Better spending is one of the top priorities for the next programming period
​Johannes Hahn

Europe is ceaselessly searching for a way out of the crisis. Citizens and local and regional governments are bearing the brunt of present financial constraints. Ahead of OPEN DAYS 2013 – currently "the biggest event in the world focusing on regional and urban development" – we met with Johannes Hahn, European Commissioner for Regional Policy, to discuss the challenges that are now facing Europe's regions and cities. Commissioner Hahn stressed: "We need an in-depth political debate with our regional partners to better target the European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) in the future". We have to find out how to better spend European funds, as "better spending is one of the top priorities for the next programming period; citizens will be able to then see what is done with their money".

Commissioner, this year, the OPEN DAYS are focusing on how Europe's regions and cities could take off for 2020. Could you tell us more about the key messages and objectives of OPEN DAYS 2013?

OPEN DAYS is currently the biggest event in the world that focuses on regional and urban development. In the past 11 years, it has grown from 1200 to the current impressive number of over 6000 participants. The number of OPEN DAYS' local events organised in the Member States is also increasing (350 last year), as well as the number of elected politicians attending the event, every year. The success of the event is due to the excellent ongoing cooperation between the main organisers, that is to say  the Directorate-General for Regional and Urban Policy, the Committee of the Regions and regional partners.

OPEN DAYS 2013 comes at a particularly important time for EU Regional Policy. On the one hand, we have visible results from 2007-2013 investments, reviving innovative businesses and creating sustainable jobs for the future. On the other hand we are in the process of finalising the fundamental reform of our policy for 2014-2020, taking the economic realities of Europe into account. We need an in-depth political debate with our regional partners to better target the European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) in the future. We are demanding more focus on how we use these investments: concentration on a limited number of sectors, better spending and more emphasis on results. OPEN DAYS 2013 is an invaluable platform to share knowledge and experience in getting the expected results.

What do you believe are the new most important challenges both from a Brussels' perspective and from the point of view of European citizens? 

The social and economic crisis has an impact on the whole of Europe but the severity of the effects differs throughout. We need concrete actions to lift Europe out of the crisis and boost the economy. Availability of employment, affordability of health care services, quality of education and adequate infrastructure are important concerns for European citizens. As around 70% of the EU population are living in urban areas, key urban challenges such as social exclusion, poverty, pollution and traffic jams, have to be tackled too.

Cohesion policy is one of Europe's main investment tools to do this. Member States are relying on regional funds to encourage research and innovation, support the creation of a business-friendly environment for SMEs, create sustainable jobs for the future in particular for young people, build vital transport links and realise environmental goals. Thanks to the cohesion policy, we can make the Europe 2020 Growth Agenda priorities of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth a reality. However, there is still much to be done to get Europe back on its feet. Overall, the use of regional funds should be reformed and the policy should be strengthened to be more flexible to better support where and when it is needed most.

How do you see the future of regional policy after 2014 and its role in supporting economic recovery, growth and jobs?

We are currently finalising the negotiations on plans to reform the cohesion policy for 2014-2020 with the European Parliament and the EU governments. One key objective is to aim for a more effective policy directed at the creation of jobs and growth in Europe. Better spending is one of the top priorities for the next programming period and citizens will be able to see what is done with their money. The next period requires Member States to concentrate funds on a few key strategic priorities taking into account Europe 2020 goals. But within this framework, it also asks Member States and regions to look closely at what their particular strengths and assets are to build on – through what we call a smart specialisation strategy.

Clear targets and indicators are being applied to ensure that investments generate credible, visible and sustainable results.  In certain areas conditions have to be put in place to ensure the successful implementation and maximum impact of funds. The new reforms will also aim for a closer link between cohesion policy and economic governance to optimise the impact of investments. A key theme also running through these reforms is the element of partnership: the involvement of regional representatives at every level is the only way to anchor the policy locally and to create an essential feeling of ownership.  

The economic crisis has affected people not only financially, but also in terms of confidence in their political institutions and representatives.  How do you believe this trust could be regained in light of the future European elections?

There are very few countries and regions in Europe that have not been affected by the crisis in one way or another. I believe that EU regional funds have played an important role in both cushioning the impact of this and in helping those Member States most in need to get back on their feet and also in helping others to improve their competiveness

Crisis-hit countries – such as Greece, Ireland and Portugal – have been encouraged to use EU investment funds to build up their economies. We have redirected regional investments to re-establish macroeconomic stability and address socio-economic needs in those countries. We are investing regional funds in key strategic sectors, for instance in innovation, new technologies, renewable energy, SMEs and the green economy. These investments are achieving results; they are an example of the added value that European policy can bring to the well-being of communities. One of the major challenges in the future is to overcome the growing citizens' euro-scepticism. The European elections in 2014 will play a significant part in campaigning for Europe. It is a time to reinforce the debate with the public. It is time to increase the transparency of where, how and why the EU is placing investments and to communicate on the benefits they bring to communities.

Interview by Branislav Stanicek, Committee of the Regions 

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