Johannes Hahn, the commissioner for regional policy, said ahead of the EU summit this week that this represented “the last good occasion to send out a strong regional voice to member states and the European legislator.”
Hahn said the EU’s crisis exit strategy was based on “restoring sound public finance, structural reform for improving competitiveness and targeted investments for growth and jobs.”
To get his point across, and help secure a healthy level of financing, the commissioner sent his staff a series of points he wanted to emphasise during the open days.
Among the points, seen by EurActiv, was the role structural funds played in helping Finland recover from a deep economic crisis in the 1990s, suggesting they could play a similar role in within the rest of the eurozone.
Ramón Luis Valcárcel, president of the EU consultative body the Committee of the Regions, also made the case for keeping the cohesion budget intact, telling reporters: “The regions must push the member states and make sure there is no blockage in the Council and the European Parliament.”
“A brave budget is suitable for the crisis”, he said.
However, the Committee of Regions is staunchly opposed to Commission proposal to increase the conditionality of structural funds, Claire Dhéret, an analyst at the European Policy Centre, told EurActiv.
Dhéret said the Committee did not think it fair to penalise regions “because of the macroeconomic conditionality positions of member states”.
The Italian Minister for Territorial Cohesion, Fabrizio Barca, spoke to the European Parliament on Wednesday (10 October), spelling out what his country was doing with EU structural funds.
Italy, he said, had one of the highest levels of national co-financing in the union, some 53% of projects. The figure is expected to drop to 47% but that, he said, was “still high”. Co-financing is seen as a way for member states to leverage and multiply their slice of the EU budget.
Barca also said he took a “holistic” approach to cohesion, attempting to address social inclusion as well as investing in infrastructure projects.
“There is no point in giving money to companies, without having citizenship,” he said.
The minister said what was needed was “investment with strategy behind it.”
Barca said this was especially important in the poorer south of the country, hailing a project to speed up justice cases, which took four to five times longer than in the north.
He said that Italy had “taken account of the crisis in the choices it has made,” attempting to protect “essential services,” such as kindergartens and health care centres for the elderly, from closures.
Where Barca outlined progress made in bridging the gap between the south and north of Italy, the Committee of the Regions held a workshop detailing advancements made in the northwest of England.
The workshop was aimed at pointing out whether financial engineering instruments could play a significant role in supporting post-2014 structural funds throughout the EU.
Bruno Robino, an investment manager at the European Investment Bank, said that to achieve results with EU funds “implementation has to be done at local level”.
Flo Clucas, a Liberal Democrat councillor for the City of Liverpool, said €204 million had been invested as part of a so-called “JEREMIE” holding fund. JEREMIE funding is a market-driven financial instrument carried out in partnership with the EIB to provide debt and equity funding for small and medium-sized enterprises, as opposed to traditional grants.
This, she said, had contributed towards a significant amount of economic growth and job creation in the region.
Other, private initiatives are also underway in the region, taking a “hands-on” approach to investment.
Penny Attridge, an investment director at SPARK, a venture capital company, spoke at the workshop of initiatives she had undertaken with northwest SMEs. Her company takes an “early-stage approach” to investment, carefully selecting businesses before making a small initial investment of some €60,000.
At the beginning, the focus is encouraging profitable businesses practices rather than injecting large amounts of cash. Larger investments usually follow.
She said often what SMEs need is someone who “understands the disciplines of European funding”.