The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) highlights the need for the social, economic and environmental impact of the coronavirus crisis to be duly taken into account in future EU territorial policies. Cohesion policy can be the driver of Europe's recovery.
The new revised EU urban and territorial agenda must reflect the effects of the pandemic crisis caused by COVID-19, and cohesion policy can be the right tool to deal with Europe's economic recovery. In two opinions adopted at the September plenary, the EESC takes stock of EU territorial policies and maps the way ahead.
In the first opinion, Petr Zahradník and Roman Haken focus on the revision of the Leipzig Charter on Sustainable European Cities and the EU territorial agenda. These documents are intergovernmental initiatives by the EU Member States: the Leipzig Charter aims to establish common principles and strategies for sustainable urban development policy, while the territorial agenda aims to pursue a sustainable future by focusing on territorial cohesion and on all territories and inhabitants.
The EESC believes that the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic should be fully included in the revised Leipzig Charter. The objective is twofold: firstly, to take account of the impact of the pandemic on the social, economic, environmental and territorial development of the Member States and the EU as a whole and, secondly, to make sure that the revised document is compatible with the future EU multiannual financial framework.
The Committee also backs the new Territorial Agenda 2030, endorsing its call for a just and green Europe and for a more robust territorial dimension to all policies at all levels of governance. More specifically, the EESC will be in a position to give a specific and valuable contribution as its members will participate in the drafting and implementation of the new document via a dedicated website.
At local level, the keywords for the future must be integration, sustainability and resilience of cities and regions. Speaking at the plenary session, Petr Zahradník said:
The potential for the implementation of integrated projects in territorial and urban development is huge and so are the benefits associated with this approach in terms of synergising the effects, saving on costs and making functional connections. Integration may also be about linking public and private financial resources to increase capacity and share risk for the benefit of both territorial and urban development, as long as it is subject to democratic control, transparent governance and accountability.
Elaborating further, Roman Haken added:
Considering the wide range of endogenous and exogenous factors, such as the effects of climate change, the use of resources and the need to reduce environmental risks, the sustainability and resilience of cities and regions cannot be addressed separately. For this reason, the Urban Agenda should be coordinated as much as possible with territorial cohesion policy, for example through functional partnerships between urban and rural areas, which may eventually become the pillars of future territorial cohesion.
Cohesion policy is thus vital; it is also at the heart of an opinion drafted by Gonçalo Lobo Xavier, in which the EESC says that it can be the ideal tool to deal with the many challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic and calls on the Commission to take action.
Europe needs strong and clear measures to rebuild its economy. The consequences for public health, and economic, societal and political action are difficult to measure and the impact will differ from one Member State to another. Any recovery plan for the EU must bear in mind Europe's dependence on other economic areas for specific products and services. It is clear that Europe must reflect on its trade policy, boost innovation and turn to good advantage its smart specialisation strategy based on regions and a sectoral industrial approach.
Cohesion policy can help in the innovative transition towards a low-carbon economy, playing an important role in the digital revolution, energy transition and globalisation. Digitalisation of services must continue to be a priority for all Member States. Existing infrastructure is inadequate and more investment in these areas must be a priority. There is still a need to invest in full broadband systems to allow rural areas to develop modern agriculture and tourism activities.
We must act urgently and respond swiftly; the financial means to help and support Member States must be deployed in keeping with the relevant criteria, but also with courage, said Mr Lobo Xavier.
More than ever, Europe needs a differential approach to a single challenge.