Hübner: Regional policy must be adjusted to global challenges

Regional policy plays an increasingly important role in reacting to global challenges such as climate change, energy supply and demography. But thus far it is not equipped with the right tools to address these challenges, Regional Policy Commissioner Danuta Hübner told EURACTIV in an interview. 

Danuta Hübner is the EU commissioner for regional policy.  

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

With regard to the budget review launched by the Commission last September, what in your view should be the priorities of EU regional policy? 

It is important to have in mind that in Europe, we have a process of decentralisation, with more and more public investment down at the regional or local level. That means that the EU regional policy has to be well integrated into national priorities. So for the future, it is important to be aware of the fact that much of the decision-making will be done at the regional level, which is also a challenge for us. 

The second point I would like to raise is that we would like to have regional and local authorities participate as much as possible in our discussion on the future of regional policy. We have just finalised the first stage of public consultation on the proposals coming from the Commission. 

In September, we will continue the public discussion during the French Presidency. In May, we will have a high-level meeting on the future of regional policy in Slovenia. We are in the process of discussing the issue with the member states and we have been publicly consulting with all the regions and different stakeholders. 

However, all this has to take into account the fact that the regional level is becoming increasingly important and plays an increasingly active role in reacting to global changes [in areas] such as climate change, energy, the internal market, or the demography challenge. So there is a need to adjust this policy to the new challenges. 

The most important thing that we should do together is decouple the substance from the money. First, we have to define the new common challenges in the future. And then probably the next Commission has to decide on how much money we can spend for this policy. The most important point for the moment is to discuss the needs of Europe. 

You mentioned that the keyword in regional programmes is quality. Are you satisfied with the quality of the projects that have been submitted by member states so far? 

We have raised the quality issue because we are convinced that it is not sufficient to say that money has been absorbed but to see that the investment coming from the European budget is really contributing to growth, jobs, competitiveness and the economy in Europe. Therefore, I am very satisfied with the negotiations on the next generation of projects, which were completed at the end of 2007 because we see that the member states and the regions have taken the Lisbon agenda very seriously. 

With their decision to direct more than 75% of all the European cohesion policy funds to the goals of the Lisbon agenda this really means innovation, competitiveness and sustainable jobs, which will not be lost tomorrow to China or India. Let us hope that we will maintain this good quality in the process of implementation. 

A lot of attention has been placed on regional programmes in the new member states. Do you see room for improvement regarding cohesion fund projects in Romania, for example? 

In the case of Romania, as is the case for any other member state, there is a need to have good administration. You cannot really be efficient in fully implementing the European cohesion policy unless the administration at the national, regional and local level is of good quality and there are enough people who get paid a sufficiently high salary to stay in the public sector. Building such a strong administration will remain a challenge for Romania in the years to come.

The second point relates to the quality of the projects, which are not just a shopping list but part of either a national, regional or citizen development strategy. These projects usually produce better results and contribute more to growth. We have always been discussing, also with the Romanian government, good quality projects, which are part of a wider development strategy and did not just happen to be adopted. 

The third important issue is just to remember that there is a legal framework for this policy, which is both located in the national legal systems but also comes directly from the European level. Respecting the law, especially the laws on public procurement, financial control and the environment, is simply a must. The big projects simply require an environmental impact assessment. 

In Romania, in particular, this is very important because its wealth and its richness stems from its environment. So if you also want to benefit from tourism development you have to pay for the environment as well. And then you also need to build roads. Romania needs many new roads and before doing so it always requires an environmental impact assessment. This will be a challenge because the process can slow down due to the fact that we cannot adopt projects without this environmental impact assessment, for example in the transport sector. 

We have to be aware that these projects require a lot of preparation before being adopted. Then it takes time to invest because public procurement tenders can also be questioned by other companies. There are many factors with regard to big projects. 

My fourth and last comment is [the need] to pay special attention to the big projects, which are being paid for by the government as well.