Thanks to cohesion policy, the EU invest €454bn between 2014 and 2020 to reduce disparities and support sustainable growth in all its regions, in partnership with national and local actors. In a paper adopted on 11 May, regions and cities argued that this policy has delivered tangible results and should be strengthened in the future. With proper funding, more flexibility, easier procedures and better integration with other EU investment tools, cohesion policy can make the recovery of European economies faster and more inclusive, enabling the Union to tackle urgent challenges such as migration, climate change, and territorial resilience.
With the opinion on the Future of Cohesion Policy post 2020 prepared by Michael Schneider , State Secretary of Saxony-Anhalt and President of the CoR's EPP Group, the European Committee of the Regions is the first EU institution to adopt a formal position on how to develop EU's main investment policy for the 27. The opinion is based on evidence from studies and consultations and aims to give a political steer to the forthcoming proposals for the EU's budget after 2020.
EU regional and local leaders argue that the future cohesion policy should be built bearing in mind that over the last decade hundreds of thousands of projects supported by EU Structural and Investment (ESI) Funds have succeeded in creating jobs, modernising infrastructure, boosting human capital and improving life quality.
Nonetheless, regions and cities are aware that cohesion policy maybe undermined by the financial impact of Brexit and the political pressure to fund new priorities such as defence, security, border controls or investment tools centrally managed by the EU's institutions. The Committee opposes diverting any funds and demands that, even after Brexit, the current percentage share of the EU budget allocated to cohesion policy remain the same.
" Migration, security or new investment instruments are gaining attention in the public debate but cohesion policy cannot be side-lined at the very moment when we attempt to tackle Euroscepticism and fight for more unity among our citizens. It is the most impressive European instrument of solidarity and building bridges between European communities. It helps to share more equally the benefits of European integration among the European citizens and to nurture our unity in a globalising world ", said Mr Schneider after the plenary vote.
The Committee - Europe's assembly of regional and local representatives - calls on the other EU institutions and member states to rely on cohesion policy as a participative, democratic and open platform to relaunch the European project, reduce the distance between EU institutions and citizens, and make EU solidarity a tangible reality in every corner of the Union.
The CoR's President, Markku Markkula, remarked, " The best way to counter populism is through action. Only through delivering sustainable jobs and growth across all of Europe's regions and cities can we demonstrate that the EU matters. Schneider's opinion shows our determination that cohesion policy must continue to play a part of Europe's future. As the EU's institution of regional and local leaders, we are encouraging the establishment of a strong alliance of all those in favour of a simpler and more effective cohesion that improves the daily lives of every citizen ".
This call was welcomed by EU Budget Commissioner, Günther H. Oettinger: " Though reductions are inevitable and cannot be excluded after Brexit, I'm going to fight against any cuts to cohesion policy", he said during the plenary debate, stressing that: "The more we show the added value it brings to the EU, the more we will get the message across that building a stable sustainable cohesion programme benefits each one of us ".
To improve its effectiveness, the CoR urges the EU to tackle the complexity and rigidity which is slowing the delivery of cohesion policy. In the absence of adequate simplification and flexibility, they argue, excessive administrative costs coupled with growing legal and financial uncertainty, risk jeopardising the policy's impact and added value for beneficiaries.
The Committee's proposals
Adequate funding : ensure in the next EU Budget (Multiannual Financial Framework) cohesion policy can rely on the same percentage share of resources allocated in the current phase (around one third of the total); with regards to the balance between grant- and loan-based initiatives, the Committee is against any obligation to further increase the use of loans over the next EU programming period. The right mix of financial instruments and grants should be decided on the ground by local and regional authorities.
A consolidated basic structure : this should confirm the current structure of the policy, with its three categories (most developed, transition and less developed regions). Regional gross domestic product (GDP) as the main indicator should be complemented by harmonised and consistent criteria related to labour market and specific challenges (social, environmental, geographical, natural, and demographic).
More flexibility : cutting red tape in the planning and management of ESI funds. Thematic concentration should be retained to increase the impact on the ground, but should not preclude financial support for infrastructure within the priority areas. Future investment programmes should be adaptable through simplified procedures so to react to crises and unforeseen events (such as intense refugee flows or natural disasters).
Simplification: the current delivery system is overregulated and too complicated, with excessive management requirements and control systems. The Committee therefore wants procedures to be radically simplified with a new legal framework to be presented well before to the start of the new programming period (by mid-2019 at latest). Any retro-active application of new standards should be avoided while management requirements and control systems should be simplified allowing managing authorities to choose between implementing programmes either on the basis of national or EU law.
Common strategy : the CoR requests to avoid duplications and improve coordination by developing a new Common Strategic Framework covering all EU growth policies and funds with an impact on regional development, including ESI funds, Connecting Europe Facility, LIFE, Horizon 2020, EFSI, EIB lending facilities. In particular, ESI funds and EFSI have different roles and scope but, since they complement each other, it needs to be easier to integrate them to mobilise public and private investment for strategic goals.
Real partnership : regions and cities want the Code of Conduct on Partnership to be included in the legally binding ESI funds' regulations to ensure funds are planned and managed through a genuine cooperation among EU, national, regional and local authorities.
Better economic governance : the link between ESI funds and the coordination of member states economic policies under the European Semester need to be strengthened, with adequate attention to the territorial dimension of national reform programmes and country-specific recommendations. On the other hand, the Committee wants to dismantle any conditionality, which risks taking hostage cities' and regions' investment plans because of national government failings
For more information:
Infographic on the future of Cohesion Policy
CoR studies on the future of Cohesion Policy
Evaluations of the 2007-2013 programming period
EU Cohesion policy open data portal
President Markkula statement on the 25 April General Affairs Council on Cohesion
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