The 'new' member states in Central and Eastern Europe are working together to coordinate their views on the reform of the EU's Cohesion Policy for the next seven-year period (2014-2020). Daniel Braun, a deputy minister in the Czech government, spoke to EURACTIV Czech Republic about the fruits of this close collaboration.
The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – the so-called 'Visegrad Four' or V4 countries– have been working closely to develop a common response to the Commission's proposals to reform EU regional spending.
Last November, their ministers met together with their counterparts from Bulgaria, Romania and Slovenia to coordinate their positions with regard to the reform of EU cohesion policy for the post-2013 period, when the EU's new seven-year budget will start to apply.
Looking at the situation from a purely financial angle, Central and Eastern European countries would appear to have a common interest in defending the EU's cohesion policy and maintaining the amount of money that is distributed through the Structural Funds.
During the current budgetary period (2007-2013), an average of €25 billion per year – just over half of the total budget for cohesion policy – has been allocated for spending on infrastructure and economic development projects in the 12 countries that joined the EU since 2004.
Daniel Braun, a deputy minister in the Czech government, said the common priorities of the V4 countries include "keeping cohesion policy as one of the key expenditure headings of the future EU budget, keeping the flexibility to choose priorities reflecting best our regional context, [and] stressing the opportunity to finance at least partly our convergence objectives".
The V4 also share many of the same ideas and objections regarding the issue of conditionality, which could see the European Commission suspend payments to countries that fail to meet certain criteria or targets.
"It is important how conditionality will be defined in the European legislation and then applied," said Braun. "The devil lies in the detail."
But despite the lack of clarity on certain issues, the overall picture is one of a common approach. "These are all issues we are discussing and our positions are very close," said Braun.
The deputy minister insisted that the rules regarding the Structural Funds should not be too rigid, and each member state should be allowed to define its own objectives and priorities.
"We stress the need for a sufficient level of flexibility so that member states and regions are able to define the main priorities that cover their needs," said Braun.
Central European governments do not object to the Commission's approach, which would see the Structural Funds closely linked with the objectives of the Europe 2020 strategy, such as creating jobs, tackling poverty, and promoting the use of green technologies and energy efficiency.
However, the Czech Republic and its allies reject the idea that some money should be set aside to establish a "performance reserve" and countries that are successful in reaching their targets would be rewarded with extra bonus payments from EU funds.
"We cannot imagine that countries could compete with each other in fulfilling their National Reform Programmes," said Braun – referring to the process under which each member state will work towards targets that correspond with the overall goals of the 2020 strategy.
"Each country will need a completely different set of structural and institutional reforms, and each of them will have a different starting position and will need to meet different objectives."
The deputy minister is optimistic that the concerns and ideas of the member states in Central and Eastern Europe are being taken into account by the European Commission.
"If you look at the ministerial conclusions and at a presentation which Commissioner Johannes Hahn gave at the ministerial meeting in Liège [on 22-23 November 2010], you will see that many of our points were reflected," recalled Braun.
"The majority of what has changed from the publication of the Fifth Cohesion Report is in line with our conclusions," he added.
The fact that Hungary and Poland are each spending six months at the helm of the rotating presidency of the EU Council means that 2011, according to Braun, presents "an opportunity" for the Central Europeans to promote their interests.
In this context, the governments of the V4 countries will continue working closely together to maximise their influence on the decision-making in the Council of Ministers.