National and EU parliamentarians meeting in Brussels earlier this week (12-13 July) held a debate on the future of European regional policy, resulting in many opinions including a call for the European Social Fund to remain under regional policy control.
Danuta Hübner, chair of the European Parliament's regional development committee and a former EU regional policy commissioner, told EURACTIV that the meeting was important for its form as well as its content.
"It was not just a thematic meeting, it was also part of the process of developing structured cooperation between the European Parliament and national parliaments, as foreseen in the Lisbon Treaty," she explained.
National representatives need to be preparing themselves to "really get engaged" in the debate on the future of EU regional policy, she said, adding that this type of meeting will help in "sensitising them, though I think there is always a need to sensitise more".
Indeed, EURACTIV France reports that many MPs believe it will "not be easy" to make this new form of cooperation work. However, while some MPs conceded that they were still "discovering the subject," the consensus view in France is that as negotiations intensify, national representatives will ensure their new weight is felt.
Some net contributor countries want a smaller budget
Parliamentary representatives spoke along similar lines, emphasising the importance of cohesion policy funding to fight the economic crisis.
However, an MP from the Netherlands expressed the viewpoint that the EU's regional policy budget should be smaller and focus on the basic goal of helping regions that need to catch up the most.
For the most part, though, no-one is talking about smaller budgets, said committee chair Hübner. In other words, a consensus view seems to be forming that the current level should be maintained.
Earmarking works, say parliamentarians
One recurring issue is the extent to which regional funds should be earmarked for specific policy goals in the future.
Hübner claimed that there are some groups in the European Parliament who have never accepted earmarking, arguing that it makes regional policy less close to its original treaty goals.
"I completely disagree," she said, arguing that "the evidence shows that earmarking has worked".
Among the delegates to the inter-parliamentary meeting, there was clearly a majority view in favour of continuing earmarking, particularly within the framework of the Europe 2020 strategy for economic growth.
Hübner praises attitude of Belgian Presidency
Linking the future cohesion policy to the goals of Europe 2020 is also a priority for the Belgian EU Presidency, which was represented at the meeting by Rudy Demotte, regional prime minister of the Walloon government.
Hübner said she was "very positively touched by their attitude," which essentially "views regional policy as a means of providing public access to goods and services, whether it be transport infrastructure or internet connectivity".
Demotte argued that Europe needs a reinforced cohesion policy, something that can really contribute to required economic growth and structural change.
The Belgians also understand that the policy needs to evolve in light of current reality, particularly the effects of the economic crisis, the lawmakers heard.
According to Hübner, as a citizen of Belgium – a highly regionalised country – Demotte understands that the crisis has had a particularly strong impact at sub-national level, in other words regions, cities and municipalities.
Lawmakers want to keep social fund within regional control
One big issue of discussion was the European Social Fund (ESF), which the European Commission recently suggested should be given a greater degree of autonomy and be controlled by the Parliament's social affairs and employment committee, rather than the regional development committee as is currently the case.
However, this decision, which Hübner claimed "exploded" onto the scene a week ago, is far from finalised.
"The Commission is sending mixed signals on the ESF," she said, arguing that it seemed to be decided a week ago, but now officials are making noises to the contrary.
The majority view from national parliaments was that the ESF should remain under regional policy control, as separating the funds will mean separating the rules, which in turn will lead to an increase in red tape and admin costs.
Many voices at the meeting said they were against "sectorising" EU policies and instead wanted an integrated approach.
Hübner concurred, arguing that moving the ESF would compromise its efficiency.
The Commission seems to want to politically demonstrate to the public that the ESF exists, as a kind of PR strategy during this time of crisis, she argued, but "they could achieve this just as easily with the ESF as part of regional policy".
(With additional reporting by EURACTIV France.)