Experts mull ways to make Italy better use of structural funds


Regional funds can bring big benefits to the European economy, but for over two decades Italy has wasted the opportunity to restructure, experts said. EURACTIV Italy reports.

The state of progress for the 2007-2013 EU budget programming period shows that Italy has used just 40% of its slice of EU regional funds, said experts gathered in Rome for a EURACTIV Italy conference on the future of the policy for 2014-2020, the next budget period.

Many southern Italian regions lack even basic knowledge of EU structural and cohesion funds (part of the regional funding budget) therefore adding more formal information on the issue may not be enough, says European Parliament Vice-President Gianni Pittella,

"EU funds do not have to finance football clubs or country festivals. This is the reason why we have to improve expertise in using EU funds," he added.

Italy will get about €29 billion of EU funds for regional projects between 2014-2020, but it needs to stump up an equivalent amount from its own budget. Analysts say that they will need to spend at least €29 billion of co-funds to develop a more results-oriented policy to deliver concrete projects to the benefit of all Italian regions, not just Southern Italy.

According to speakers at the conference, there is no more room for compromise. Because of the economic crisis, northern Italian regions need now at least €3 billion of the cash originally delivered to the south, Pittella said. To avoid this, the "Mezzogiorno" must prove that it can better manage the new wave of funds.

European Commission Vice-President Antonio Tajani, an Italian national, hopes that the new Italian agency for cohesion policy will be able to meet expectations and help regions to better spend EU funds. His main worry is that the agency could waste public money, as happens regularly in Italy.

Former Minister for Cohesion Fabrizio Barca insisted that many regions were now moving in the right direction after years of delays.

But Barca also warned that future economic failure would be "extremely adverse" for the country. Barca welcomed the new National Agency for Cohesion Policy, which he said would be able to help regions to tackle their economic problems by using EU regional funds in the most effective way possible.

Giovanni Chiodi, president of the central Abruzzo region, underlined on behalf of the Assembly of European Regions that the role of regional authorities must be better recognised.

"If you take away our competencies and transfer them to a national entity, you have to be aware that you will worsen the situation, instead of solving it! Don’t forget that regions are closer to the citizens and we better know the problems that they are facing," he said.

During the conference, which gathered together some 500 high-level representatives from the EU institutions, national and regional authorities, companies and EU funds experts, Antonio Sabatini, president of the Italian Banks Association, presented "Banks 2020", a new project launched at the end of September 2013 in association with Warrant Group. The project aims to make the bank system more efficient and reactive on the ground, helping Italian SMEs to use EU funds.

Speakers said Italy should not waste another opportunity to develop new approaches that would allow it take better advantage of the next generation of EU funds. This was needed to put the country back on the growth path, create jobs, boost competitiveness and support innovation, they said.

The structural and cohesion funds are financial tools set up to implement the EU's regional policy. They aim to reduce regional differences in income, wealth and opportunities by mostly co-financing development projects.

Italy has been allocated about €29 billion of cohesion funds for 2014 to 2020, the duration of the EU's next long-term budget, the multi-annual financial framework.

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