Regions confused by proposed Cohesion reforms

EU regional policy boss Corina Cretu and Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker. [European Commission]

Networks of European regions and cities remain puzzled by the “mixed messages” sent from the presentation of the legislative package for Cohesion on Tuesday (29 May), where they heard Commission proposals to focus more on southern Europe and to apply significant changes in the structure of Cohesion Policy Funds.

The cuts are considered to be disproportionate but the Commission’s proposal to maintain the three categories of regions, based on their economic growth, is seen as a positive step, in addition to simplification. This means that in the long-term all regions are eligible for financial support, while procedures will be simpler and quicker to execute.

However, regions are concerned about the proposed reform and possible centralisation of the European Social Fund (ESF), as that would impede regions from the direct decision-making process and the representative allocation of the bloc’s money. Losing the territorial dimension would create obstacles for the ESF to support social, economic and territorial cohesion.

“We welcome the Commission’s proposal of a cohesion policy for all regions and a more tailored approach to regional development, keeping the three categories of regions. The intention to continue upholding the partnership principle and multi-level governance approach and the commitment to simpler and more flexible rules to access and manage cohesion policy funds are also welcomed,” Magnus Berntsson, president of the Assembly of European Regions (AER), told EURACTIV.

“However, we are disappointed that the European Social Fund is excluded from cohesion funds under the Commission’s proposal. The significant question is whether this will enable the framework to effectively deliver on the economic, social and territorial cohesion objective of the Union. We fear it won’t”, he added.

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Urban complexity still remains an issue as it cannot be tackled effectively without regional authorities’ taking part in policy-shaping and without a flexibility that will take into account the long-term issues and possible benefits for regions and cities.

“It is clearly disappointing that the Commission’s proposals fail to recognise this and only marginally increase the ‘urban’ earmarking,” said Anna Lisa Boni, EUROCITIES secretary general.

She said the local impact of cohesion policy on cities will depend on whether the cities can be “meaningfully involved in shaping programme priorities” and on urban strategies being able to draw support from both ERDF and ESF+.

Organisations like the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions (CPMR) and AER focus also on the issue that structural and investment funds resources may be transferred to the InvestEU, a new instrument that once again does not focus on social, economic and territorial cohesion.

“We have serious concerns about the possibility for member states to transfer part of their cohesion policy resources to the new InvestEU fund. The moves to centralise EU funds are unacceptable”, Berntsson added.

Maritime regions “forgotten”

The elimination of maritime cross-border cooperation programmes is seen as punishment by member states and the related regions, because of their geographical position.

“Regional inequalities are rising across Europe. Cohesion policy remains the only European Policy to address and bridge inequalities on the ground. Today’s proposal fails to promote untapped regional potential and instead seems to penalise maritime regions and break up the policy by stripping out the territorial dimension of the ESF,” Eleni Marianou, Secretary General of CPMR commented in a written statement.

She called on the European Parliament and the Council to act swiftly “to safeguard the future prosperity of Europe and its territories”.

CPMR is also concerned about the Commission’s proposal to link further Cohesion policy with the European Semester, as that would divert the policy from its initial Treaty objectives and lead to Cohesion funds being used to promote structural reforms in areas with no regional relevance.

CPMR President Vasco Cordeiro added: “First, the Commission proposed on 2 May to cut Cohesion policy by 10% in real terms. Now the Cohesion policy proposal substantially reduces the contribution EU funding makes to co-financing. This means a double reduction of the policy’s funds and a double burden for regions and member states working to achieve social, economic and territorial cohesion”.

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