Cohesion policy must be at the heart of plans for a reformed EU

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European Commissioner in Charge of Regional Policy, Corina Cretu (R) and President of the PES Group in the Committee of the Regions, Belgian Karl-Heinz Lambertz (L) give a press conference to present the 7th report on economic, social and territorial cohesion in the EU at the EU commission, in Brussels, Belgium, 09 October 2017.

European Commissioner in Charge of Regional Policy, Corina Cretu (R) and President of the PES Group in the Committee of the Regions, Belgian Karl-Heinz Lambertz (L) give a press conference to present the 7th report on economic, social and territorial cohesion in the EU at the EU commission, in Brussels, Belgium, 09 October 2017. [EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

The upcoming EU budget negotiations and new priorities are calling into question the very existence of the EU’s Cohesion Policy. But if the social, economic and territorial disparities facing Europe are to be overcome, then Cohesion Policy must be secured as the EU strategic investment policy for all European citizens after 2020, writes Vasco Cordeiro.

Vasco Cordeiro is President of the Government of the Azores and President of the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions (CPMR).

In a few weeks’ time, the European Commission will have made critical decisions which will change the course of the European project for good.

Its long-awaited proposal in spring next year on the shape and size of the next European Union budget for post-2020 will be the result of difficult budgetary choices. With Brexit and new challenges calling for action from the European Union, such as a defence union, the EU budget will be put under severe pressure. This means that that several EU policies will inevitably get thinned down in the process.

This context calls for change at European level. We need to take smart decisions in order to do more with fewer resources.

The temptation is all too great to create new centralised instruments to address both EU economic, social, environmental and territorial challenges and arising new priorities for the European Union. The European Commission must not give in to such short-term solutions.

Most European objectives, such as the fight against climate change and unemployment, can only be realised on the ground by EU policies which are owned at regional level and by citizens. EU programmes known as ‘shared management’ programmes, such as those falling under Cohesion Policy, must be at the heart of reforms for a fresh European budget for 2020 and beyond.

Cohesion policy must cover all regions after 2020

This is why I firmly believe that Cohesion Policy budgetary resources must not be sacrificed. The policy should cover all regions for the post-2020 period for it to continue to be the face of European solidarity to citizens in all territories of Europe.

From hyper-connected capital regions to isolated outermost regions – as my region the Azores – Cohesion Policy offers equal opportunities to people irrespective of where they live. As the EU policy with the strongest territorial approach, it invests on the basis of needs defined by those who know best on the ground.

But still, its results remain largely unknown among citizens. It remains one of the most criticised EU policies.

Yes, the policy needs to be modernised and simplified, so as to be more effective in the future. However, the 2008 financial crisis and the pressures of global competition have accelerated economic, social and territorial disparities across the Union. These regional disparities matter. They threaten peace and social stability, fuel populism and anti-European feeling, and disrupt the completion of the single market.

Is this the European Union we want to offer to our citizens in the future?

Our first message to European leaders: a serious reduction of the budget and coverage of Cohesion Policy could undermine unity in the EU, creating a dangerous divide not only between the North and South of Europe, but also between the old and new member states.

Cohesion Policy connects citizens to the European project

Rumours abound about how to use Cohesion Policy to achieve radically new objectives in the future, such as providing incentives for EU member states to carry out painful reforms. This is not what Cohesion Policy was designed to do in the first place. Going too far down that route means that we lose the ‘raison d’être’ of the policy as a territorial development policy!

Of course, Cohesion Policy needs to exist as part of a wider framework, and that includes the European Semester. The policy already supports certain aspects of the European Semester, such as the modernising of public administration, and that needs to continue. But it cannot become a EU instrument to carry out structural reforms, and certainly not a punitive tool delivering sanctions. What message would Europe give to citizens if we went down that path?

Cohesion Policy is no pot of money. Nor it is a ‘charity policy’ as some of its fiercest opponents have named it in recent times. It is anchored in the EU treaties at the service of European solidarity. In weeks to come, all its supporters will need to speak up and defend its undeniable added value for every European region.

Cohesion Policy helps the EU to mobilise investments across Europe’s territories and enables regional and local authorities to take ownership of the EU agenda.

Europe would not be the same without Cohesion Policy!