The European Union Solidarity Fund is the main instrument with which the Union can respond to serious disasters occurring within Member States or countries negotiating accession. The existing fund has generally proved a success, though it could be made to work better, especially by simplifying the red tape involved in releasing fund resources so as to substantially cut the time lapse between a disaster and the provision of assistance. The opinion addresses a number of points that should be improved from a local and regional point of view with regard to the criteria for mobilisation of the fund at NUTS 3 level, exceptional cross-border natural disasters, definition of eligible operations, time limits to submit applications in case of long-lasting disasters such as floods.
On 28 November 2013 a meeting between the CoR rapporteur and the EP rapporteur, Ms Estaràs Ferragut took place. Ms Estaràs mentioned that the draft CoR opinion had provided a good input for the elaboration of her draft report and that she agreed with most of the positions included in the draft CoR report, inter alia the 1% GDP criterion, a criterion for regional disasters in neighbouring NUTS 3 areas that form an area corresponding in size to a NUTS 2 area, the relocation of infrastructure and technical assistance.
The draft report of the REGI committee took on board a number of important positions included in the CoR opinion:
The extension of the definition of regional natural disasters to disasters that happen in neighbouring NUTS 3 regions that together constitute a territory corresponding to the minimum criteria for NUTS 2 level (CoR proposal for amendment 4, EP amendment 7);
The possibility to reinforce or relocate infrastructure (CoR proposals for amendment 1 and 7, EP amendment 9);
The eligibility of technical assistance of up to 2 % of the total Fund contribution (CoR proposal for amendment 8, EP amendment 11). However, the EP wording is stricter than the CoR proposal, with the addition of the wording "unless it is essential for carrying out rehabilitation works in the areas affected by a disaster";
Simplified requirements for applicants as regards the provision of information on disaster risk prevention (CoR proposal for amendment 9, EP amendments 13 and amendment 14);
A longer period for the use of fund contributions (CoR proposal for amendment 11, EP amendment 17). However, the EP took on board the period suggested in the draft CoR opinion (18 month), not the one of the CoR opinion adopted in Plenary (24 months).
The 1 % GDP criterion for regional natural disasters was, however, not taken on board by the draft EP report.
Mr Georgios Stavrakakis (GR/S&D), member of the EP BUDG committee and rapporteur on the European Union Solidarity Fund in this committee, sent on 16 December 2013 a letter to the COTER chair, which was the answer to the letter that was sent to him in the context of the follow-up to the CoR opinion on the EUSF after its adoption in Plenary session.
In his letter Mr Stavrakakis underlined the importance of the EUSF and the common objectives of both the EP and the CoR of making the instrument more visible, flexible and responsive. He also attached the draft opinion of the BUDG committee to his letter, which took on board some of the key positions of the CoR opinion, in particular a threshold of 1% of regional GDP for regional natural disasters, the eligibility of technical assistance of up to 2 % of the total Fund contribution, and a prolonged period to use the contribution from the Fund (18 months, as requested in the draft CoR opinion).
Following an email of 28 December 2013, in which the CoR rapporteur advocated the position of the CoR opinion to Mr Oldřich Vlasák (CZ/ECR), member of the REGI committee, Mr Vlasák tabled further CoR recommendations for legislative amendments, that hadn't been taken into account by then, as amendments to the EP REGI draft report.
The REGI committee voted on the amendments to the draft report on 22 January 2014 and agreed to mandate a negotiation team to open the interinstitutional negotiations. In addition to the CoR recommendations that have already been considered in the draft report, the REGI committee took the 1 % GDP criterion for regional natural disasters on board.
The Council adopted on 13 February 2014 in Coreper a general approach concerning the Regulation establishing the European Union Solidarity Fund and mandated the Presidency to find a first reading agreement with the European Parliament. The compromise text followed in many aspects the proposal of the European Commission. The only CoR amendment that was taken on board was the CoR amendment 1 on recital 11 (inclusion of wording "or to a state in which it will better able to withstand natural disasters", but without "including relocation"). The Council also followed the line of CoR amendment 7 on Article 3(2), as regards the possibility to fund the reconstruction of infrastructure with improved functionality or security. However, it clarified that the contribution of the Fund should only be possible up to the estimated costs of returning to its status quo ante, and that exceeding costs to cover improved functionality and security have to be financed by the beneficiary state from national or from other EU funds.
Although some other CoR recommendations were supported by some Member States, in particular the 1 % GDP criterion for regional natural disasters (amendment 4), the extension of the application period in case of progressively unfolding disasters (amendment 10), and the extension of the implementation period of up to two years (amendment 11), these proposals found not enough no support to be included in the compromise text put forward by the Presidency.
Interinstitutional negotiations started on 19 February 2014. A political agreement was reached on 26th February. Remaining issues were agreed by a written procedure at the EP. The Coreper approved the agreement reached in trilogue on 12 March 2014, followed by the EP REGI committee, which approved it on 19 March 2014. On 16 April 2014, the Parliament adopted on this basis its legislative resolution at first reading under the ordinary legislative procedure. The formal approval by the Council followed on 6 May 2014. On 15 May 2014, the final act was signed by the European Parliament and the Council. It was published in the Official Journal on 27 June 2014 and entered into force the following day. The legislative procedure is therewith finished.
The final text shows that a number of recommendations brought forward by the CoR opinion have been at least partially taken on board by the two co-legislators: This relates in particular to the idea to reinforce or relocate existing infrastructure, so that it will be better able to withstand natural disasters in the future, the reduction of the administrative burden for applicants, and the extension of the deadlines for using the fund. In all these cases, the final text represents a significant improvement compared to the initial Commission proposal.
On the other hand, a number of CoR recommendations, which have initially been taken up by the EP, could not be carried in the final text, in particular the recommendations to set the threshold for regional natural disasters at 1% of regional GDP, and the extension of the definition of regional natural disasters to disasters that happen in neighbouring NUTS 3 regions.
An in-depth comparison of the CoR recommendations with the final text showed the following picture:
CoR amendment 1 on recital 11 (inclusion of wording "or to a state in which it will better able to withstand natural disasters, including relocation" was insofar considered as recital 11 now stipulates that "it should be defined what may be understood as restoring to infrastructure to working order, and to which extent the Fund may contribute to the corresponding costs" (see also CoR amendment 7 on Article 3(2));
CoR amendment 2 to delete recital 13 (exclusion of expenditure for technical assistance) was reflected in the final text of recital 13, which stipulates that "it should be specified to what extent eligible operations may include expenditure for technical assistance" (see also CoR amendment 8 on Article 3(5));
CoR amendment 3 on recital 15 (addressing long-lasting floods) was not addressed in the final text. The final version of recital 15 basically keeps the text of the EC proposal;
CoR amendment 4 on Article 2(3) (1 % threshold and neighbouring NUTS 3 regions) was not taken on board. The final provision basically keeps the 1,5% threshold for regional natural disasters that was initially proposed by the European Commission and doesn't make any reference of NUTS 3 regions. However, a 1 % threshold will be foreseen, by the way of derogation, for the Outermost regions;
CoR amendment 5 suggesting new paragraph on cross-border natural disasters after Art. 2 (3) was not taken on board;
CoR amendment 6 on Article 2(4) suggesting the possibility of mobilising the fund for disasters which are a regional disaster in neighbouring MS was not taken on board neither;
CoR amendment 7 on Article 3(2) (definition of restoration, including reinforcing and relocation) was taken on board. Article 3(2) now allows for the relocation as well as for the improvement of the functionality of the affected infrastructure in order to improve its capacity to withstand future disasters, up to the estimated costs of returning to its status quo ante;
CoR amendment 8 on Article 3(5) (eligibility of technical assistance) was considered to a limited extent. Whilst the CoR proposed making expenditure on outside technical assistance an eligible expenditure of the fund up to a maximum of 2 % of the total fund contribution (in contrast to the initial EC proposal, which excluded technical assistance completely from funding), the final text clarified that technical assistance is generally not eligible for a contribution to the fund, but that costs related to the preparation and implementation of eligible operations, including for essential technical expertise, are eligible as part of the project costs;
CoR amendment 9 on Article 4(1), which tried to reduce the administrative burden for applicants, by adding of "a brief description" to letter e) and deleting letter f) was fully taken on board with a slightly different wording ("short" instead of "brief");
CoR amendment 10 suggested a new para after Art. 4 para 1a, which should stipulate that the application deadline should run, in the event of a sustained natural disaster, from the date of repealing the state of emergency declared by the Member State. This amendment was not taken on board. However, the idea to link the deadline to the declared state of emergency was incorporated in Article 4 para 1c (which links it to the date where public authorities declare the state of emergency). Moreover, the new application deadline of twelve weeks instead of ten can be regarded as positive;
CoR amendment 11 on Article 8(1) (extending deadline for using the fund to two years) was partially taken on board. The final text introduces a deadline of eighteen months, which is in line the proposal of the draft CoR opinion, but not with the one that was suggested in CoR opinion adopted in Plenary. In any case, the 18-months deadline is a very positive step in comparison to the initial EC proposal, which suggested a one year deadline.
Le Comité des régions,
- estime que le Fonds de solidarité de l'Union européenne est le principal instrument permettant à l'Union de réagir lorsque des catastrophes majeures surviennent dans des États membres ou des pays candidats à l'adhésion, faisant ainsi preuve de solidarité avec les pays, les régions et les communes touchées;
- constate que sous sa forme actuelle, le Fonds a, d'une manière générale, fait preuve de son efficacité, mais que son fonctionnement pourrait être amélioré, notamment en simplifiant les procédures administratives indispensables à la mobilisation du Fonds afin de réduire de manière significative le laps de temps qui s'écoule entre la catastrophe et l'octroi de l'aide. Les règles de fonctionnement du Fonds pourraient gagner en clarté et celui-ci pourrait être ciblé de manière à mieux répondre aux besoins des zones touchées. À cet égard, accueille favorablement les propositions de la Commission qui contribuent à rendre plus rapide et mieux ciblée l'aide qu'apporte le Fonds;
- approuve les efforts de la Commission visant à simplifier la définition des catastrophes régionales en introduisant un critère clair fondé sur le PIB; propose cependant de fixer le seuil permettant de bénéficier de l'aide en cas de catastrophe régionale à 1,0 % du PIB des régions au niveau NUTS 2 concernées;
- fait remarquer que les catastrophes frappent des zones qui diffèrent dans une large mesure des régions au niveau NUTS 2. Propose par conséquent de fixer un critère pour les catastrophes affectant des régions au niveau NUTS 3 lorsque plusieurs régions voisines immédiates au niveau NUTS 3 forment ensemble un territoire dont la taille correspond au niveau NUTS 2;
- suggère en outre d'utiliser ce critère de niveau NUTS 3 pour la définition de la notion de "catastrophe naturelle transfrontalière à caractère exceptionnel", faisant observer qu'une intervention de l'UE aurait, dans ce genre de cas, une grande valeur ajoutée et adresserait un signal nettement positif aux citoyens;
- propose de définir avec plus de précision les actions éligibles du Fonds et d'y inclure la possibilité de financer non seulement une remise en état des infrastructures, mais aussi une remise en fonction sous une forme pouvant mieux résister aux catastrophes naturelles ultérieures, ainsi que le déplacement de ces infrastructures vers un site plus approprié;
- approuve la proposition de la Commission de prendre en compte les spécificités des catastrophes à évolution lente telles que les sécheresses, tout en soulignant que des événements comme les inondations de longue durée devraient également être couverts. Propose par conséquent d'ouvrir la possibilité, pour ce type de catastrophe, la possibilité d'introduire la demande dans un délai de dix semaines à compter du moment où prend fin la menace de catastrophe naturelle;
- propose de prolonger le délai d'utilisation de la contribution du Fonds à deux ans en raison du temps que requiert la réhabilitation des infrastructures de base et la restauration des services et des fournitures essentiels, du fait de l'obligation de garantir la documentation nécessaire et de respecter la réglementation régissant les marchés publics.