In a debate with the European Commission's President, José Manuel Barroso, local and regional leaders highlighted the need for a better coordination of Member States' economic policies and the role of the new EU Cohesion policy in helping regain citizens' confidence in Europe. The European Commission, national governments and local and regional authorities must now join efforts to ensure a swift implementation of the new cohesion investments and allow cities and regions to play their role in generating jobs and growth for the benefit of all citizens.
Against the backdrop of the new programming period for cohesion funds, the mid-term review of the Europe 2020 Strategy and the forthcoming European elections, CoR President Valcárcel opened yesterday the first CoR plenary session of the year expressing his hopes for 2014 to be "a year of recovery". He stressed that "I was pleased to see that the Commission's 2014 Annual Growth Survey for the first time mentions local authorities. However, national reform programmes put in place by some Member States do not sufficiently take into account differences between EU regions and cities. For that reason, our 6th European Summit of Regions and Cities to be held in March in Athens, will be the occasion to launch one message: the need to revise the EU Strategy to further orient it towards growth and job creation."
Stressing that "confidence will be the key tone for this year", Mercedes Bresso, CoR First Vice-President, made a direct link between regaining citizens' trust in the EU and economic governance: "As members of the European institutions we have the duty to respond to the citizens' lack of confidence toward Europe. To do so, Europe needs to put its foot down on the economic-accelerator, in particular through closer coordination in economic governance. We must also make sure that the Stability Pact does not prevent cities and regions from effectively investing in growth and ensure that the economic recovery will equally benefit to all citizens". In a similar vein, President Barroso emphasised the connection between confidence and delivering growth: "We have worked hard to restore confidence, notably market confidence. We have planted the seeds for economic recovery, but that's far from being enough. We still have to raise our citizens' hopes in our common European future. The best way to do this is to deliver our citizens the tangible results that they expect and they deserve."
Referring to the forthcoming European elections, the chair of the CoR Socialists' Group (PSE), Karl-Heinz Lambertz, warns against the rise of populist trends: "The very foundations of the European project are being put into question by an exaggerated and often viscous debate on migration, and whatever the Commission does, it is not possible to please all sides. Nevertheless, it has to be done. We all need to argue the case for Europe and inform our citizens to make sure that those with extreme or misleadingly simple answers do not win".
Referring to the issue of the implementation of the reformed EU cohesion policy, Michael Schneider, President of the CoR EPP Group, expressed concerns that in some Member States "it is far from evident that local and regional authorities are involved in the design and implementation of partnership agreements", and called on President Barroso to make sure that cities and regions are at the table when it comes to programming and delivering the funds. In his response, President Barroso mentioned that he indeed had received complaints from regional authorities in relation to the distribution of funds among regions and the inadequate involvement of regions and cities in the programming exercise. He pointed out, however, that "the Commission cannot interfere on the funds distribution and it can only urge Member States to involve local and regional authorities".
The chair of the ALDE Group, Bas Verkerk insisted on the need to strengthen the role of the structural funds by making sure that Member States have full absorption capacity. “We also welcome the adoption of the European Code of Conduct on partnership agreements to ensure money is adequately spent", he added. Concerns were expressed by Uno Silberg, chair of the CoR European Alliance Group, about delays in the implementation of operational programmes: "Following the adoption of the new Multiannual Financial Framework, it is now time to move quickly to the implementation phase of the new programmes and initiatives. The upcoming European elections should not become an excuse for delaying actions needed to tackle EU's social, economic and environmental challenges".
On behalf of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR), Cllr. Kay Twitchen Obe underlined the need to increase the efficiency of the EU institutions, notably by reducing administrative burdens, for the sake of a well-functioning EU: "In that way we can help convince those citizens who will go to vote in May that the EU is not the problem but a large part of the solution". In his reply, President Barroso underlined that: “Cutting red tape has been a priority and more can be done to reduce burdens but this cannot mean bashing Europe”.
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