Despite the need for certain improvements, the European Commission retains an "added value" that national governments lack in distributing EU regional funding, said experts at a regional policy event organised by the EU executive.
Participating in an Open Days debate on whether richer EU regions should continue receiving a portion of cohesion funds in the 2014-2020 period, analysts broadly agreed that handing down control to the national level was not the answer.
With discussions on the post-2013 EU budget due to start next week, many questions remain open: Will regional policy maintain its overall chunk of the EU budget? Will it serve as one of the primary vehicles for achieving the 'Europe 2020' strategy for growth? And finally, who will ultimately distribute the money in order to achieve its objectives?
There was broad agreement that the starting point of the budget discussion, and consequently the role and scope of the future regional policy, should centre on the Commission's 'Europe 2020' economic blueprint, which EU leaders endorsed this summer.
National governments – not to be trusted to deliver EU goals?
Hans Martens, who heads the European Policy Centre (EPC) think-tank in Brussels, questioned the wisdom of giving control of cohesion funds to member-state governments, given their recent failure to use stimulus spending to promote agreed EU targets of green growth and innovation.
Instead, governments ploughed the money into keeping people in traditional jobs, such as the automotive sector, he argued. How, then, could they be trusted to use funds to deliver the 2020 targets, he asked.
Iain Begg, a professor at the London School of Economics, noted that with regard to cohesion policy, there are two competing ambitions: to support the less well-off regions, and the aims of competitiveness and boosting growth, which are now firmly tied into EU recovery packages.
"If 2020 is the underlying goal, is cohesion policy the striker to score that goal?" Begg asked. "Or should the policy's remit be narrower, focusing on solidarity and redistributing wealth?"
Many experts have made an argument in recent months that EU money should be pumped into so-called "sectoral" funds – research, innovation, biotech, green energy solutions – rather than using the more traditional method of regional funding.
However, Jean-Charles Leygues, a former deputy director of the Commission's regional policy section DG Regio, said that cohesion policy is designed to finance things that the market alone will not provide. "Will the market plus sectoral policies correct these imbalances? – No!" he argued forcefully.
Dirk Ahner, current director at DG Regio, believes regional policy retains an ability to deliver on both fronts. "My impression," he said, "is that we will keep the existing cohesion policy instruments," though he added that these may have to be rebalanced in the coming years.
No consensus on whether rich regions should keep funding
However, the analysts disagreed on the actual subject of the debate, which centred on whether richer EU regions should continue receiving a portion of cohesion funds in the 2014-2020 period.
Simon Tilford of the UK-based Centre for European Reform think-tank declared himself sceptical about better-off regions getting money, even if they are relatively poorer in their own countries.
"National regional policies need to be rethought," he said, adding: "I don't see the case for depriving poor countries of needed funds when rich nations have failed to redistribute wealth within their own territories."
Ahner countered that there is a "huge amount of evidence that there is a real added value" to giving some funds to richer regions, who make effective use of the money.