Marini: Rules on public expenditure will be the real challenge for Cohesion

Catiuscia Marini, President of the Umbria Region (PES/IT), CoR rapporteur on the Common Provisions Regulation [PES Group Committee of the Regions]

Dangers of backsliding can already be identified in the European Commission’s proposal for Cohesion Policy in the next seven-year EU budget, warns the Committee of the Regions’ Catiuscia Marini. But she says the aim is to reach a framework agreement on resources and rules before the current term expires.

Catiuscia Marini (PES/IT), the president of the Umbria Region in Italy and Committee of the Regions rapporteur on the “Common Provisions Regulation”, discussed with EURACTIV Italy’s economic growth in relation to Cohesion Policy, the future of cross-border maritime operations and the link between Cohesion and the European elections in 2019.

Is there a danger for flexibility to lead to a weakening of audit, and thus end up diminishing the accountability of the Cohesion programs?

We have now started to look in detail at this regulation in order to prepare our opinion, and I do not believe that flexibility will jeopardise the transparent management of the funds, lessen the standard of monitoring of the initiatives funded by the programmes or undermine the evaluation of the intermediate steps that we carry out during the audit.

Introducing some flexibility can meet a number of programming requirements for both the member states and individual regions. Clearly, we need to keep up cohesion policy’s capacity to tackle specific issues, and particularly its focus on the structural aspects of development. It would be a mistake if flexibility were to lower cohesion policy expectations, since this policy needs to use complex projects and programmes to redress the existing weaknesses in Europe’s regions.

Flexibility is therefore useful when it comes to devising regional operational programmes, provided that there is no decrease in the expected impact of the investments.

In the next programming period, Italy will receive increased financial support. However, co-financing is also rising. Can this create problems in implementation?

Italy should be able to count on increased resources, as the economic and social crisis of the last few years has weakened its manufacturing capacity and social cohesion. There are now more regions with a per capita GDP lower than the European average and unemployment rates higher than under the previous seven-year term. So, during the next seven-year term we obviously need to move towards increased resources.

In this situation, co-financing in the case of Italy is very sensitive. The Italian government must believe in cohesion policy and allocate sufficient financial resources to support the growth in investment capacity made possible by the Structural Funds. However, even with a guarantee that the resources for co-financing will be available throughout the seven years, there are still problems regarding the current rules on the management of national and local public resources which can slow down the implementation of cohesion policy.

We have already seen this during the current term: the rules on regional budgets introduced in 2015 are slowing down the uptake of the Structural Funds. Regional programming is now based on individual financial years, which obviously creates problems when it comes to managing multiannual programmes such as those under cohesion policy.

I, therefore, feel that Italy’s biggest problem will not be finding the resources needed for co-financing; the real challenge will be the rules governing the management of all public expenditure – including co-financing. If we can’t find an answer, expenditure will be slower and more ineffective despite the increase in available resources.

In the new proposal, cross-border maritime co-operation will get abolished. Do you think this is a step in the right direction or does it undermine the value of maritime borders?

This budget proposal is more ambitious, as it concentrates resources on a few key areas such as research and innovation, migration policy and borders. However, and inevitably given the new requirements, the resources are also being re-organised.

Sufficient resources must be ringfenced for cooperation projects based on the subsidiarity principle, which aim to make the regions (particularly border and cross-border regions) the driving force in development policies, as for the major maritime programmes. In such circumstances, the regional dimension will prevail, with programming aiming to bolster natural economic and social integration.

We will see what the outcome of all this will be, but we can already see that there is a danger of backsliding. The danger is that these programmes may not emerge from the regional dimension but instead will be steered by the amount of resources that national governments decide to mobilise so that cooperation between countries takes precedence over regional integration. The regions will consider this issue very carefully, as cross-border and cooperation policy was shaped by specific requirements relating to the natural mobility of workers and students, and the similarities between the economic and productive systems of neighbouring regions, even when they are part of different countries.

We can see this in the areas on the borders between Belgium and France, between France and Germany, and between Italy and Austria. Regional integration has integrated relationships between communities and has managed to overcome the political boundaries which traditionally separated these countries.

Calling into question interregional cooperation – particularly cross-border cooperation – could jeopardise economic and social development. The impact of such choices should also be considered in light of a dialogue in which a number of the EU’s founding principles in the area of national borders are being called into question. There is a real risk that the EU could be weakened and that the natural cooperation between communities and regions – local and regional cohesion – could be hamstrung. In our capacity of European regions, we will be working very carefully on this interesting issue.

Do you think there will be a final decision on Cohesion before the European elections in 2019?

Yes: I think that a timetable will be set for reaching a framework agreement on resources and rules before the current term expires. We definitely hope so, as we know just how important it is to ensure continuity in EU integration policies. Cohesion policy is a tool for cooperation, integration and overcoming the divisions between European regions.

Political developments in Europe are weakening the European venture. Those of us who support cohesion policy must work to ensure that these decisions are taken during the current term of office, partly with a view to tackling a number of issues which will be important for the European Parliament election campaign. I have faith that all the institutions will strive to achieve this, keeping to a tight schedule.

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