Cre?u: Greece must make the most of EU cohesion funds

Corina Cre?u, die Kommissarin für Regionalpolitik Foto: EC

The absorption rate for Greece stands well above the EU average. All efforts should be made to make the most out of the remaining allocation before the end of the year, Regional Policy Commissioner Corina Cre?u told EURACTIV Greece in an exclusive interview.

Before being elected as Commissioner, Corina Cre?u was Vice President of the European Parliament and Vice President of the Social Democratic Party of Romania.

She spoke to EURACTIV Greece’s Sarantis Michalopoulos.

What is your opinion regarding the Juncker Plan? Regions argue that it is taking money from structural funds and offers them back to the most developed regions/states that are more prepared to absorb them. Do you share these fears?

The Juncker Commission’s number one priority is to bring back growth and jobs in Europe, and the Investment Plan for Europe is the concrete way to get there; this is a precious opportunity that directly benefits European people and businesses.

Cohesion policy and the Investment Plan for Europe have the common goal to generate public and private investment in key strategic areas such as support to SMEs, energy efficiency, digital infrastructure and R&D.

The European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI), which is at the heart of the Investment Plan for Europe, and the European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) have different purposes and are implemented with different financial instruments.

European Structural and Investment Funds will continue to invest in all European regions with the aim of reducing disparities between them and of helping them capitalize on their assets.

Are you satisfied with the absorption of the structural funds in Greece? Your decision to set up a task force means that the Greek authorities didn’t perform as expected?

The absorption rate for Greece stands well beyond EU average. It is at 90%, while the average for EU member states is around 82%. Greece is therefore in the top 10 countries regarding the implementation of 2007-2013 programmes.

Nevertheless, all efforts should be made to make the most out of the remaining allocation before the end of the year. December 2015 marks the end of the expenditure eligibility period of the 2007-13 programmes. Therefore, the challenge for Greece is now to complete as many projects as possible by that time, avoiding putting the burden on the national budget after the end of this year. The Commission’s services are working very closely with the Greek authorities to support them.

To this end we decided, on 21 May 2015, to set up a Joint Working Group between the European Commission and the Greek Government to make the most of Cohesion Policy funds. The Joint Working Group will support Greece make the most out of Cohesion Policy investments for the 2007-2013 period. The Group will analyse the key factors affecting implementation, identify tailor-made solutions and draw valuable lessons for the 2014-2020 programming period.

How do you envisage transnational cooperation in the next 5 years? Which areas are you intending to focus on?

The 16 Interreg programmes of Transnational Cooperation are following the thematic objective approach introduced by the reformed Cohesion Policy for 2014-2020. These programmes will therefore focus on preserving the environment, on fostering research, technological development and innovation, on boosting the competitiveness of SMEs and on supporting the shift towards a low-carbon economy. They will also focus on building sustainable transport infrastructure and, finally, on ensuring good and efficient administrative and institutional capacity. The latter also includes support to the governance of the relevant macro-regional strategies.

The new programming period is very much focusing on public-private synergies. Is it possible though to convince an investor to put his money in Greece in times of crisis and uncertainty?

In times of limited public resources, it is normal to look for synergies with private funding. This is also the aim of the new Investment plan for Europe.

For Greece, as the market conditions are likely to remain challenging in the near future and thus access to finance, in particular for start–ups, to remain difficult, support to SMEs and the search for alternative funding sources should be our priorities.

We would like to further promote alternative financing sources for start-ups and early stage companies, as they are drivers for innovation and competitiveness and contribute to the creation of sustainable growth and of quality jobs.

Stimulating entrepreneurship should be a strategic priority for the country. Together with the promotion of innovation and the fight against unemployment – in particular youth unemployment – they constitute the main levers for a successful strategy to rebuild the Greek economy and to transform the productive model of the country.

I want to underline the huge potential of the use of financial instruments in Cohesion Policy investments. These instruments, such as loans, equity and guarantees, have proven to be able to deliver support to the real economy and could generate significant additional investments in the years to come. The aim is to use them twice as much as in 2007-2013, and we are here to support the Managing Authorities in the uptake of these opportunities.

Their use is also a way to secure revolving funds, which are expected to stay in the programme area for future use and to help attract coveted private sector support and financing.

4 out of 13 of Greece’s regions are islands, and 3 more regions have islands within their territory. Do you feel that the Commission should examine the possibility of special treatment for such areas? (exceptions in the Regulation, extra funding etc)

In preparation for 2014-2020 period, the Commission has been closely involved in the Territorial Agenda 2020 process, the RURBAN preparatory action initiated by the European Parliament, as well as in the study Relevance and the effectiveness of ERDF and Cohesion Fund support to Regions with Specific geographical Features – Islands, Mountainous and Sparsely Populated areas, which have influenced the current Cohesion Policy framework.

The focus on territorial specificities in Cohesion Policy has therefore been considerably strengthened for the 2014-2020 period.

The regulatory framework for Cohesion Policy and the Common Strategic Framework in particular require member states to ensure that the programming approach reflects key territorial challenges.

I also want to underline that the co-financing rate from the European Structural and Investment Funds to a priority axis can be modulated to take account of areas with severe and permanent natural or demographic handicaps, where islands are also referred to.

In the 2014-2020 programming period, the Greek Partnership Agreement sets up an integrated strategy for islands, focusing on reinforcing their competitiveness, protecting the environment and mitigating the impact of remoteness. The main objective is to make these islands great places to live and work.

The regions of North and South Aegean, Ionian Islands and Crete will have their own Operational Programmes which aim to reverse the consequences of insularity. The main challenge is to ensure connectivity and accessibility. Regions need to make the best use of the available budget and select the most appropriate projects in order to enhance regional competitiveness, create jobs and ensure a sustainable use of resources.

We will closely follow the implementation of the Operational Programmes and their results. However, the main responsibility for implementation lies with the regional authorities and this needs a careful preparation. Investments, and in particular infrastructures, without any particular added value for the development of the islands, such as additional ports, should be avoided.

Furthermore, I strongly encourage further synergies between the European Structural and Investment Funds as well as with other EU policies, in order to address these specific challenges in the most efficient way.

What are the Commission’s plans for EUSAIR, and the EU Strategy for the Adriatic and Ionian Region? Are you planning to evaluate or follow a similar policy in the Eastern Mediterranean?

The Adriatic and Ionian macro-regional strategy is Greece’s strategic link with the Western Balkans and Italy. It must be supported at political level by all means. By working together, we can achieve more than each region or country alone.

The participating countries are the owners of the macro-regional strategies. We, in the Commission, facilitate strategic coordination where our involvement brings a clear added value. Now EUSAIR’s stakeholders are focused on making the strategy operational by finalising the governance mechanism at political level, with the Governing Board, and at operational level one, with the Thematic Steering Group. The mechanism should be fully operational by the end of 2015 and should start identifying concrete actions, projects and their funding sources.

We are now in the process of adopting the fourth macro-regional strategy for the Alpine regions. At this stage, there is no plan to develop a similar policy in the Eastern Mediterranean; we will first focus on the success of the existing macro regional strategies.

It seems there is a delay in launching the new programming period both at the national (Greece) and EU level (INTERREG programs). Do you think this is due to national administration? Does the executive needs to speed up its procedures?

2014 was a year of hard preparatory work and success. The Partnership Agreement and 18 Cohesion Policy programmes were adopted. 15 billion euros from the European Regional Development Fund, the Cohesion Fund and the European Social Fund are ready to be invested to boost economic growth and improve the quality of the citizens’ everyday life.

Now, the first priority is to join forces and deliver. Greece has made considerable progress in adopting legal acts that ensure smooth transition from one programming period to another. Efforts should continue to complete this exercise. To this end, the first meeting of the Monitoring Committees of each programme is expected to be held in June in order to adopt the specialisation and selection criteria for the interventions. Specific attention should be given to the fulfillment of the ex-ante conditionalities which would ensure the swift launch of the corresponding investment priorities. Moreover, more efforts should be made for further simplification of the administrative and legal framework governing the main categories of projects. This simplification exercise is to avoid those steps creating additional and unjustified cost and delays, without downgrading the quality and safety of the projects.

There is no delay in the INTERREG programmes or in the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance-Cross Border Cooperation (IPA-CBC) programmes managed by Greece. The programming process of the new Balkan-Mediterranean Transnational Programme – decided only at the end of 2013 – is in an advanced stage and there is no delay on the Managing Authority`s nor on the Commission`s side. The same applies to the IPA-CBC Greece-the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and IPA-CBC Greece-Albania. Both programmes were submitted on time to the Commission, and their adoption is expected for the summer 2015.

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