Experts: Regional policy ‘can’t do everything’

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A report evaluating European regional policy from 2000-2006 paints a generally positive picture, but experts said errors had been made and urged EU lawmakers to be realistic about what regional funds can and cannot achieve in future.

The report, presented yesterday (19 April) in Brussels, was an 'Ex-Post Evaluation' of 2000-2006 programmes financed by the European Regional Development Fund in Objective 1 and 2 regions. The report was commissioned by the European Commission and produced by a team led by Belgian independent research company Applica.

Speaking at the launch of the report, Regional Commissioner Johannes Hahn argued that the evaluation proves that the vast spectrum of regional policy programmes and projects can be evaluated in a meaningful way.

He claimed the results showed noteworthy successes in job creation, a strong improvement in SME activities, and evidence of social and environmental progress.

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Hahn also argued that the findings gave some strong pointers for reforming regional policy after 2013, in order to maximise its success. In particular, he cited the need for new indicators beyond mere GDP to assess whether the policy is succeeding on the ground.

A panel of experts agreed, arguing that despite the fact that the 2000-2006 period was set against a backdrop of consistent economic growth – in sharp contrast to the current 2007-2013 period, which is framed against a deep recession – the lessons learned can still inform regional policy after 2014.

"The value of this evaluation lies in learning from our past mistakes," said Dirk Ahner, director-general for regional policy at the European Commission.

Be realistic about what regional policy can do

There is nothing wrong per se with adding new objectives, such as environmental targets, to other overall regional policy goals, argued Harvey Armstrong of the University of Sheffield, as long as the "ambitions for what can be achieved are kept modest".

Expecting too much of regional funds hampers their ability to be effective, Armstrong added, saying he had seen worrying traces of so-called "mission creep" in regional policy in recent decades. In other words, the EU has gone too far in expanding the number of areas where it believes regional policy can make a difference.

It makes more sense to focus on a limited number of objectives, he argued.

EU Regional Policy Commissioner Johannes Hahn said: "These figures show how important the European cohesion policy is. With our investments we do not only make the European Union visible to our citizens in the regions but we also deliver tangible results to the direct benefit of our economy. By doing this evaluation, we get the opportunity as well to learn from good practices elsewhere and to continuously improve projects and programmes."

Regional policy accounts for one third of the EU budget and is divided into seven-year programming periods.

The current period began in 2007 and will expire at the end of 2013. The debate on how to reform regional policy to make it more effective in the 2014-2020 period is now well and truly underway in Brussels and beyond, with key players such as the European Commission (EURACTIV 19/04/10) and the Committee of the Regions (EURACTIV 07/05/09) increasingly making their voices heard.

An oft-repeated criticism of regional policy is that it lacks the tools to measure the success of its delivery, a point noted by successive EU regional policy commissioners.

The report, presented on 19 April 2010 in Brussels, was an 'Ex-Post Evaluation' of 2000-2006 programmes financed by the European Regional Development Fund in Objective 1 and 2 regions.

The evaluation was commissioned by the EU executive and carried out by a team led by Belgian independent research company Applica.

Applica also recently won a contract to establish an expert evaluation network to review regional developments across the EU, as well as the results of evaluations and other studies carried out on the effect of policy intervention on these developments, for the current programming perios 2007-2013.

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This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication [communication] reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

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