Governments are primarily divided over the future of the European Social Fund (ESF), which distributes EU money across the bloc to boost European employment.
Amid an ongoing economic crisis and with unemployment rates at a peak in recent years, some of the fund's biggest financial backers, particularly the big member states, are said to be proposing a sort of re-nationalisation of these resources for the period covering the next EU financial framework, from 2014 to 2020.
The idea has been circulating in EU circles in recent months, although no concrete proposals have been tabled.
The possibility of reviewing such a key financial resource has triggered strong criticism from Eastern European member states, which are among the main beneficiaries of the funds.
Last week, the leaders of the four Visegrad countries (Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic) sent a letter to the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso. They called for the ESF to remain within the scope of EU cohesion policy, reported EurActiv Germany.
Warning from regional authorities
Their call follows warnings issued in July by Michèle Sabban, president of the Assembly of European Regions (AER), a body which gathers regions across 33 European countries. Regional authorities are the main controllers of ESF money.
"We recently learned that the European Commission plans to remove the European Social Fund from the domain of cohesion policy in order to finance a new European Union strategy for employment," reads an open letter from Sabban. "The AER will remain vigilant concerning threats of re-nationalisation and sectoralisation of the cohesion policy," she added.
AER spokesperson Francine Huhardeaux yesterday confirmed to EurActiv that the AER remains concerned about Brussels' intentions and reiterated that the "sectorisation and nationalisation of the fund will hinder the coherence and effectiveness of the overall policy".
The first appeal to avoid a possible shift in current policy was issued by former EU Regional Policy Commissioner Danuta Hubner.
The Polish politician, in her current role as chair of the European Parliament's committee on regional development, warned at the beginning of July "about separation of the European Social Fund from cohesion policy". This could affect the European added value of the fund, she said.
Commission tries to calm down debate
"We have no intention at the moment to get rid of the European Social Fund," European Commission spokesperson Olivier Bailly said yesterday in Brussels, acknowledging nevertheless that "there are reflections about the structure of the budget for 2013 and beyond".
In a speech given in June, EU Social Affairs and Employment Commissioner Làszlò Andor conceded that the ESF "will need to evolve and adapt".
"The future ESF should be fully aligned in all member states with the Europe 2020 strategy and the integrated guidelines. This will increase the relevance of the fund as a policy instrument," he said, opening the door for debate over a new role of the fund, whether within EU cohesion policy or outside of it.
Andor's spokesperson made clear to EurActiv that "there are no plans to remove the ESF from cohesion policy," before stressing the need for a better focus of the fund, which should be "more aligned" with the EU's overall priorities.
The Commission will launch an official debate on the issue in the coming weeks, ahead of the already heated general debate over the allocation of EU funds until 2020.