Member states weigh in on future of EU regional policy

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Ahead of a summit on 17-18 June, EU member states have presented an assessment of Europe's regional policy and are due to call on the European Commission to ensure that a proper debate is held on the policy's future.

Draft summit conclusions, agreed by all EU member states under the guidance of the Spanish EU Presidency, appear to mark a starting point for a much deeper debate on the future of the EU’s cohesion policy, which accounts for one third of the total EU budget.

A number of high-level recommendations have been made in recent years as to how the revised policy should look like – for example in an independent report by Italian expert Fabrizio Barca (EURACTIV 07/09/09), or in a document by former EU Regional Policy Commissioner Pawel Samecki (EURACTIV 03/12/09).

But the draft summit conclusions for the first time convey a sense of urgency from member states that they wish to see this debate widen and deepen, and soon.

While commenting on a number of strengths and weaknesses in current regional policy structures, the document concludes that the Commission must above all ensure that the new policy – and the legislative tools that go with it – be firmly done and dusted by January 2014 when the new policy's six-year lifespan will begin.

The good…

The document praised the EU's regional policy for being flexible enough to respond to the global financial and economic crisis, while simultaneously remaining focused on longer-term objectives such as the Lisbon Strategy goals.

In particular, member states argued that the strategy of "earmarking" a majority of funds for specific targets was a successful one.

They also hailed the Commission's mid-term review of current cohesion policy (EURACTIV 01/04/10) and its strategic report analysing the successes and failures of the 2000-2006 cohesion policy (EURACTIV 20/04/10) as improvements which are helping to build a “more result-oriented policy”.

The bad…

Member states did, however, find fault with delays in selecting projects in "important fields" such as the rail sector, certain energy and environmental investments, the digital economy, social inclusion, governance and capacity building in the funding structures of some EU countries.

They also pinpointed a number of areas where they would like to see improvement, such as simplified management and application procedures and the "leverage effect" of regional funds to recipients on the ground in member states.

The Council recommends…?

Beyond these reiterations of existing priorities, member states made few concrete proposals, a fact lamented by Greek Socialist MEP Georgios Stavrakakis, vice-president of the European Parliament's regional development committee. Speaking to EURACTIV, he said he regretted that the conclusions "fail to take advantage of the opportunity to provide a vision for the future of the cohesion policy".

Nonetheless, the document does draw attention to so-called "transition regions" – i.e. European regions that are no longer considered to be among the EU's least-developed regions but whose GDP is still below the EU average. It recommends that the Commission find a solution to ensure that these can "organise their regional funding programmes effectively".

For more stories and interviews on the debate concerning the future of EU cohesion policy, see EURACTIV's Regional Policy section.

Greek Socialist MEP Georgios Stavrakakis, vice-president of the European Parliament's regional development committee, told EURACTIV that in his opinion, "the tenor of the conclusions is the right one. They are "generally" sending the right message, he said, but added: "I regret that the conclusions fail to take advantage of the opportunity to provide a vision for the future of cohesion policy that would be a EU-wide development policy rooted in the regions' potential."

He concluded that while "we have not discussed the conclusions in the regional development committee," he personally believes that it would be "timely for the Council to provide a short vision for the future of the policy as inspiration for the Commission's 5th Cohesion Report due in the autumn".

Angelika Poth-Mögele, director of policy at the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR), welcomed the draft conclusions, particularly the emphasis on "the need for a continuous EU-wide debate on political and strategic issues," sentiments which she told EURACTIV are "to a great extent in line with CEMR’s position paper on the future of cohesion policy, in which we stress the need to look to the future of cohesion policy".

The CEMR is also pleased that "a reference was made to the importance of linking cohesion policy to the EU 2020 strategy as they complement one another, but that cohesion policy should not be the only policy to fund EU 2020 but rather one among many to achieve EU objectives".

On the other hand, she expressed one "main reservation" regarding the draft conclusions: "that there is no explicit mention of 'all regions' when stating that 'while being concentrated on the least prosperous regions, cohesion policy should continue to foster competitiveness, innovation...' (page 7).

While this could be implied, CEMR strongly maintains that it should be explicitly mentioned that all regions in the EU must be able to benefit from cohesion policy so that there may be economic, social and territorial cohesion in the whole of the Union rather than only in regions lagging behind.

Constantin Ostaficiuc, a Romanian politican who is the Committee of the Regions (CoR)'s rapporteur on this issue, said that "the contribution of the cohesion policy to the achievement of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth priorities of the Europe 2020 strategy is a much more complex exercise than the earmarking of the financial investments to achieve these goals".

"Thus," he argued, "the transposition of the Europe 2020 objectives into financial allocations should leave the necessary margin of manoeuvre for a strategic bottom up exercise to allow local and regional authorities to identify their needs and tailor the investments to the existing territorial potential".

Cohesion policy was enshrined in the EU Treaties with the adoption of the Single European Act in 1986. It is built on the assumption that redistribution between richer and poorer regions in Europe is needed to balance out the effects of further economic integration. 

Cohesion policy for the 2007-2013 period accounts for one third of the total EU budget. A full list of EU regions, and which forms of funding they are eligible for, is available here.

An overhaul of the current policy has been mooted for several years, culminating in a 2007 agreement between member states and the European Parliament to focus cohesion policy on 'convergence, competitiveness and employment, and territorial co-operation' (EURACTIV 21/05/07).

An independent report by Italian Fabrizio Barca, commissioned by the EU executive in 2009, recommended further reform, claiming that current evidence shows the policy's impact to be "unsatisfactory" (EURACTIV 07/05/09).

  • 17-18 June 2010: EU leaders expected to agree draft conclusions on 'Strategic Report of 2010 by the Commission on the Implementation of the Cohesion Policy Programmes'.
  • October 2010: Commission to publish 5th Cohesion Report.

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