As the EU faces the deepest recession in its history, the bloc’s long-contested Cohesion Policy – its regional development tool – has now become central to the recovery plan. EURACTIV spoke about it with the President of the European Committee of the Regions, Apostolos Tzitzikostas.
Tzitzikostas argued that “the value of Cohesion Policy was proven during the crisis” and defended the European Commission’s budget proposal which incorporates most of the CoR’s demands. “We are on the right track,” he says.
The COVID-19 outbreak has affected different regions and cities unevenly. Do you think the European Commission proposal for a recovery plan reflects this reality?
Yes, it does. We really welcome the Commission for the recovery plans and the MFF (Multiannual Financial Framework), since they incorporate many key elements that the Committee of the Regions has worked throughout this time. And to be honest with you, they also provide a clear answer to the populists and the eurosceptics about how Europe can respond to this kind of crisis and how the people of Europe can receive European assistance during those times.
We have recovery funds of at least €500 billion, a new health program, there is a strengthening of the cohesion policy which is very important – €373 billion and €90 billion for Rural Development – and we have concrete responses on vital sectors such as tourism, culture, SMEs. We are on the right track.
Do you think the role of cities and regions is fully recognised when it comes to the management of the funds in the proposal?
There is one big challenge, which is to avoid centralisation. We want member states and the European Parliament to act quickly. We need to adopt these measures the fastest possible so that we can tackle the crisis, especially the financial that is coming after the health crisis.
But we should not forget that centralisation is a danger and we will insist that regions and cities continue to play a greater role in this process. If we want to bring Europe closer to the people, if we want to bring the people closer to Europe, we need to decentralise, and decentralisation can only work having regions and cities being the major actors.
One of the challenges in the use of EU grants is often the administrative burden. Has this been addressed in your opinion?
There have been some concrete steps towards easing the procedures, reducing the bureaucracy, but we still need to continue on this track. A key element in such cases of crisis is to have a quick response. Quick responses can only come with less bureaucracy.
There is a big debate around the criteria for the allocation of the recovery fund. Are you concerned it could benefit regions that had structural problems instead of those hard-hit by the crisis?
No, the criteria, in my opinion, are correct. We know what the plan is and where the money will go, the countries that were hit by the health issue.
I would rather put on the table the danger of the centralisation and the fact that we might not move as quickly as we need to respond to the crisis. If we keep decentralised and quick, efficient, we have absolutely nothing to be afraid of because the criteria put by the Commission are correct.
A few months ago, the debate was around how much should Cohesion funds be cut. Today, they have become a key element for recovery.
The added value of the Cohesion Policy was proven during the crisis. The strongest message that can be taken out of this health and financial crisis is that cohesion is necessary.
Without Cohesion, Europe cannot stand, cannot respond to the issues and the crisis that we are facing. I think this was clear even for the people or the institutions who were less supportive of cohesion. Unfortunately, it came to be a reality because of a crisis.
The Just Transition Fund has been reinforced in the Commission’s proposed recovery plan but some worry that it is now too wide to address the challenges of the green transformation. Do you share these concerns?
The just transition fund is needed for the regions that have issues with keeping pace with all the rest of the regions, cities and countries of the EU vis a vis the Green Deal and the green transition, which is a top priority for Europe.
The fund is needed in order to make the transition for these regions, cities and states smoother towards a greener economy; a long-standing demand from the CoR. And it was designed to reduce the social and economic costs of this energy transition.
If it is increased to €40 billion, this fund can really make a difference. The main challenge for us all is to ensure that these funds will reach the people in need on time.
EU leaders are meeting in a couple of weeks to discuss the recovery plan. How do you see the negotiation given the important differences between the countries’ positions?
I’m very positive that there will be an agreement on 17, 18 July. European leaders do realise we need to recover from this huge health and financial crisis. We cannot move forward without an MFF and a concrete plan to boost our economies. This is something that the member states understand, and I expect they will set aside the slight differences in their points of views to finally reach an agreement.
If there is no agreement, there has to be some green light to start using those funds in order to secure the local economies, the regional economies and the national economies, so that, in the end, the European economy can continue to stand.
(Edited by Frédéric Simon)