War in Ukraine poses major challenge for EU cohesion policy, EESC cautions

Cohesion policy is key to overcoming the COVID-19 crisis, to achieving climate neutrality by 2050 and to reducing disparities in Europe. Its most serious challenge for the foreseeable future, however, is the war in Ukraine, the EESC cautions in a recent opinion. Rapid action is needed to help refugees and ensure the country's European integration.

In its opinion, the European Economic and Social Committee also underscores its strong support for Ukraine joining the EU without delay and calls for cohesion policy and its financial instruments to be adapted accordingly. In practical terms, it suggests creating a separate EU fund to facilitate post-war reconstruction and development.

Adopted at the EESC's May plenary session, the opinion analyses a European Commission communication on its Cohesion in Europe towards 2050 report. A wide-ranging source of information, the report was published two weeks before Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and therefore did not take its ramifications into account.

While in the longer term, social, economic and territorial cohesion is crucial to achieving a climate-neutral continent by 2050, in the short and medium term, the biggest challenge for cohesion policy is Russia's aggression against Ukraine, which is in fact also an act of aggression against the European Union, said rapporteur, Krzysztof Balon.

The swift establishment of specific tools in the framework of cohesion policy, such as a separate EU fund for the post-war reconstruction and modernisation of Ukraine, will be a key element of securing Ukrainian membership of the EU as quickly as possible, he added.

To help Ukrainians fleeing the war, the EESC urges Member States, EU regions and organised civil society to make the most effective and rapid use of the opportunities created through cohesion policy's Action for Refugees in Europe (CARE) and the Recovery Assistance for Cohesion and the Territories of Europe (REACT-EU) instruments. This support should primarily be distributed by civil society organisations, including specialist NGOs.

Given the massive contributions to the refugee relief effort by such organisations from countries bordering Ukraine, the EESC also calls on Member States to significantly step up their support – both organisational and financial – to these groups, including from EU funds.

A fundamental tool for economic recovery and resilience

Overcoming the current COVID-19 crisis also poses a very serious challenge for cohesion policy – but it is crucial to ensuring that the EU emerges stronger, the EESC stresses, adding that it is absolutely essential to avoid the creation of a "two-speed Europe".

Cohesion policy still remains a fundamental instrument for the recovery and the resilience of the European economy and the particular focus should be on SMEs, says co-rapporteur Gonçalo Lobo Xavier.

Going forward, the EESC therefore considers it especially important to invest more in skills, to stimulate people's creativity and entrepreneurship, to improve formal education and to promote lifelong learning – paying particular attention to SMEs – to help workers adapt to the green and digital transition.

In terms of decarbonising the economy, the EESC notes that the transition to a more environmentally friendly production model that is socially beneficial will only be achieved by promoting the ecological transition of companies, working methods and the labour market in general.

The opinion also calls on Member States and EU regions to involve the social partners and other civil society organisations as broadly and genuinely as possible in shaping cohesion policy and in monitoring its effects. In this context, the EESC stands ready to host an annual event dedicated to its implementation.