Building the next generation of macro-regions

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of PLC.

Macro-regions have not fully delivered the results promised. Part of the problem lays in the fact that their existence was based on a so-called ‘3 NOs rule’ [Shutterstock]

The time has come to consider equipping EU macro-regional strategies with dedicated means, structures, and rules to make them deliver, write Francesco Molica and Nikos Lampropoulos.

Francesco Molica and Nikos Lampropoulos are the founders of the Cohesion Policy Observatory. Nikos Lampropoulos is the director of EURACTIV Greece.

Globalisation makes territories and their problems more interdependent than ever requiring collective responses across the border. Macro-regional strategies provide an ideal platform to coordinate efforts at political, administrative and operative level. They lead to a deeper economic, social and territorial cohesion, which is in turn instrumental to cement the European Union.

Since 2009, four macro-regional strategies have come into being, involving 19 EU countries (and 8 non-EU countries) and tens of regional and local authorities: the Strategy for the Adriatic and Ionian Region, the Strategy for the Alpine Region, the Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region, and the Strategy for the Danube Region.

It was an ambitious move by the European Commission to set up these unique integrated frameworks to foster multilevel institutional cooperation on common issues in a defined geographical area of the EU. Indeed, such initiatives have considerably raised interest in EU debates over policies and governance.

However, despite its inspiring concept, macro-regions have not fully delivered the results promised in the areas where they were implemented. Part of the problem lies in the fact that their existence was based on the so-called ‘3 NOs rule’ (no new EU funds, no additional EU formal structures and no new EU legislation).

Speaking from a communication point of view, 3 NOs cannot be the answer to a problem, and it is not exactly a wording that would inspire cooperation, exchanges and common investments. Moreover, since this rule actually excludes strategies from new dedicated funding, legislation, and institutions, it means they have to resort to the existing means, which are not always the best suited for their purpose.

This constraint has partially contributed to the emergence of challenges in terms of ensuring an adequate level of political commitment to the strategies, increasing their ownership among citizens, clarifying the governance, making enough resources available and identifying more strategic projects.

In spite of this, macro-regional strategies have managed to foster cooperation and bring different stakeholders to the table. The idea to address globalisation and common problems through a more integrated tool for cooperation proved to be a very strong lead.

Yet the time has come for a new edition of the macro-regional strategies, which will perhaps be less ambitious in targets but more generous in providing tools to their members to implement their goals.

To be straightforward, a review of the ‘3 NOs principle’ looks inevitable. Therefore, the post-2020 cohesion policy should go beyond this rule. The main question is ‘how”.

Whip without carrot

First, the ‘no’ to additional funding. Up to now, the European Commission has required macro-regional strategies to be financed through existing EU-funded territorial cooperation programmes or regional operational programmes (on top of national funds).

Although regulations demanded to specify how these programmes would support the priorities of the strategies, in practice this worked only to a limited extent. Regions and member states felt they were burdened with one more policy to be supported by the programmes’ funding. In many instances, priorities and requirements of the strategies did not match with those of these programmes.

As a result, in many cases, the strategies could not raise enough funding or get enough commitment from programmes’ authorities. More results could be achieved if resources are pulled together in a more structured way.

This might also be achieved without fresh funding. A solution could be to either merge the strategies with territorial cooperation programmes – in order to match one programme for each strategy – and/or ring-fence resources in EU-funded operational programmes managed by member states/regions involved in the strategy.

More structure is needed

Second, the main problem with macro-regional strategies is that, although their concept is quite concrete, their structure is too vague. This has resulted in multiple issues with governance and management, which could be partially tackled by revising the prohibition to equip strategies with dedicated administrative structures and specific regulations.

The Commission should allow each macro-regional strategy to have a permanent secretariat (on the model of that supporting the Union for the Mediterranean) administrated by its members and with a clear mandate. In order to minimise the costs, a large share of the staff could come from the technical secretariats of the existing territorial cooperation programmes.  

Likewise, the ‘no’ to specific rules is pointless. Provided that it does not add a new layer of complexity, a dedicated regulation could help clarify a lot of ambiguities regarding the governance and management of strategies.

Territorial cooperation

For more than thirty years, territorial cooperation programmes have been contributing to shoring up the EU project. Macro-regional strategies can really become the capping stone of this process, a step forward for the EU.

But they could also drift towards irrelevance if the Commission and member states do not show resolve in providing them with adequate means and inputs.