the Greek transport system) and the motorways on the Bulgarian part are incomplete. The area is deficient in terms or railway and multi-modal infrastructure (despite the existence of important ports and airports). Both Greece and Bulgaria have been recently investing in the CB area railway network but it requires considerable investment which is outside the financial capabilities of the present programme. This heavy dependence on road transport also increases considerably the environmental footprint of transport activities in the area, especially at the border crossings (e.g. long lines of trucks) and especially during the tourist season. Last but not least, the area lacks accessible public transport for people with disabilities and cross-border public transport services.

Labor Market, Poverty and Social Inclusion

While in 2007 unemployment rates for the CB districts were on the average near or below the national rates and below the EU27 average rate, unemployment started to rapidly increase – especially in Greece – soon after the wake of the economic crisis in 2008 reaching record high levels in 2013. The Bulgarian districts succeeded to keep unemployment rates near or lower than the EU27 average. Currently, the high disparities among the CB districts have not dissipated. The latest data exhibit the following high unemployment rates (2013): Xanthi 37,5%, Drama 36,8%, Thessaloniki 32,1%, Serres 22,9%, Kavala 22,8%, Evros 22%, Smolyan 20,3% and Rodopi 16,8%. In addition, long term unemployment rates have increased sharply – especially for the Greek regions – after 2009, indicating a risk of large structural unemployment which in turn implies the existence of inefficient labour markets and a mismatch between labour market demand and the available skills and locations of the workers seeking employment. According to the ESPON DEMIFER project the CB area shows significantly higher values of long-term unemployed persons compared to the EU28. Youth unemployment rates display similar trends and are attributed to the lackluster economic growth, the rigid labour market, and the mismatch between potential employee skills and employers’ needs in Greece and Bulgaria.

In addition, the CB area exhibits considerably higher than EU28 percentages of population at risk of poverty or social exclusion (3-4 times higher). The main reason for the large divergence is the comparatively higher long term unemployment rates, and the higher share of people living in areas with low work intensity and low income levels. With respect to the latter, the share of people living in areas with low work intensity has been rising since 2010 in Bulgarian and Greek territories alike.

The large number of people experiencing poverty and social exclusion in the CB area is also attributable to the presence of various vulnerable groups such as minorities, internal migrants, asylum seekers and foreign persons under subsidiary protection. The higher risk of poverty and social exclusion among these groups is primarily connected to long-term unemployment and economic inactivity.

The rising incidence of poverty has many social consequences, one of which is the deteriorating public health conditions. Even though the CB area enjoys the availability of basic health care resources (e.g. hospitals and doctors) at levels near, or even better in several cases, than the EU28 average, the average life expectancy is lower than EU28 levels and many epidemiological indicators record higher values. Overall, Greek districts have exhibited higher life expectancy than Bulgarian districts in the past, but since poverty forces more people to resort to hospital care (more than a 20% increase has been documented in Greece after 2010), it appears that Greek districts may be more at risk of deteriorating health care conditions in the near future, thereby lowering overall public health levels in the CB area.