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Social and environmental criteria must be at the core of the Just Transition Fund  

In this interview, Vojko Obersnel (HR/PES), Mayor of Rijeka and rapporteur on the Just Transition Fund (JTF) opinion, answers five questions on the EU initiative aimed at supporting the regions most affected by the transition to a low carbon economy. In the context of the COVID-19, the proposed JTF budget has increased from €7.5 to €40 billion. The European Committee of the Regions adopted its JTF opinion during the July 2020 plenary session, stressing it welcomes the EU's support for a socially fair and sustainable green transition.

The Just Transition Fund is one of the three pillars of the Just Transition Mechanism, together with the transition scheme under Invest EU and a public-sector loan facility backed by the EU budget. The aim is to help regions highly dependent on fossil fuels – including coal, peat, and oil shale or greenhouse gas-intensive industrial processes – in their transition towards climate neutrality.

What are the most important messages of your opinion?

The adopted CoR opinion puts social and environmental criteria at the core of the Just Transition Fund. The fund will be very closely linked to the goals of the European Green Deal and ensures that the regions that benefit will make a clear commitment to the Paris agreement, the EU's target to reach climate neutrality by 2050 and the 2030 mid-term objectives. The increased budget for the JTF is welcomed in the CoR opinion. It argues that additional contributions from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the European Social Fund + (ESF+) should be made on a voluntary basis. This will give local and regional authorities the flexibility needed to finance labour market programmes via the ESF+ and projects that contribute to the green transition with the JTF.

How can your opinion influence the legislative negotiations between the co-legislators?

Already during the preparatory phase of my draft opinion, I organised a number of meetings with Members of the European Parliament dealing with this topic. I also had the opportunity to present the ideas of my draft opinion to the Regional Development Committee (REGI) in the European Parliament and thereby put forward important aspects from a local and regional perspective at an early stage in the process. Of the 19 recommendations that I put forward in my draft opinion, 11 were tabled as amendments in the European Parliament. The European Committee of the Regions has thus successfully influenced the European Parliament in many important aspects. In addition, we have had informal contacts with representatives of the German EU Presidency and we are satisfied that several of our recommendations are also included in the Council text.

What is the role of the new fund within the Green Deal and the Recovery process after the COVID-19 pandemic? How will the new fund assist the most affected regions?

The COVID-19 pandemic has rightly put the focus of the European Union and the entire world on saving lives, protecting jobs and the economic recovery. I am, nonetheless, satisfied that the European Commission has also not lost sight of the important fight against climate change and even considerably increased the budget of the Just Transition Fund from € 7.5 billion originally to € 40 billion. This revised JTF budget will allow affected regions to advance on their path towards a green, sustainable and socially fair transition and implement the goals of the European Green Deal. The cohesion policy programmes and particularly the newly created REACT-EU programme will support regions hit by the crisis. European support is needed for both, the transition towards a green economy and the economic recovery after the crisis.

How can the role of local and regional authorities (LRAs) be enhanced within the transition process? What can the institutions (at EU, national, regional levels respectively) do to link the real needs of regions in transition to the political priorities of the JTF?

Local and regional authorities have a key role to play in the implementation of the Green Deal, but successfully implementing environmental projects does not only need a budget to finance those. It needs first and foremost the acceptance of citizens to join the fight against climate change and the transition into a green economy. In my role as a mayor, I have the task of listening to my citizens and have them on board for every project that is to be implemented, regardless of whether the laws are made at the local, regional, national or European level. This is also true for the Just Transition Fund. The JTF can only be a success for workers from coalmines if it is implemented in a socially fair way. Therefore, I put an emphasis in my opinion on the social aspects of the JTF. We need our citizens to make this fund successful, and our citizens need us to set the right framework, so that no one is left behind.

What is your opinion on the criteria to access the JTF? Do they rightly correspond to the diversified scenarios in multiple EU regions?

Every region has its specificity, which should be taken into account. And many regions have different starting positions on their way towards climate neutrality. However, rules should be set that are applicable to all affected regions. The financing possibilities that were put forward for the Just Transition Fund are not unknown, since most activities could be financed also by other cohesion policy programmes. But the focus that the JTF gives  contributes to the European Green Deal in an unprecedented way. The European Committee of the Regions included in its adopted opinion an additional paragraph on the activities to be financed, which gives local and regional authorities the flexibility to adapt their proposed programmes to the special needs and specificities of their respective region.

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