The Committee of the Regions last week dived into the debate on the future of EU regional policy, calling on the European Commission to broadly maintain the status quo while paying increased attention to so-called "transition regions".
Debate on the future of EU regional policy has been intensifying since May 2009, when an expert report by Italian Fabrizio Barca called for "comprehensive reform" beyond 2013, notably by introducing more stringent quantifiable targets (EURACTIV 07/05/09).
In a Brussels plenary session last week (14-15 April), CoR members adopted a report by German centre-right politican Michael Schneider, in the hope that the requests of regions and cities would be taken on board at an early stage by the European Commission.
Evolution, not revolution
Broadly, the CoR is pushing for the Commission to preserve current regional policy structures and funding mechanisms – in other words, maintaining the status quo.
The report "does not see any need for fundamentally new structural policy instruments or […] additional objectives," with one significant exception: Schneider does call for a new approach to so-called "transition regions".
The CoR is concerned that these regions are currently at risk as they move from being in the "poorest regions" category (Objective 1) – and therefore eligible for the full gamut of EU structural funds – to the next "transition" category, where their funding is significantly reduced. A better and fairer transition system is required to ensure that the discontinuation of regional funding does not stall development, CoR members said.
What the CoR wants is an "evolution, not a revolution" of existing regional policy structures, Schneider concluded in the plenary debate.
Other regional stakeholders told EURACTIV they welcomed the proposal. The Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR), for example, described itself as "very satisfied" with Schneider's "proactive and open" attitude.
Status quo suits CoR, says think-tank
However, other players were far from positive. Eurosceptic think-tank Open Europe, a long-standing critic of EU regional policy, lashed out at the CoR's statement, arguing that it is in the institution's interest to maintain the current status quo.
Speaking to EURACTIV, Open Europe Director Mats Persson argued that "the EU's regional spending is off-target, inflexible, wasteful and out of sync with the current economic climate. It's extraordinary that the CoR continues to defend a system which sees some of the richest EU member states recycling money via Brussels at a huge deadweight cost to the European taxpayer – smack in the middle of the worst recession in a generation".
"A more common sense approach would clearly be to restrict funding to the genuinely poor regions and countries, and so make the EU's regional spending far more focused and cost-effective," he said.
Persson went a step further, calling into question the very existence of the regional institution. "In addition, we should have a discussion on the continued existence of the CoR itself, as it's far from clear what this body actually does, or even what it's meant to do, but it still costs taxpayers millions of euro every year."