EESC opinion: The role of EU structural and cohesion policy in driving forward the transformation of the economy in an innovative and smart manner (Exploratory opinion at the request of the German presidency)
Calls on the European Commission to address cohesion policy as a fundamental tool for dealing with the huge challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic. There is an urgent need to respond swiftly, and the financial means to help and support Member States must be deployed in keeping with the relevant criteria, but also with courage.
Agrees that the priorities of the German Presidency must focus on clear measures to rebuild Europe’s economy and calls for action to protect employment and social rights across the Union.
Believes that any recovery plan for Europe must bear in mind the consequences of this crisis, namely 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.
Believes that digitalisation of services must continue to be a priority for all Member States. This crisis has shown the need for simpler, more comprehensive services to support all Europeans, particularly those who require extra support.
Agrees that there is still a need to invest in full broadband systems to allow rural areas to develop modern agriculture and tourism activities. Cohesion policy instruments have been neglecting this need, or at least Member States have been distracted from existing opportunities under the financial programmes.
Strongly believes that e-business is fundamental to the "new normal" as a result of COVID-19's impact on society and the economy. It will be necessary to provide different options for both companies and consumers. SMEs can also benefit from this new approach, so structural funds must be allocated to allow companies to discover new markets and new opportunities.
Believes that there is an urgent need to protect SMEs and their sustainability. Therefore, the usual, existing European tools such as the European Social Fund must be deployed.
Draws attention to the need to boost and create the right conditions for developing public investment in, and mechanisms for, life-long training schemes to allow people to adjust their skills to the needs of the market now and also to prepare to provide future generations with new skills.
Also agrees that the "Green Deal" programme must be supported and urges the European Commission to provide clarification to Member States as regards, for example, how the EUR 40 billion in the "Just Transition Fund" can be used to "decarbonise" the economy.
Welcomes the "REACT programme", under which EUR 55 billion will be invested to support cohesion policy, but it calls on the European Commission to swiftly inform Member States and provide clarification about the conditions and distribution criteria, bearing in mind the fact that these funds must be allocated by the end of 2022.
Suggests that consultation and extensive involvement of civil society organisations in the definition of regional policies must be ensured.