The European Union urgently needs a new, ambitious and clear strategy for its future. Cohesion policy must be an integral part of it. New provisions for cohesion policy post-2020 must provide for sufficient means and guarantee improved policy efficiency and visibility, urges the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) in an exploratory opinion on the future of cohesion policy, requested by the Romanian Council Presidency.
Cohesion policy post-2020 needs a strategic vision
In the view of the Committee, cohesion policy must be an integral part of a new ambitious and clear European strategy that is in line with the United Nations 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals, and the EU's other international commitments. This new strategy would also provide a vision for future cohesion policy itself. The European Commission reflection paper on A more sustainable Europe by 2030 has already opened discussions on it.
The EESC is strongly convinced that a future-proof cohesion policy must be open to all regions and provide the necessary tools to meet future challenges such as embracing new technologies, achieving a high level of competitiveness and managing the transition towards sustainable development whilst creating quality jobs, said EESC rapporteur Stefano Mallia.
While the Committee's recent opinion emphasises the importance of developing a cohesion policy for the period 2021-2027, it urges that specific current challenges - social (marginalisation and discrimination of minorities and specific ethnic groups, or domestic violence), economic (access to finance and upskilling) and environmental - not be allowed to sink into oblivion.
In the context of drawing up a new policy, co-rapporteur Ioannis Vardakastanis recalled that the EESC could not accept the European Commission's proposal for a budget cut.
The EESC considers cohesion policy to be one of the fundamental pillars for bringing the EU closer to its citizens and for reducing disparities among EU regions and inequalities among people, he argued. As such and with new emerging challenges, the budget should remain at least at the level of the previous period.
The opinion, which was adopted by the EESC plenary in March, also highlights in this regard that the impact of cohesion policy must be communicated more effectively. Current publicity obligations for funded projects must thus be upgraded significantly so that the added value of the European integration process at large and cohesion policy in particular becomes more visible for citizens.
Future cohesion policy must address territorial needs with tailor-made approaches
The Committee calls for a regionally differentiated approach to investments and policy responses.
A regionally differentiated approach will contribute to solutions that are more tailored to territorial needs. It will allow us to support the most isolated and sparsely populated areas and the popular - yet challenged - functional urban areas at the same time, explained Stefano Mallia.
A strong territorial approach should aim at empowering each region with the necessary tools to sustainably enhance its competitiveness, and continuing the support for cross border cooperation.
National and European efforts for cohesion must go hand in hand
The EESC opinion also calls for more coherence and continuity between European and national reform strategies, for example with a view to investments. EU funding must not substitute national efforts but complement them and Member States should consider carrying forward successful EU funded projects. The EESC also proposes to link the country specific recommendations put forward in the European Semester process with cohesion policy in order to encourage structural reforms at national level.
Further simplification is possible, says the EESC
Concerning the Commission's proposals to simplify provisions, the EESC believes that more can be done.
Procedures must be adapted to the size of operational programmes, explained Ioannis Vardakastanis.
We call for a more differentiated approach for small and big projects. Apart from simplified access to funds, the Commission should explore further possibilities to facilitate the participation of smaller actors, he added.
Structured partnership with civil society organisations and other stakeholders is key
The European Commission and the Member States must ensure strong and meaningful participation by civil society organisations at all stages of the design and implementation of cohesion policy.
The Committee further recommends that the Commission establish a European civil society cohesion forum to structure involvement in monitoring the implementation of cohesion policy at EU level. This forum could be the framework for an annual consultation in the future.
A strong territorial approach, more coherence and continuity between European and national strategies, increased simplification and civil society involvement can, in the Committee's view, all contribute to enhanced policy efficiency.