REGI chair: If von der Leyen has an ambition for Europe, she must have an ambition for Cohesion

MEP Younous Omarjee during the 127th Plenary Session of the European Committee of the Regions, Brussels, January 2018 [European Union / Patrick Mascart]

The European Parliament shall not accept cuts on the budget of Cohesion Policy and expects the European Commission and its new President to be on its side, says MEP Younous Omarjee.

Younous Omarjee is a French MEP and Chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on Regional Development (REGI) for the leftist GUE/NGL group. In an interview with EURACTIV, he discusses the future of Cohesion Policy and its relation to a dynamic budget for the programming period 2021-2027 as well as the risks involved in the still-ongoing negotiations.

What are your expectations from the new European Commission?

I hope that this Commission will be a Commission committed to Cohesion. We auditioned Commissioner-elect Elisa Ferreira, and the REGI committee expressed its ambitions. Now more than ever, the European Union needs Cohesion. Territorial and social cohesion is the best vaccine against dislocation. And what we say to President-elect Von der Leyen, is that if she has an ambition for Europe, she must have an ambition for Cohesion.

This means that, firstly, we want the Commission on our side in the battle for an ambitious budget for Cohesion. We cannot accept cuts, as considered by a few. It’s an immediate battle, we are all mobilized. The European Parliament has a position, and we will go all the way to reject these cuts. Why? Because we cannot sacrifice traditional policies, such as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) or Cohesion Policy for the funding of new priorities or new policies. Europe must have a political budget that is “combative”, and must reflect the results of the European elections. It is not possible to create a new dynamic if we reduce the budget. On the contrary, by lowering the budget of the CAP and Cohesion, the heads of state would give credit to europhobes and nationalists. This is the exact opposite of what should be done.

Secondly, what we are saying is that we are facing new challenges and in particular the necessary energy transition. Cohesion policy can contribute to this objective. The regions must abandon all types of fossil fuels, notably coal, and move towards renewable energies, but this goal can only be achieved if we have additional funds. I am very attached to this new just transition fund. We must accompany the regions in this transition and compensate for the social and economic costs. And new objectives and policies have to come with new additional fundings.

What we also expect from the European Commission is a new urban ambition. This is why I proposed to Vice President Timmermans, in the framework of the New Green Deal, a great plan of afforestation and revitalization of cities: planting millions of trees in European cities. This will constitute an opportunity to mitigate the effects in times of heatwaves, recreate ecosystems and improve the quality of air. It is a challenge in every European city.

Furthermore, we expect a new strategy for the islands, a White Paper for the islands, as islands are facing specific difficulties: a very narrow market, geographical isolation and particular characteristics that would justify specific, adapted measures.

Lastly, since President-elect Von der Leyen said she’s “for the right of initiative of the Parliament”, we expect the European Commission to deliver on this promise. She could for instance start by following up on reports already voted by the European Parliament. The REGI committee alone had initiated many reports and initiatives, most of which remained “dead letters”.

Our message is clear: “Here’s your base for work, a well of ideas, of proposals. Translate them into regulations”.

The Parliament says it will accept no cuts to the Cohesion budget, but the member states seem to have no intention of changing the Commission’s proposal. How hard are you ready to fight for this? Do you think all the political groups will remain aligned until the end?

Yes, I believe so. This will be the case at least for our REGI committee. It is very interesting to see that despite party boundaries, political differences, we all defend Cohesion and a strong budget for Cohesion. Almost all of us. This is very important, and this is why we had a very strong position in the plenary. We are able to overcome partisan divisions on specific goals; we are in a way activists for Cohesion. And the European Parliament has always been a friend to Cohesion.

The problem is in the Council. There, I expect that, first of all, France and President Macron will defend Cohesion. Germany should too, with at least the same energy as they defend the CAP. Because as much as we need a strong CAP, we also need a strong Cohesion Policy: these two are related.

We will try, through our political positions, but also using the balance of power, to weigh in the negotiation. Although a negotiation remains a negotiation, we are two, and we do not decide alone. The European Parliament is a stronger Parliament today than before, it has shown its strength by rejecting Mrs. Goulard, granted Mrs von der Leyen a tough election with a margin of only nine votes, and it certainly doesn’t appear ready to accept just anything. Moreover, on the budget issue, the members of the BUDG committee have made clear they will say no to a bad budget.

On the rest of the negotiations, I believe that there is a shared desire for making progress. The Council and the European Parliament are trying to work on solutions that are as pragmatic as possible, as simple as possible so that the programming for the period 2021-2027 can be done in the most efficient way possible. There are sometimes differences of approach, but I think we will be able to overcome them.

The most complicated aspect is the resources because without means we cannot do anything. So do not tell us that “we can do better with less”. It is not possible. Less money, in fact, means less support for local government and local projects, less for SMEs, less Erasmus exchanges, less funding for infrastructure, and bigger territorial fractures.

Islands have never been a top priority for regional policy. Is this going to change?

The islands are the big issue of this century. As we saw in the climate negotiations, the islands are unavoidable. Indeed, it is in the islands that we see the concentration of all current global challenges: energy, the question of the ocean, biodiversity, supply of food, water, waste management, and so on. In addition, we can demonstrate that it is possible to bring new solutions to the islands. We can, for instance, reach energy autonomy much more easily. This particularly true for European islands. We can thus give an example to all the elected representatives of the world: 75%-80% of ACP countries are indeed island countries.

Therefore, the European Union must understand that the islands are a considerable force on their own. Of course, islands have limitations, but in this new world, being an island is also an asset. When meeting President-elect Von der Leyen, I will let her consider the launching of a great oceanic ambition, because this century will be that of oceans. In the deep oceans, you have, by no doubt, the answers to the food challenges, as well as to the energy challenges. Oceans certainly are a new frontier for humanity; it is time to launch a great ambition for the oceans, just as Europe launched its great ambition for space.

We have to make up for the delay we have in relation to other major powers. European islands should be placed again at the very heart of the European project. This will not be just about defending our small interests, as the European Union as a whole will benefit from this.

We cannot just manage the existing matters. The world is changing rapidly. Europe must bring new ambitions, push the boundaries. And the situation is already difficult with Brexit, with the rise of nationalism and euroscepticism. We must certainly not mourn new ideas and ambitions.

You come from an Outermost Region. Outermost regions secured a number of benefits through Cohesion Policy. Do you think the Greek islands should get a similar status?

The outermost regions are covered in the Treaties by Article 349, which allows them to have derogatory policies. In my opinion, there is a common front of challenges and problems concerning both the European islands and the outermost islands.

Article 174 TFUE guarantees the specific situation of islands. Article 174 has to be given its greatest force in the regulations, and as chair of the trilogues, I do just that. There is a number of proposals from the Islands Commission and the CPMR, which we take into consideration and translate them together with the co-rapporteurs, in a strong defense of these positions in the regulations. This is very important.

However, beyond that, we must start by having a White Paper for the islands. The principle of insularity must be assumed in all policies; not only in regional policy. The same goes for competition policy, in relation to state aid; this principle must be undertaken and be allowed to advance differently.

Commissioner-elect Ferreira said she wanted tailor-made measures. Well, you need tailor-made measures for the islands. Because the problems of the Greek islands, for example, are not the same as those of the regions that are situated in the continent. It’s not the same at all. Islands, as we have seen, have often been more impacted by the crises for a number of reasons.

Furthermore, there is tourism, where adapted policies are clearly needed as well. I think we need to eliminate the competition between the regions: mountain regions, sparsely populated regions, island regions, outermost regions. There is a common battle. Secondly, we must move forward together: peripheral regions, continental islands, and outermost islands. And we will take a number of initiatives together.

The Commission needs to hear that there is a unity of action and combat. We will be stronger together with the islands in Italy, Greece, Croatia, etc., and that is exactly what I will say to my fellow presidents of outermost regions. We are stronger in the European Council, and we are stronger in the European Parliament. So we have to move forward together.

You are fighting for INTERREG Europe and URBACT to be maintained. But there is a financial gap of 500 million euros. Where do you think this money can come from if the budget is not increased?

I am not of this point of view. For the time being. At the moment we are still fighting.

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