Stakeholders stressed the importance of cohesion policy and the need for appropriate and effective funding
The European Commission's proposals for cohesion policy post 2020 include many positive aspects. However, they do not go far enough. A budget that has been cut by 10% in comparison to the previous one will be insufficient to meet the needs of the current political agenda and environment. Moreover, the proposed rulebook must be fine-tuned in order to be effective.
These are some of the main conclusions reached during a conference that was recently hosted by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) in connection with the preparation of several opinions on the Commission's cohesion package, which was put forward as part of the proposals for the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) 2021-2027.
The speakers welcomed the improvements in terms of simplifying the rules and making them more flexible, increasing effectiveness and accessibility and introducing the partnership concept, which were presented with the Commission's proposals.
Nonetheless, the speakers voiced reservations regarding the feasibility and efficiency of the rulebook and called for a final agreement to be reached before the 2019 European elections, in view of the challenges the EU is facing. The Austrian government, which currently holds the EU Council presidency, should make every possible effort to press ahead with the negotiations on the next MFF.
It was stressed that a real commitment to regional development and cohesion policy was needed. At a key moment for the future of the European Union, an ambitious policy could constitute one of the main instruments aimed at tackling growing Euroscepticism and other political and socio-economic challenges, providing real benefits to people's lives and having an impact on EU policy perception. A real commitment should first and foremost be reflected in a clear strategy and appropriate budgetary provisions; both ought to be aligned with the political environment in order to be effective and to meet citizens' expectations.
Stefano Palmieri, president of the EESC's ECO section, lamented the proposed budget cuts, observing that: "We welcome the introduction of new priorities to the EU agenda, but they should not harm the funding of long-standing and successful ones. We ask the European Commission to maintain at least the provisions from the current MFF." Most of the panellists agreed with this statement.
Stefano Mallia, EESC rapporteur on the Common Provisions Regulation 2021-2027, which is due to be presented and voted on at the EESC plenary in October, felt that the credibility of the EU was at stake. Criticising the lack of strategy behind the Commission's proposals, he pointed out that "we need a clear strategy to guide the priorities of the future cohesion policy and the directions for the use of funds." Moreover, the co-financing rate must be maintained in order to ensure the accessibility of funds for all beneficiaries. Other participants supported his views.
Participants also discussed the new enabling conditions and macroeconomic conditionality. Their opinions on this issue were varied. With regard to the new decommitment rule, speakers agreed that the implementation provision should ensure the correct level of investment across the EU and the ability to cope with the demands of all parties involved. The need to implement the n+2 rule and the enabling conditions on the same day that the new regulation takes effect could create difficulties for the managing authorities.
Finally, the introduction of supplementary criteria for the distribution of funds was viewed positively and a rigorous evaluation and better communication on cohesion programmes and projects was urged.
The findings of the conference will feed into the EESC's opinions on the Commission's cohesion package. The opinions will be presented and put to the vote in September and October 2018. The EESC will be the first institution to express a formal view on the Commission's package.