Today is the start of Open Days - the European Week of Regions and Cities. What do you hope to achieve from this year's four-day gathering?
This is the eighth Open Days, an event whose success story has made it the market place for regional policy in Europe. We have about 6,000 participants in 130 seminars and meetings. It is an excellent opportunity for people to come to Brussels and exchange good and bad practice examples. Businesses, academics and NGOs come together and it seems to be a useful concept for them.
This year, the future of cohesion policy is the overall theme. We will present our cohesion report in November so there will be lots of talk, rumours and high interest during the Open Days, as is normal. It will certainly be used by some organisations to lobby for this or that.
For example, under the leadership of the governor of Lower Austria, 141 competitive [Regional Competitiveness and Employment, formerly Objective 2] regions have already signed a letter calling for the retention of Objective 2.
Do you see this type of mass lobbying exercise as something that disrupts the week or do they contribute to the big conversation?
I see them as being absolutely positive, as they display the power of regional and local policy and provide strong backing for myself and my policy as they will be seen by everyone in Brussels. It will be recognised by the president, the Commission and permanent representatives reporting to their governments.
And do you support their position with regards to Objective 2?
I have always supported them. As I said in my hearing, I stand for regional policy covering the entire EU as an investment policy and so fully support the initiative.
With regards to next budget, are you pushing for more funding and, if so, do you expect to be successful in getting it?
I always say that I ask for a reasonable budget to provide the regions and local levels with all the programmes and targets that we want to take into our focus. Therefore, it will depend on the overall budget but I think that a relevant part must be dedicated to regional policy.
Because of the system of shared management, regional policy is the most appropriate policy to deliver on 'Europe 2020' into concrete projects from the top to the ground. We need the money to make Europe more visible.
Aiming to keep the current level of funding will be the objective, but first we have to have the overall budget and then we have to 'shut the beer so that we can distribute the seal,' so to speak.
But on some level, it seems that the current trend is for EU member states to remove regional powers. The UK government, for example, is being particularly hard on local bodies as a part of its austerity cuts. Realistically, how can you empower regions to deliver EU strategies on the ground when these same actors are having their funding taken away?
As I understand, this approach by the new British government is to abandon local bodies at one administrative level, but the further implementation of projects should not be affected by that.
They have to find a new structure for implementing policy and for auditing it. As far as I have seen, and heard, the main objective is to provide a signal on cuts without affecting policy.
Isn’t there a risk, however, that other countries will follow the UK’s example? Will this not jeopardise the ability of regional bodies to deliver in key areas like energy and climate change?
We have this issue of compliance assurance whereby we agree on auditing systems with member states – this is important for our overall financial performance. For the future, one of my big goals - in parallel with the performance orientation - is to have a more results-orientated policy, which means discussing what priorities are aligned with the 2020 strategy with member states and regions in order to have greater integration of policies.
The key words for this are 'focusing' and 'flexibility'. This means concentration on fewer priorities, with as much flexibility as is possible in their implementation. We have 271 regions across Europe, partly outside the mainland, so we have to have pyramid programmes and this is something that we will do in the future. This philosophy stems from the Barca report and is simply a further evolution of our policy.
You are a former city councillor from Vienna, and as commissioner, you are often praised by urban lobbies for emphasising the urban dimension of EU policy. Now, my family home is a small island off Ireland's west coast. Is my region going to miss out as you prioritise urban areas?
Absolutely not - just because we have a focus on one point doesn't mean we lose the other. Our services are discussing having better interfaces between the Regional Development and Rural Development funds in order to avoid overlaps and reduce gaps. So I think that if you take the whole chain, everything should be covered.
Compared to the past, the urban aspect has been reduced in the current period (2007-2013), which is why I have fought for a greater emphasis to be placed on it.
The urban dimension is very important. For example, social inclusion is one of the great topics of regional policy, and this is highly relevant to urban areas. Likewise, 70-80% of CO2 emissions are taking place in cities, so if we want to contribute to the fight against climate change then the solutions have to come from there.
Do you see this shift towards a greater emphasis on the urban dimension as one of your greatest achievements so far?
If it happens, then it will be. Again, I want to stress that this focus won't mean losing sight of other regions, however.
Where do you stand on the debate as to whether funds such as the European Social Fund (ESF) should leave the regional framework?
It should remain under the structural framework. I think there is widespread agreement on this but we need to take the employment and social situation under account more. The two areas belong together. It doesn't make sense to invest in infrastructure - whether laboratories or schools - if you don't train people to use them. There must be a kind of connectivity between the two areas and therefore they should remain in the structural policy but under the core responsibility of the member states to address.
Simplification of EU funding structures remains one of the key challenges of regional policy, and every regional commissioner says they will make it easier for citizens to access the funds. What can you say you have concretely achieved with regards to the simplification of funding?
For the first time, three amendments to our regulations have already been made by the European Parliament with the aim of simplification.
However, simplification does not always have to mean changing everything. At the moment, one of the big reasons for delays in the early 2007-2013 financial period was the delayed introduction of new regulations, meaning that it took time for beneficiaries to become familiar with these new rules. If something is proven to be doing well, then it should be left alone and adjustments only be made where necessary. This is also a kind of simplification, but there is always room for more.
I must also say that some of the burdens are due to national regulations, but things are moving in the right direction in general. We must always find a balance between the demand for simplification and the need to take care of taxpayers' money.
We have regulations concerning public procurement, for example, which ensure regional policy is in practice always in line with national state aid regulations. It is a work in progress, but if we find the right balance, we can continue to improve our policy.