In order to make structural funds the engine for sustainable growth and jobs, European regions and cities request a place-based approach to the thematic concentration of resources, a stronger flexibility in the definition of the funds allocation and clear rules for the involvement of regions and cities in defining operational programmes and partnership contracts.
By adopting four opinions on the regulations related to the Structural funds at the May plenary, the members of the Committee of the Regions made clear their position on the way forward for a successful cohesion policy for the period 2014-2020.
The opinion on the General Regulation of the Funds covered by the Common Strategic Framework (CSF), drafted by Catiuscia Marini (IT/PES), president of the Umbria Region, sets the CoR priorities for the coming programming phase. “This opinion conveys two clear messages", argued the rapporteur. "Firstly, there cannot be a positive exit from the crisis without an appropriate budget for cohesion policy and, secondly, a result-oriented approach can only be achieved through greater ownership of cohesion policy by regional and local authorities".
The CoR expresses full support to most of the European Commission's "core" proposals such as the introduction of the new category of transition regions, the integrate approach to funds programming promoted through the CSF and the principle of thematic concentration of investments. However, on this point, a greater flexibility in the distribution of Structural Funds is needed in order to address effectively territories' needs. Unsurprisingly, the CoR reaffirms its firm opposition to any macroeconomic conditionality as this would penalise the local and regional authorities of Member States that fail to comply with fiscal discipline requirements. As regards the creation of a 5% performance reserve, the opinion proposes to replace it with a “flexibility reserve” made up of unspent funds, to finance, for instance, experimental initiatives in the areas of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.
In order to simplify the procedures applying to structural funds, the CoR proposes to rationalise controls and audits, reduce managing authorities’ reporting duties and delete the provisions introducing new accreditation bodies.
As for territorial cooperation, the opinion amends the Commission's proposal in relation to funds allocation criteria. Instead of a Member States based approach, funds should be distributed on a Europe-wide basis, taking into account territorial and thematic criteria, so to avoid the "absurd" logic of "juste retour".
Finally, the CoR suggests that the list of cities participating in "integrated actions for sustainable development"could be the outcome of an open selection procedure involving local and regional authorities.
EUROPEAN REGIONAL DEVELOPMENT FUND
Through the opinion on the regulation for the European Funds for Regional Development (ERDF) drafted by Michael Schneider (DE/EPP), State Secretary and delegate of the State of Saxony-Anhalt for the German Federation, European regions and cities specified their requests for more flexibility in thematic funds allocations. "The Commission proposal provides a good basis for further negotiations on the ERDF; however this opinion highlights further measures to support development in regions that are lagging behind and those with natural or demographic handicaps. Key to improving the regulation is flexibility and the involvement of local and regional authorities in the decisions that will primarily affect them" the rapporteur underlined.
The opinion calls for a reduction in the mandatory percentage of ERDF funds to be allocated to the thematic objectives in each category of regions. This would allow a wider margin of intervention and as such better focus ERDF investments on territorial competitiveness.
In this perspective, the opinion welcomes the priority given in the Commission's proposal to the Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) but, at the same time, defends the possibility of supporting investment aid for large businesses, also considering their relevant role in meeting the goals of the EU 2020 flagship initiative devoted to the industrial policy. A higher degree of flexibility is requested also in relation to eligible beneficiaries of research and innovation funded projects, through the possibility of including private research bodies besides public ones.
In the opinion, the CoR calls for the widening of the definition of areas with natural or demographic handicaps. In relation to urban areas, regions and cities support the Commission's emphasis on urban sustainable development with the allocation of at least 5 % of ERDF national resources through integrated territorial investments (ITI) and the implementation of innovative urban actions (0,2% of ERDF at EU level). The CoR also warns against the risk of duplication of already existing initiatives following the Commission's proposal of establishing an urban development platform and underlines that the list of cities in which sustainable urban development measures are to be implemented, should be an indicative one, worked out in a partnership with local and regional authorities, on the basis of call for application.
Concerning research and innovation, the CoR suggests to ensure a better link between Horizon 2020 and structural funds by providing interfaces and connecting points in both programmes.
EUROPEAN SOCIAL FUND
The opinion drafted by Konstantinos Simitsis (EL/PES), mayor of Kavala, on the new rules for the European Social Fund (ESF), welcomes the Commission's effort for a stronger weight of ESF projects in Member states’ and regions’ development strategies. At the same time, regions and cities request for a reduction of the minimum shares so as to give Member States and regions the chance of adapting programmes to their actual needs.
For what it concerns the mission, the CoR warns about the risk of the ESF becoming a tool exclusively devoted to the Europe 2020 Strategy, losing its function as a lever of social cohesion. It underlines also that the ESF will continue to fulfil its basic mission under the Treaty, which is to "improve employment opportunities for workers", and, at the same time, address the social needs resulting from an exceptionally adverse economic climate by "promoting social inclusion and combating poverty", a goal that is upgraded from an investment priority to a specific thematic objective.
Nonetheless, regions and cities regret that there is no reference to promoting flexicurity in the labour market, even though flexicurity is covered by one of the Integrated Guidelines of the Europe 2020 strategy.
As regards the Food Distribution programme for the Most Deprived Persons of the Community (MDP), the CoR remains attached to it, but stresses the need to find another legal basis than the ESF.
With respect to management procedures, the CoR welcomes the simplification measures proposed by the Commission to reduce the administrative burden for beneficiaries and managing authorities. Regions and cities support specifically the restriction on the number of eligibility rules so as to facilitate access for smaller beneficiaries and operations to ESF funding, the eligibility of contributions in kind, wider use of global grants, and simplified cost options, such as lump sums, including making their use obligatory for smaller operations (up to EUR 50 000).
EUROPEAN COHESION FUND
Romeo Stavarache (RO/ALDE), mayor of Bacău, drafted the opinion on the proposed rules on the European Cohesion Fund. First, the CoR emphasises that Cohesion Fund-driven investment in infrastructure conducted over the years has proven to deliver a very high level of European added value and that through these investments, the EU provides Europeans with higher living standards and businesses with opportunities for development. As underlined by the rapporteur "cohesion finances big projects which couldn't be realised without EU's financial support, helping each region to have its chances to develop its potential". For this reasons, regions and cities welcome the Commission's proposal to maintain a substantial budget for the Cohesion Fund for the period 2014-2020 so that the EU's policy objectives in the areas of transport, the environment and energy will receive financial support from the EU.
In this perspective, since local and regional authorities are responsible for investing in transport infrastructure and for establishing secondary and tertiary links to the trans-European network, they should be closely involved in decisions on the choice of priority projects of common interest in order to ensure consistency between public and private investment at every level.
Furthermore, the opinion stresses that the ECF should fund integrated projects on the energy performance of buildings and housing and supports the need for smart investment in infrastructure development at European level.
Finally, the CoR calls to avoid any initiatives which might eat away at the budget allocated to cohesion policy, in particular in relation to EUR 10 billion in the Connecting Europe Facility's budget that comes from the ECF.