The debate on the future of cohesion policy is already gathering momentum. EU funding has a major impact on the development at both regional and local level in Sweden. In light of this, SveReg – a Brussels based network made up of representatives from the Swedish city and regional offices – organised a conference. The aim was to share perspectives between local, regional and EU level on the key issues for the next programming period and how Swedish regions and municipalities want to contribute to shape the future of cohesion policy post-2027.
The SveReg network regularly organizes conferences where Swedish regions and cities come together in Brussels in order to promote a regional and local dialogue on current EU related issues. The focus for the SveReg conference 2023 was the future of cohesion policy, organised in the framework of the Cohesion Alliance and hosted at the premisses of the European Committee of the Regions in Brussels.
Will there be any cohesion policy at all for Swedish regions in the next programming period, and if there is, how do Swedish regions and municipalities want to shape the policy? These were some of the questions discussed at the two-day conference 20–21 of June which brought leading representatives from the EU institutions, European networks and policy experts together with representatives from Swedish regions and municipalities.
Swedish regions and cities taking an active role in the discussions on the future of regional policy at the EU level
Cohesion policy has a major impact on regional and local development in Sweden, and it is important for Sweden's cities and regions to join forces and take an active role in the debate. The aim of the conference was to promote a closer regional and local dialogue in interaction with the national level in order to form a broad Swedish position on what the cohesion policy should look like after 2027. Even though the future of cohesion policy has not been a priority during the Swedish presidency of the Council of the EU, it certainly is a priority for Swedish regions and municipalities who wants to take an active role in the discussions on the future of regional policy in interaction with other European regions and stakeholders. The conference is part of a long-term advocacy effort from the SveReg network to ensure that the future EU budget is in line with Swedish local and regional needs.
The main EU investment policy to support place-based development across all territories of Europe
In his opening speech, President of the Committee of the Regions Vasco Alves Cordeiro referred to the messages stated in the Kiruna Declaration, which was adopted by the Committee of the Regions Political Bureau in Kiruna, Northern Sweden earlier this year. The declaration underlines the fundamental role of cohesion policy as the main EU investment policy to support place-based development across all territories of Europe, and its key role in overcoming severe structural challenges by unlocking each territory's unique potential and guaranteeing that no region or person is left behind. The president was joined by Jelena Drenjanin, Member of the Committee of Regions who encouraged all Swedish regions and municipalities to join the Cohesion Alliance.
Cohesion policy in a major political context
To set the scene a panel consisting of Fabian Zuleeg, Executive Director and Chief Economist at the European Policy Centre (EPC), Stef Blok, Dutch Member of the European Court of Auditors, and Ilan De Basso, member of the European Parliament provided an overview of the major political context in which the new cohesion policy is being negotiated in, and what other priorities are competing for attention and budget of the EU. Fabian Zulleg gave a gloomy view of the development of war and crisis in the world and the lack of political leadership in the EU to deal with it, while Ilan de Basso pointed out that it is important to think in new ways and that crises creates new opportunities. Stef Blok gave an overview of the increasingly extensive and complex support structures in the EU that need to be put in order to be useful and support the right things.
What might cohesion policy look like in the future?
The Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions (CPMR), Assembly of European Regions (AER) and the Eurocites networks also participated in the conference. They work actively to highlight the role of regions and cities in EU policy and are important partners for Sweden's regions and cities in the discussions and advocacy on the future of cohesion policy. Vania Freitas, Coordinator of Institutional Relations and Advocacy for the AER, Eleni Marianou, Secretary General of the CPMR and Dorthe Nielsen, Director of the Eurocities network reflected on what they think cohesion policy might look like in the future with mixed scepticism and optimism. The key question that became clear is what role territorial perspectives will have in the future, to really support different local conditions for development, or will it be controlled from above via national systems?
The window of opportunity to make an impact is here and now
Keynote speaker Alison Hunter, Senior Advisor at the EPC, shared insights from her discussion paper "Addressing Cohesion Policy's identity crisis in a changing European Union" which calls for the EU to reaffirm the role of regional policy as a structural transformation policy. Alison Hunter urged Swedish regions and municipalities to act now and act together with other regions. Further, she emphasised the importance of advocacy targeted towards the national level, not only towards the European Commission.
Sofia Alves, Director of the European Commission's Directorate-General for Regional and Urban Policy (DG REGIO) and Mikel Landabaso Alvarez, Director of the Fair and Sustainable Economy Unit at the European Commission's Joint Research Center (JRC) reflected on future tools for regional development and how different DGs may have different views on the future of cohesion policy. Both speakers encouraged the participants to take the opportunity to provide the European Commission with examples of when cohesion policy has worked and created added value for Swedish local and regional development, as well as examples of when it has not.
In a concluding session, the discussions focused on the way forward and how the local, regional and national dialog can be continued in order to form a broad Swedish position on the future of cohesion. Jeanette Lund, Regional Policy Council at the Permanent Representation of Sweden to the EU, encouraged regional and local actors to develop positions as soon as possible, in order to be able to influence the right actors and within the timeframe.
A stronger Cohesion Policy now and in the future
Cohesion policy has over time played a significant role in the development of Sweden's regions and cities as the most important investment policy of the EU. In all likelihood, it will continue to do so. The question is, which kind of changes brings the most added value. Throughout the conference, regional development directors as well as regional and local politicians were given to opportunity to reflect on what had been said. They underlined some key principles that needs to remain such as a long-term development policy based on principles of multi-level governance. In times of war and crises, long-term investment strategies and cohesion are needed more than ever. Cohesion policy also needs to have a place-based approach in order to adapt after the specific situation of different territories. That was the part of the collective message from the regional development directors who will continue the dialogue in Sweden to form a broad Swedish position on what the cohesion policy should look like after 2027.