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 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”.
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.