The European Commission will soon present its legislative proposal for the future of EU cohesion policy, in the context of negotiations for a new long-term budget. But in order to define new financing instruments, it is important to understand if the existing ones worked or not.
How to simplify access to European Structural and Investment Funds and have control over their use has been a long-lasting problem and the new MFF will be no exception.
Addressing the Committee of the Regions last October, Corina Creţu, Commissioner for Regional Policy upheld simplification as one of the major pillars for future EU cohesion policy, both on access to funds and auditing of how those funds were used.
“We need a genuine single rulebook where similar projects are governed by the same rules. And a single set of rules for the structural funds, with a minimum set of fund-specific rules. And, yes, let’s be ambitious, a single fund for economic, social and territorial development. This would facilitate coordination across funding sources. And the same goes for audit”, Creţu underlined at the time.
And beneficiaries agree. In a position paper published last June, the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR) defended that “Cohesion Policy must be made a simple, readable and mobilising policy for all the actors present in the territories. It should not be too complicated in terms of administration and control”.
What works, what needs to improve
Upon request from the European Parliament, the European Policies Research Centre of the University of Strathclyde has produced research on ‘Control and simplification of the procedures within the European Fund for Strategic Investment (ESFI)’. It aims to assess audit and control systems for the period 2014-2020, as well as to provide recommendations ahead of the negotiation for a new EU Cohesion policy.
Simplification is a major concern when it comes to control and audit. Nevertheless, an important part of the complexity lies outside the sphere of Cohesion Policy. “A significant problem is the lack of stability and consistency in regulatory frameworks”, the text highlighted.
However, the Parliament acknowledges and the study confirms, that the efforts for simplification have not always been effective in reducing complexity and red tape.
For instance, while one of the aims of the designation process was to increase the scope for simplification, “many member states opted to have a ‘heavier’ approach” because they were concerned that future audits and controls would identify errors, the research said.
“It is not unusual for managing authorities and beneficiaries to endure successive audits from different audit bodies, in the same funding period and for the same activities”, EU Commissioner Corina Creţu said.
Therefore, CEMR called in a white paper for a “simplification of the content and a reduction of the number of rules and delegated acts of control and audit”. This, CEMR argues, would increase legal certainty.
“Controls should play a supportive role to improve the implementation of the Funds, by lowering the administrative burden, speeding up the implementation and making EU funds more effective”, not the other way round, CEMR said.
Another major issue for the expiring projects is efficiency. The current ESIF has worked on decreasing errors and irregularities but the costs of both control and audit system are still problematic.
The research argues harmonisation across services of the Commission is a way forward. “Genuine simplification must begin with greater harmonisation of rules across the Commission services, funds and instruments”, it shows.
Last month, the Council called on the Commission to “work towards a simpler system of indicators with harmonised methodology, terminology and definitions, which would allow easier collection of data to assess the performance of cohesion policy and the ESI Funds while simplifying reporting”.
The need for more flexibility is another important objective in trying to achieve a simpler future cohesion policy.
However, this will only work if the EU executive also puts more energy into capacity building and trust building at the beneficiary level, the research said.
Different beneficiaries have different capacities and the programmes can vary in terms of budget or thematic scope. Therefore, there should be flexibility in adapting the regulation to different contexts, it concluded.