Amsterdam mayor: Cities can play their part in Europe 2020 plan

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Local leaders must be given the freedom to create tailor-made solutions for making the 'Europe 2020' growth strategy work, but must likewise take more responsibility for this task, Lodewijk Asscher, acting Mayor of Amsterdam, told EURACTIV in an interview.

Lodewijk Asscher is the acting Mayor of Amsterdam.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

How have EU regional and structural funds impacted on Amsterdam? Describe your city's experience.

In my opinion the Structural Funds have seriously contributed to the situation in specific parts of the City of Amsterdam in the period 2000-2006. Together with the co-financing budgets from the city government and private partners, about 140 million euros have been invested in structural economic reform projects.

Even more money is likely to be invested in the present [2007-2013] ERDF (European Regional Development Fund) period: these are serious amounts which really can make a difference in the economic situation of city-neighbourhoods. The ERDF budget has often been the 'final push' for other partners to participate in the project.

In Amsterdam, there has been a substantial participation of private and other capital, about three local/private euro for every one euro of ERDF [funding]. The long programming period has also been beneficial, compared to local or national schemes: it takes time to make a change, and a 5-7 year programming period exceeds a four-year deputy-mayor's period.

Also – especially in the period 2000-2006 – there was a good response from the local communities: ERDF-funded projects took place very close to citizens and local SMEs. Many local partnerships have been set up and are still involved in other projects. Some innovative projects which started with European funding have developed faster compared to projects without EU funding.

On the other hand, Structural Funds have most impact when they are applied in synergy with national and regional funding policies: therefore National and Regional or Local Governments should be able to choose which goals of Europe 2020 should be their main focus, e.g. by earmarking.

What problems, if any, have project leaders and managing authorities in your city experienced in absorbing cohesion funds?

In the 2000-2006 ERDF period Amsterdam started by building a strong programme management structure, following the rules of the Commission when setting up methodologies and procedures. This was an effort which paid off as soon as the knowledge and experience were secured.

Of course improvements are possible, for example the simplification of the procedures: finding a better balance between risks and audit and control, applying simplified cost models more quickly and more easily, or the administrative burden of Article 55. We have the experience that providing sufficient hands-on and service-oriented guidance to new applicants is extremely important.

Although several promising steps have been taken already, there is still room for improvement in programme administrative procedures. However, this should start with multi-level governance, which is a key factor for the success of ERDF programmes. At the moment, in our regional ERDF programme we have entered an interesting experience in programme management, involving strong cooperation between three governance levels.

Four regions and four cities ('G4' cooperation) work closely together in this programme, which is led by one city (Rotterdam). We expect promising results both in quality of projects and impact, as in innovative approaches in programme management.

What is your assessment of new Regional Policy Commissioner Johannes Hahn? Has he identified the right priorities?

It is difficult to assess a new commissioner, but as I understand he wants to put the cohesion policy at the heart of EU 2020. The cohesion policy should cover all regions, as a catalyst. I agree with this view.

In addition, I have the impression that he recognises the urban dimension, the need for cities or urban areas to be involved in implementing the cohesion policy. The diversity between regions and cities in Europe cannot be ignored: there should be room for custom-made solutions.

He is also in favour of more flexibility for countries and regions to define the precise policy mix to reach those priorities, as suggested by experts in the High Level Group. In Amsterdam, as in many other cities in urban regions, contributions and solutions to the flagship initiatives of EU 2020 can be found. Amsterdam is a compact city and deals with energy efficiency, environmental congestion, social inclusion, migration and diversity issues.

A coherent and balanced approach and close cooperation between cities and the European Commission could enlarge the impact of cohesion policy. I prefer to speak in terms of urban areas: it is the density of problems and opportunities for solutions that make these areas interesting for effective policy developments.

I agree with Mr. Hahn that we need to capitalise on achievements of integrated development initiatives, (such as the URBAN Community Initiative) to ensure that cities and local authorities can play their part in achieving the objectives of Europe 2020. We intend to accept the invitation to start an active dialogue to define the role and the contributions of cities.

Do you believe the Europe 2020 strategy gives the regions enough prominence? Could the European Commission have gone further in making regions/local authorities a central stakeholder in the strategy?

EU 2020 is a strategic paper on a high level: it should however address the right issues for our future and address the right stakeholders. Strategic issues can only be effectively addressed if all territorial responsibilities are contributing to the same shared objectives. I think that the Commission has chosen the right way: start with the overall objectives of EU 2020 and the flagship initiatives.

This has to be the basic framework for all activities on other levels. However, in the later development of the strategy itself, urban areas could play a more prominent role: if the EU 2020 gives enough room for earmarking methodologies, for example, this could lead to a more tailor-made approach by cities and regions. The earmarking, however, could be more strict and focused on results in order to improve the impact of the strategy.

On the other hand, local policymakers should be more aware of their position, and take more notice of the EU2020 goals which fit their local priorities. Regions should not be the central stakeholder, but an important executive partner. Financial engineering and coherence between EU and both national and local funding programmes should also be promoted.

In my opinion the role and strengths of local authorities are not utilised to their full potential.  Local authorities cannot deliver interventions effectively if policies are imposed on them and are not based on their knowledge of local circumstances.

Do you think the priorities identified by Europe 2020 (which in turn are likely to become the priorities for earmarking regional funds after 2013) are the right ones? What could have been different or better?

We can support the priorities in EU 2020. Amsterdam has always been an international and hospitable city, and we need free movement of goods and talent. The main challenges for cities are in line with the EU 2020 focus, such as sustainable growth, employment, innovation, globalisation, the fight against climate change (with special attention to climate and energy with a focus on large-scale interventions in the existing housing stock in terms of energy efficiency and energy transition) and a better qualified labour force.

In our latest policy programme the main challenges for Amsterdam can be found in mobility, innovation and education, a sustainable environment and chances for inhabitants, visitors and entrepreneurs. We welcome the post-Lisbon objectives, and in our view cities have enormous potential for innovative solutions to these challenges, as we recently have put down in a leaflet on urban innovations together with our 'G4' partner cities Rotterdam, Utrecht and The Hague.

Safety, cultural values, diversity and youth are other crucial themes for Amsterdam, which relate to the flagship initiatives. For example, Amsterdam – like many other cities – is facing complex issues like the size of youth unemployment, too many drop-outs in the educational system, the integration issue – where we acted with a successful initiative on mobilising citizens themselves – or the struggle to create innovative eco-systems for new companies. Although EU 2020 seems to be far away from the people who deal with these issues daily, we have the task of bringing them together.

Where does your city stand in the debate on the future of EU regional/cohesion policy? What changes would you like to see brought in? Do you subscribe to the conclusions of the Barca report, for example?

Although not very visible, at present there is an open discussion between national, local and regional governments in The Netherlands on the EU 2020 strategy and the future of the structural funds. Recently we have finished a joint position paper on five issues: from simplification to the link between cohesion policy (and EU 2020) and governance. This position paper has been co-authored by four local cities, four regional governments and two national departments, which is quite unique. Amsterdam takes part in these discussions, because we know that all parties can benefit.

The priorities in the Barca report (innovation, climate change, migration and youth, skills and ageing) meet to a large part the ambitions of Amsterdam. However, some issues are more at stake than others, therefore earmarking could be a solution: it gives room for more local flexibility within the general EU 2020 framework. In our view future cohesion policy should take the following measures into account:

–          Use the potential of cities and strong local urban partnerships (local embedding)

–          Cohesion policy should focus on the EU2020 goals

–          Simplification is still needed

–          A more integrated approach of EU programmes

–          Use earmarking and financial engineering prudently

–          Pay attention to multi-level governance

Do you think the budget for EU regional/cohesion policy should remain at its current level beyond 2013 (approx. 33% of the combined EU budget)? Why?

It is understandable that in the next period 2013-2020 the financial priority will be focused on the poorest regions. We like to demand attention for the development of a fairer transition system, which meets the specific problems and opportunities of different (less or more developed) urban areas.

Amsterdam and other regional and local governments in The Netherlands are positive about the current use of structural funds and the concept of cohesion policy. Its methodology results in a leverage of economic and social development of regions and cities. Looking at the challenges we face and the complexity and interdependence of the issues in EU2020, the budget for regional policy therefore should remain on the present level at least.

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Measure co-financed by the European Union

This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication [communication] reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

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