Czech Regions VP: Cohesion policy must serve citizens

Czech and Slovak national delegations to the European Committee of the Regions (CoR) recently presented a joint opinion on the future of cohesion policy after 2020, in which they set out seven common principles and priorities for the next programming period:

  • Cohesion policy should above all be a regional policy
  • Grants should be the primary instrument of cohesion policy
  • Cohesion policy should be exempted from the state aid rules
  • Preventing multiple inspections and retroactivity of findings
  • Flexibility in meeting objectives
  • Support for public infrastructure

EURACTIV Slovakia Editor Andrej Furik spoke with Petr Osvald, the head of the Czech delegation and first vice-president of the CoR’s Commission for territorial cohesion policy and EU budget (COTER), who explained the reasons behind this opinion and the main challenges facing cohesion policy in the EU today.

What should the EU’s cohesion policy look like after 2020? What are the main challenges?

Cohesion policy should primarily be a regional policy. This is what I consider to be the major challenge for the future. It should primarily help cities, towns and regions in their development, it should help solve their problems and shortcomings. This, however, needs to go hand in hand with its simplification. Cohesion policy must not be mired in complicated processes and reporting, but must first and foremost serve citizens.

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Why should cohesion policy be exempted from the state aid rules? What problems does it create?

Cohesion policy is already a form of state aid in itself, aimed at areas which it wants to develop and support. Hence, when we apply the state aid rules to it we go against its own principle.

The fact that a project is approved, means that it is necessary, and therefore that this state aid is necessary. Applying the same rules to cities, towns and regions, which are public bodies, as to businesses, which were established to make profit, is completely misguided.

Most of the time, the explanation is “It has to be like that“. But how can someone explain that, for example, projects under the so-called Juncker Plan are exempted from the state aid rules? What we are dealing with is for example whether we distorted the market and international trade by restoring benches in a border village amphitheater. But when several times higher funding is provided to a large private subject via the Juncker Plan, no one has to deal with state aid rules.

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What needs to change in order to make cross-border projects easier to carry out?

When you look at cross-border projects, you come across the same problem with state aid. By including cross-border cooperation directly under structural funding, same rules must be applied as with other EU funds. However, thematic concentration actually goes against the purpose of cross-border cooperation.

I believe cross-border cooperation should not directly serve to fulfil the 2020 strategy. It should create the conditions for its fulfilment. Different border areas have different needs and are at very different levels. Cross-border cooperation programmes should, therefore, be tailored to specific areas.

At the border between France and Luxembourg, you can perhaps concentrate on supporting science and research. But it is very difficult to apply the same approach in a mountainous border region, where you can find maybe just a shepherd and his dog.

How can we make the implementation of these projects easier?

First of all, we need a common sense approach, less templates and instructions. More trust and less suspicion. Audit and inspection authorities should not behave like the Inquisition. Rather, when they find something wrong, they should provide advice and help remove any potential mistakes.

This view is perhaps not going to be very popular, but today we are facing a dilemma, whether to simplify EU funds or “fight against corruption”. The vast majority of what made the cohesion policy much more complicated was, in fact, created under the label of “fighting corruption”.

We are now at a stage, when mayors and other potential applicants fear implementing projects, as they do not want to be subsequently investigated and degraded. The fight against corruption grew into something like a “religion”. Throughout history, however, many innocent heads have already fallen in the name of various religions.

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