Treating COVID ‘symptoms’ without facing past may risk green future of regions

Treating COVID "symptoms" without facing past may risk green future [Shutterstock/Sonis Photography]

Many EU governments appear to be ignoring regional and local authorities in the design of their national recovery plans, and they risk uneven recovery and slower green transition if existing issues in most vulnerable regions are disregarded, experts say.

“Those existing vulnerabilities in the most disadvantaged places will influence the recovery progress. For more developed regions, we know that they are going to be better able to accelerate, and to recover faster, so we risk an uneven recovery,” said Alison Hunter, senior adviser on regional policy at the European Policy Centre.

At the Brussels-based think tank’s event on Tuesday (2 February), Hunter emphasised the importance of regional and national reforms, which “have to be first of all about responding to COVID before we can talk about rebuilding green recovery. This is not necessarily a very popular view, because we talk about a green recovery.”

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“My own take on this is that we’re not going to get there, for these disadvantaged regions, we need to respond to what is facing them on the ground now,” she added, pointing out that the primary obstacle is a lack of bottom-up evidence base of realities on the ground.

“Some of that is because frankly the member states are not necessarily listening … and some of it is actually because regions are not able, they don’t quite have the capacity to get that evidence piece into place.”

Hunte said that we have already seen “the political fallout, in places like Italy and Spain, when there is money coming your way but you don’t quite know what to do with it or you don’t wait more with targeting those priorities”.

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David Minton, director of Northern & Western regional assembly in Ireland that coordinates EU structural funds programming, warned that “we’re going to be confronted with a choice whether to only treat the symptoms of the existing pandemic, but also the mistakes of the past, or we’re going to take the opportunity and create a paradigm shift to prepare against future shocks”.

Ireland’s northern-western region is experiencing lower growth levels and was recently downgraded from a developed to a transition region by the Commission, the only such region in Ireland.

According to Minton, “poor regions are poor not because they have, I suppose, large numbers of poor people but because they have small numbers of high-income people. And this is something that we really need to try and address.”

He said his region is now pursuing an “aggressive smart specialisation approach” in an effort to build on and exploit existing investments in digital innovation hubs and data analytics initiatives, to boost innovation with a view of creating and maintaining high-level jobs.

Speed vs local governance

Hunter said it is very likely that member states will retain “a very tight grip” on recovery plan reins, “and I think that remains inevitable for the foreseeable future.”

She said we need to “accelerate the efforts to get the plans into place to get them submitted…but in doing that, we perhaps risk this bottom-up response and a bottom-up evidence base”.

National governments have so far barely consulted their subnational counterparts while putting together recovery plans to be submitted to the European Commission by April, according to a survey published at the end of January.

The survey was commissioned by the Committee of the Regions, a 329 member-strong advisory body made up of regionally or locally elected politicians, and the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR).

Twelve local and regional authorities said they were not at all involved in the definition of the overall priorities and objectives of the so-called recovery and resilience plans, and only four reported that they had a real impact on the outcome, out of 25 organisations representing a variety of subnational government levels across 19 EU countries.

Functional territory

“I think it’s time to go away from generic statements. We know that there are different needs everywhere, and [we need to] look concretely at concrete territories,” said Normunds Popens, deputy director-general for the European Commission’s regional policy department.

He highlighted the concept of ‘functional territory’.

“We should not see everybody in isolation, more and more we talk about, and we want to support more and more, cooperation between different administrative territories.”

“We know that the rural areas cannot survive without cities that are close to them and vice versa. There is this functionalism inbuilt in the way that Europe functions and we need to support that and again think in that context,” he added.

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[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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