MEPs push for ‘crisis access’ to EU regional funds

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Lawmakers in the European Parliament's regional affairs committee voted yesterday (18 March) to simplify access to the EU's billions of regional funding, saying faster access is vital for tackling Europe's economic crisis. The new rules could be in place by the summer.

If approved by EU member states, the rules will allow the worst-affected countries to receive advance payments for 2% of funding made available under the European Social Fund and 4% from the EU's regional funds in 2010.

The combined budget in 2010 for these two funds is 49.3 billion euros.

Economic criteria will be used to define which countries are eligible for these increased advances, a Parliament communication said.

Rules on the 'de-commitment' of funds will also be eased to allow member states more time to spend monies received from the EU.

Co-financing stays

However, MEPs rejected a suggestion by the European Commission that would have allowed member states to stop their contribution to the European Social Fund in 2009-2010 and make payments to regions directly under the EU facility, without contributing to it.

Although temporary, such a move would have gone against the principle of co-financing, whereby EU regional money is disbursed alongside national aid programmes, MEPs said.

This is a question of principle, particularly with a view to the long-term reform of EU regional policy, explained Dutch centre-right MEP Lambert Van Nistelrooij, speaking to EURACTIV. Besides, it would have proved too costly and complicated.

"For me, it's important that we stick to this method of co-financing when the new regional policy comes into force in 2014," Van Nistelrooij said, adding that this "shared management approach" should be a key part of the Europe 2020 strategy, which will guide European growth and employment strategies for the coming decade.

Member states pressed to follow suit

The issue will now be voted on by the Parliament at its plenary session in April, and MEPs have called for the EU Council of Ministers to formalise its position shortly afterwards, with the aim of getting the measures in place by the summer.

While the institutions have agreed for some time that these measures are necessary, they have so far failed to agree on the details of how to make these changes work.

Van Nistelrooij claimed that "earlier and quicker" access has long been the Parliament's top priority, but that previous attempts to bring such changes in had stalled at member state level.

"The Council took too long," he argued.

MEPs are hopeful the latest proposal will be accepted by member states more speedily this time around.

"It's a shame that we spent a year debating this with the Council" during a time of severe recession, the Dutch MEP said, though he added that if this latest proposal were to come into force "by September" it would "of course" still have a significant positive impact.

Regional policy, or cohesion policy, for the 2007-2013 period accounts for approximately a third (35.7%) of the total EU budget.  A full list of EU regions and their respective funding eligibility is available here.

Under the Lisbon Treaty, the revision of any rules concerning regional funds is subject to the co-decision procedure, which puts Parliament on an equal footing with Council.

Two of its main instruments are the European Regional Development Fund, which aims to strengthen economic and social cohesion in the EU by correcting regional imbalances (through direct aids to SMEs, investments in infrastructure, and support for R&D and local and inter-regional public initiatives) and the European Social Fund, which invests in national and regional measures designed to stimulate employment and help the workforce adapt to economic change.

There is agreement among the EU institutions that speeding up the flow of funding to the beneficiaries and simplifying the rules governing mechanisms such as the European Regional Development Fund and the European Social Fund should allow public authorities to continue investing in projects which will help stimulate employment and economic recovery, at a time when national budgets are faced with severe constraints.

Indeed, the Spanish EU Presidency in February 2010 called for EU funding to be urgently simplified as a means of tackling Europe's economic crisis (EURACTIV 23/02/10).

  • 21 April 2010: Vote in European Parliament plenary session on report.
  • September 2010: MEPs' preferred deadline for adoption by Council.

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