EU regions body wants regional policy status quo

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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."

German centre-right politician Michael Schneider commented: "The long-term nature of European support should give all regions the security to press ahead with development and enable them to respond to their own particular situations without the fear that funding may be capped. However, in general, I believe that the majority of cohesion funding should continue to be targeted at the neediest regions and that the existing criteria have proved their worth."

Referring in particular to the so-called "transition regions," where future funding is in jeopardy, he added: "Regions in transition need special consideration. Aid to regions which will no longer be covered by the convergence objective should be guaranteed independently of the future architecture of regional policy and its various objectives."

Addressing the Committee of the Regions plenary session for the first time, EU Regional Policy Commissioner Johannes Hahn said: "We are united by a common interest, strengthening the regional and local level. If we want to make Europe visible, we can do this best through a strong regional policy. What we need is a good balance between focusing on selected core priorities and maximum flexibility for tailor-made implementation of these priorities in the regions."

Welcoming Commissioner Hahn's commitment to cooperation with the Committee of the Regions, Michel Delebarre, mayor of Dunkirk and chairman of the CoR's commission for territorial cohesion, emphasised: "Commissioner, you have a struggle ahead of you in the College of Commissioners, where some of your colleagues are not necessarily allies of cohesion policy. It is up to you to raise awareness of the territorial effects that other EU policies have. Cohesion policy can not be expected to repair the damage done by other EU policies."

The Committee of the Regions (CoR) is the EU's assembly of local and regional representatives, and as one of the EU institutions, provides sub-national authorities with a direct voice in Brussels.

CoR officials believe the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty will give regions a greater influence in EU decision-making (EURACTIV 10/02/10).

EU regional policy currently accounts for one third of the EU budget. The current budget period runs from 2007 to the end of 2013.

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