The publication of the Commission's proposals marks the official start of discussions on the future of EU cohesion policy after 2013, in the framework of the next budgetary period. The main focus will be on finding ways to help member states achieve the ambitious goals of the Europe 2020 strategy, notably in relation to economic growth, job creation, poverty reduction and energy efficiency.
The 5th Cohesion Report approved yesterday by the college is a 264-page long document analysing the impacts and outcomes of EU cohesion policy during the past seven years (2000 to 2006), comparing economic growth and employment rates in every region, including the 12 so-called 'new' member states that have joined the EU since 2004.
Focusing on the 2020 strategy
Speaking to journalists, Johannes Hahn, the commissioner in charge of regional policy, together with his colleague László Andor, who is responsible for employment, social affairs and inclusion, said the report shows how the EU has helped to reduce economic differences, promote social development and support environmental improvements.
"We need to spend more intelligently, focus on the EU's top priorities and add visible value to what national and regional authorities are already doing," said Hahn, underlining the need to improve the effectiveness of the EU's cohesion policy.
The Austrian commissioner hopes to convince all of the member states that an effective cohesion policy is absolutely necessary in order to help the Union and its regions emerge from the ongoing economic crisis and contribute to the ambitious 'Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth,' which was adopted by EU leaders in June.
Andor pointed out that European citizens expect their political leaders to focus on promoting employment and social inclusion.
According to a recent Eurobarometer survey, most people think that tackling unemployment should be the EU's number one priority.
The Hungarian commissioner also emphasised the importance of linking cohesion policy with the 2020 strategy. He said that higher levels of education and employment would also stimulate economic growth in all member states.
The Commission believes that the economic and financial crisis makes it more important than ever for the EU to invest in boosting the competitiveness of Europe as a whole, while continuing to allocate the majority of financial resources to helping the poorest regions.
However, it is not yet possible for the Commission to say anything about the budget for cohesion policy after 2013. The amount of money available will depend on the outcome of negotiations with member states on the multi-annual financial framework for 2014 to 2020.
Funds are shared out among the member states and their regions to co-finance numerous infrastructure, employment and training projects.
Member states to negotiate contract with Commission
The EU executive sees EU funding targeted on a limited number of priorities, including job creation and poverty reduction, in line with the goals set out in the Europe 2020 strategy.
The Commission wants to establish an overall strategic framework that sets out priorities and necessary reforms. Each member state would then be invited to negotiate its own contract with the Commission. The aim would be to make sure that money from the various EU funds is used to support measures that complement the policies being pursued at national level.
Another idea being put on the table is for a small percentage of EU funds to be kept in reserve and then paid out to the regions that achieve the best results. Commissioner Hahn believes that such a performance-based financial incentive scheme would encourage national and regional authorities to fulfil their commitments.
The Commission is also looking at a number of ideas for simplifying the system for distributing EU funds, as well as improving the monitoring and evaluation of programmes.
The Commission's blueprint will be discussed in the coming months. Interested parties, including national and European associations of local and regional governments, are invited to submit their priorities and wishes for the future of EU cohesion policy to the EU executive by the end of January 2011.
The Commission's ideas and the views of stakeholders will be discussed at the Fifth Cohesion Forum, to take place in Brussels on 31 January and 1 February 2011.