Schneider: EU instititions are ignoring regions’ assembly

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The European Commission and EU member states have made "no contact" with the Committee of the Regions (CoR) during key debates on the future of European regional policy and the 2020 growth strategy for the coming decade – a big mistake, according to CoR member Michael Schneider.

German politician Michael Schneider is president of the centre-right European People's Party group in the Committee of the Regions (CoR) and rapporteur for the CoR opinion 'Contribution of the cohesion policy to the Europe 2020 strategy'.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

Your opinion 'Contribution of the cohesion policy to the Europe 2020 strategy' was published recently. Now, everyone seems to agree that the post-2013 regional policy should integrate its goals into those of the 2020 strategy, but what do you say in response to the growing fears among many regional stakeholders that the Commission and member states are only paying 'lip service' to this idea?

I share these fears. Up to this moment there has been no contact between the European institutions and the CoR. Since the launch of the Europe 2020 strategy in November 2009 neither the European Commission nor the European Council have made any attempt to invite the representation of local and regional authorities (LRAs) – i.e. the Committee of the Regions – to play an active role in developing the strategy. 

Indeed, when it was finally approved in June, it did not imply any concept of involving LRAs in implementation and monitoring of the strategy's goals. Moreover, I have not yet heard of any member state that has included its regions and cities in the discussion about implementing Europe 2020 or even informed them about the new strategy. As far as I can tell, there has been no sign that member states are willing to cooperate with the regions to make 2020 work.

I therefore place great value on the Belgian Presidency's formal request to the CoR for a contribution on Europe 2020 and Cohesion Policy, for this gives us the chance to "officially" offer our willingness – on behalf of the CoR and all of the European regions and cities – to actively commit to the programming, the implementation and the evaluation of Europe 2020. 

The request by the Belgian Presidency brought us into play. This is particularly important given that one of the reasons for the generally acknowledged failure of the Lisbon Strategy was the neglect or even exclusion of the LRA's ownership. We must not do this a second time round.

Will regional policy maintain its current share of the EU budget or will it decrease beyond 2013? Do you think it should keep its current level? Why?

I would very much like to see the current level of funding retained. We must remember that the purpose of cohesion policy is to strengthen economic, social and territorial cohesion so as to be able to promote the Union's overall harmonious development and reduce disparities between the levels of development of the various regions and the backwardness of the least favoured regions. It is therefore an essential policy for the future of the Europe and one which can contribute to the accomplishment of the Europe 2020 objectives and goals.

However, it is also important that cohesion policy remains a policy in its own right and that it has sufficient funding to promote regional development. Another important factor to consider when discussing the budget allocation is that cohesion policy has proven its worth in particular with regard to the financial crisis. Here we can see that it has been a key element of our response and I strongly believe that it should be a cornerstone of the European exit strategy and the future strategy for achieving better jobs and growth.

I think [Regional Policy] Commissioner [Johannes] Hahn knows what we are talking about, but he's not the Commission – he's just one commissioner. I don't think the regional policy budget will decrease too much. With the crisis there is more need for it than ever, and some though not all member states have recognised that fact.

Nevertheless, there is a real danger to the regional policy budget that because of the 2020 strategy more sectoral policies such as research and innovation will try to draw money from cohesion funds.

Do you support the initiative by Objective 2/RCE regions calling for this strand to be maintained? Do you believe the future policy should continue to apply a broad focus to all regions, or place a stronger emphasis on Objective 1 regions?

In my view, all regions throughout the European Union should have the possibility to benefit from cohesion funding.

Cohesion policy support must continue to focus on the weakest and most ailing regions and as such we call for fair transitional arrangements to be put in place for the regions that are no longer eligible for maximum support after 2013, but that still have ongoing problems. In this way, it will still be possible to maintain the achievements in those regions and to ensure sustainability.

However, that said, support must also continue to be given to those regions that are already contributing significantly to the EU's competitiveness. And finally, even economically stronger regions have structurally less developed regions that also need support.

Has the Commission done a good job in setting the ball rolling for simplification on funding mechanisms? What remains to be done?

In fighting the crisis some progress has been made in simplification, but unfortunately this was not a breakthrough. A more fundamental approach is necessary here.

For example: the co-financing principle could also mean that rules for calculating resources were  aligned more closely on national targets and through certification of national systems costly duplication in administrative and control structures might no longer be necessary. Why not implement European funds under the budget rules of the member states?

How do you believe a more results-oriented regional policy will function? How will these results even be measured? Can you give us concrete examples?

During the latest discussions on the reform of the structural funds a number of questions have been raised as to how far European targets should take precedence over development strategies geared to regions.

Whilst co-financing and earmarking aim to ensure that both European and national efforts are made towards economic, social and territorial cohesion, we must also find ways and means to take regional characteristics into account.

I would therefore propose that the use of leverage effects could be one may of measuring and analysing the results of cohesion policy. Through direct intervention on the ground, it should be possible to see the "added value" of cohesion policies.

The UK government is currently axing an entire administrative level of regional/local authorities. How do you view this austerity measure? Do you believe other countries will follow suit? How can EU regions be empowered to take action in implementing, for example, Europe 2020, if national governments are downgrading them?

I cannot really comment on the decisions of the UK government. In Germany, due to its federal system, such a move would be impossible.

However, I am convinced that regions need to be empowered rather than downgraded – especially in view of the Europe 2020 strategy. The Committee of the Regions will therefore adopt a document on Territorial Pacts and monitoring of the Europe 2020 strategy at its Bureau this evening in order to make this concrete contribution.

In the Commission document Governance, Tools and Policy Cycle of Europe 2020, member states are encouraged to involve LRAs in their National Reform Programmes and moreover, the Programmes should identify how the national authorities plan to involve them in the definition and implementation.

Territorial Pacts could therefore be seen as a tool for all government levels involved to work in partnership on the implementation of Europe 2020 and its flagships in a coordinated and integrated way. The EPP [European People's Party] Group hopes to be able to better examine the possibilities of such Pacts by looking at the Digital Agenda flagship as a case study during its Group meeting in Helsinki this November.

Commissioner Hahn has consistently pushed for a stronger urban dimension in regional policy strategies? Is this the right way to proceed?

With over 56% of the population in the 27 member states of the European Union living in rural areas, which cover 91% of the territory, rural development is a vitally important policy area. However, cities drive growth and innovation, while fighting poverty and social problems in certain areas. The urban dimension must therefore be a substantial part of cohesion policy.

Interventions of structural funds in cities post-2013 will be necessary because of the specific exposure of economic, social and territorial cohesion they have to struggle with.

Finally, what do you believe is the value of an exercise like the Open Days? What do you hope will be achieved from this year's gathering?

I welcome the OPEN DAYS: European Week of Regions and Cities and see it as a good opportunity to showcase the achievements of regional policy. This year I am particularly looking forward to the opening ceremony at which I will speak on behalf of the EPP Group.

I will use the opportunity to share our views on the future of cohesion policy and its use in the Europe 2020 Strategy with the leading politicians who will be in attendance.

In addition, the now annual meeting between the REGI Committee of the European Parliament and the COTER Commission of the Committee of the Regions focussing on the same topics will allow us to further debate these important topics!

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