Since its creation, in 1992, the LIFE programme has been one of the EU's main sources in support of the climate and the environment. The European Commission has recently made a proposal to continue the programme for the period 2014-2020 and introduced some significant changes. We had a chat with Pedro Narro, member of the NAT section, who was the rapporteur for the recent opinion on the LIFE Programme.
What are the main innovations in the European Commission's proposal for the LIFE programme for 2014-2020? Are there significant changes?
Although the principles and the essence of the programme remain the same, the Commission proposes two significant changes at a critical moment for the LIFE programme, which will rightly give it further funds. First, the Commission will create a new "climate action" sub-programme, a key instrument to raise the profile and effectiveness of climate governance and the fight against climate change. Secondly, the Commission proposes a new model of "integrated projects", large-scale projects going beyond a single region, which will serve as a catalyst to attract national or EU funds. For the first time, multi-annual priorities will be established for these programmes, focused primarily on the Natura 2000 network, waste management, water etc. The great challenge for this new type of integrated project will be to integrate civil society organisations effectively, so that they do not turn into projects purely managed by government which marginalise NGOs and SMEs.
There is a reference in the opinion to the change in the co-financing rules which involves a certain amount of puzzlement, since on the one hand the co-financing percentage is increased, from 50% to 70%, while on the other VAT and staff costs cease to be treated as eligible costs. Will that create an obstacle for the participation of smaller organisations?
The decision to remove VAT and staff costs from the eligible costs is connected to the European Commission's new philosophy, which aims at removing those eligible costs which are generally more complex or which create greater practical problems. The EESC does not share this vision. It is not sufficient to increase co-financing to "compensate" for the removal of certain eligible costs. It is true that taking VAT and permanent staff costs into account creates complexities in the practical management of projects; the solution, however, is not to remove them but to simplify their operation via new, more flexible and clearer rules which would benefit both government and non-governmental parties. The current proposal would make it very difficult for many small organisations with limited resources, such as NGOs and SMEs, to participate in the programme on the terms set out.
Your opinion mentions the need to simplify the bureaucratic formalities of the programme. In concrete terms, what does that refer to?
Most of the organisations that participate in this type of project complain that bureaucracy slows things down and frequently makes their participation in the programme more difficult. Despite the significant advances that have been made, further simplification of the financial forms is needed, as well as better advice before the submission of the application, a strengthened role for the national contact points, more effective coordination between national and EU bodies, greater transparency as to the admission criteria and greater promotion of the programme. The EESC believes that projects should continue to be chosen on the basis of merit, but at the same time it is aware of the need to promote awareness of the programme in many small EU Member States and the technical preparation needed to be able to participate effectively.
Additional question: What do you think of the budget proposed by the Commission?
The most important thing about the LIFE programme is its effectiveness. It has done a lot with limited resources. A slight increase in the budget is proposed for the new budgetary period: it will account for 0.3% of the total EU budget. This increase is a good sign in a situation of cuts, but it does not meet the real needs of a programme which has been able to "feed the five thousand". The EESC trusts that despite the economic crisis from which Europe is suffering, support for the environment and for these projects will not be impaired.