EU regions chief: 2020 strategy must go local

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The EU's new strategy for growth and jobs will not succeed unless it maintains structural funds and gives regions real responsibility, according to outgoing Committee of the Regions (CoR) President Luc Van den Brande.

Flemish politician Luc van den Brande became president of the European Union's Committee of the Regions in February 2008.

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

Recent evidence suggests that transregional coordination still isn't happening, and multi-level governance (one of the main ambitions of the CoR) is still years away. What's your take on this?

Let's talk about it from the perspective of the Lisbon Strategy. I think we should avoid talking about it so negatively, that it failed and so on. The fact is: we needed a Lisbon Strategy, and it was correct to have a mid-term evaluation in 2005.

However, while the goals of the strategy were and remain good, targets can only be reached when everyone is on board. So we need the regions to have better coordination and better contribution as partners.

We have to be very careful not to have a top-down uniform regional policy that treats the north of Sweden the same way as Sicily. It would be an illusion to think, even when targets are global, that you can do things in the same way in such radically different places.

Secondly, the Union needs to create more interconnectedness between policies, and not behind closed doors: EU 2020 strategy, cohesion policy, framework programmes – all these require coordination and synergy.

To do this, we need to stop viewing the regions as middlemen, or subcontractors, and see them as actual contractors. Our research has shown that countries which followed the Lisbon Strategy objectives from a central plan without input from their regions are faring worse than those which consulted regional and urban communities.

This has been particularly true of some countries in central and eastern Europe, a problem I believe stems from the difficulties they had in moving to democracy from their very centralised Iron Curtain systems.

Likewise, some of the 'old EU' centralised countries such as France didn't do as well as other EU countries.

A December 2009 Eurobarometer indicated that EU citizens want more room, space and responsibility given to regional authorities. So what we need is what I call 'contractualisation' – contractual responsibility shared between multiple layers of governance.

Do you therefore think the failure of the Lisbon Strategy to adequately involve the regions and cities was the primary reason for it not succeeding?

It was one of the main reasons, but not the only one. To be very clear, it is also the responsibility of regions and cities to make these things work. Some regions didn't adequately take on these responsibilities.

We have examples of different regions undertaking almost identical projects, with identical funding, and some succeeded far better than others. So it's also a question of attitude, and structural reforms.

It needs to be recognised that the local, urban and regional levels are not only the first to confront problems such as migration, unemployment and climate change, but they are also the first to offer solutions.

This is why we initiated, for example, the Covenant of Mayors, where over 1,000 European mayors have committed to working together to tackle these issues.

Is the Lisbon Treaty the right vehicle to empower the regions further?

I think the institutional debate is now settled, for the next decade at least. So now the question is how we govern Europe. I think we need a different mindset.

When we know that so many people (18 million) are working at local and regional level, and one third of all public expenditure is related to urban and local communities; when we know that two thirds of public investment is directly linked to local and regional communities, then there has to be a mental readjustment to include these actors.

Lisbon is the treaty that gives us this framework.

Through, for example…?

"Territorial cohesion" is for the first time enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty as a fundamental objective of the EU. In fact, we already have excellent tools to work towards this goal, such as the European Grouping for Territorial Cooperation (EGTC), and the Inter-Reg programmes for trans-border cooperation.

But there's now also a new format, which I think will be important in sustaining the idea of trans-border cooperation, and that's regions without a common border working together. For example, a Spanish region (La Rioja) and a Polish region (Pomorskie) are currently working together.

So you believe that with the Lisbon Treaty, and provided that the regions show more initiative, for example in influencing the EU 2020 strategy, the EU will move towards genuine multi-level governance?

All I'm saying is that to achieve credibility with the decision-making powers in Europe, the regions have to first and foremost work on their own credibility. So I'm appealing for more "auto-responsibility" from regions and urban communities.

I think this will take time, but honestly speaking, in early 2010 I'm hearing throughout Europe that there is a real will and a shift to make these changes happen. My feeling is that there's an acknowledgement, at both regional and EU level, that the new EU 2020 strategy will only work if all levels of governance are involved.

I think the difference with the past Lisbon Strategy is that the regions are becoming more assertive and proactive. Cooperation was the buzzword in the past, but now we're talking about "contractualisation" – giving regions specific responsibilities and commitments to deliver results.

A brief illustration of this new attitude is the competition we instigated for a 'European Entrepreneurial Region of the Year'. Since we launched it in October 2009, we've had 31 applications for this award, with really strategic programmes competing with one another. This is the spirit we're looking for – demonstrating how regions can use their assets, bring them together, and develop them.

When you talk about contractualisation, and we look at the post-2013 future of regional policy, does that mean targets and benchmarks are inevitable?

Well, some people are saying that cohesion policy and structural funds are things from the past. I disagree.

Cohesion policy has to remain, for the basic progress of the Union. As a region, the better-performing your neighbour is, the better it is for you. We are firmly against what we call the "re-nationalisation" of cohesion policy, which some are calling for. That would be a step backwards.

But we have to be creative. We have to think about which financial means to provide for cohesion policy, and I believe that while we should maintain the existing subsidies system, we should also rethink fiscal measures to boost development in slow-developing regions.

What about the Spanish EU Presidency? Do you believe that Spain, as a highly regionalised country, will push for these changes and be a catalyst for a more dynamic regional policy?

I think it's a real opportunity. We pushed to have the Territorial Dialogue early this year to really get things moving, and don't forget that the Spanish will be followed by the Belgians, who are also likely to have a strong input into regional policy. It's important that we're having these two succeeding presidencies.

So the messages and talks coming from these two federal or regional member states will, I think, push for stronger regional involvement.

I don't want to say we have great expectations, but we have real expectations.

And new Regional Policy Commissioner Johannes Hahn? He has pledged to make regional policy goals a key aspect of the EU 2020 strategy – is that a realistic goal?

Two things: regional policy and cohesion policy as such has to be improved regardless of the new EU 2020 strategy. It is important to adjust it, to make it more flexible.

But it also needs to be one of the most important pillars of the new strategy. More than one third of the EU budget goes to structural funds and regional policy. It's probably one of the most tangible EU policies, and in terms of added value, it is a showcase for what the EU can bring to people's lives.

I believe Commissioner Hahn has given a very good impression. He was perhaps a little prudent in his hearing, but he comes from a country where regional responsibility is a fact, and I think he will push for these changes we have talked about. I am confident that not only he, but [European] Commission President [José Manuel] Barroso and French Internal Market Commissioner Michel Barnier are thinking along these lines, and have made strong commitments to the regions.

The EU 2020 will not work if it's not connected to the regions and cohesion policy.

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