The EESC firmly believes that cohesion policy is a key element for Europe's future, warranting sufficient resources and appropriate reform. It therefore rejects the Commission's proposal that the cohesion policy budget be cut back for the next programming period (2021-2027) and points to the potentially harmful effect on effectiveness, profile and reputation.
In times of growing disparities amongst EU regions and increasing EU scepticism, a budget cut would send out the wrong signal to Europeans. Member States must find solutions for keeping the budget at the same level as it is now (at 2020 values), increasing the budget for territorial cooperation and supporting implementation of the cross-border mechanism.
These are some of the main recommendations relating to the European Commission's proposals for future regional development and cohesion policy, as put forward by the EESC in several opinions debated and passed at its plenary sessions in September and October.
In these opinions, the Committee stresses the positive impact of cohesion policy: numerous cases of added value and growth-generating investment in projects provide proof thereof. Cohesion policy addresses the economic and social disparities amongst EU regions and inequalities amongst people and helps strengthen a sense of European citizenship - so crucial in times of increasing EU scepticism.
Cohesion policy is one of the most tangible of the EU's policies, said Stefano Mallia, rapporteur for the Common Provisions Regulation 2021-2027.
It has a direct bearing on people's everyday lives and raises public awareness of the added value of the European project. It should be given technical and budgetary support as a matter of priority.
While the Committee criticises the financial provisions of the Commission's proposals, it welcomes the Commission´s efforts to reform cohesion policy, recognising substantial improvements in simplification, flexibility and effectiveness. Nevertheless, it regrets that the new rulebook does not lay down a single set of rules for all funds.
New regulations for cohesion policy should be aligned with the new Europe 2020 strategy. In addition, they should pursue implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals and the European Pillar of Social Rights and fully embed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).
On the proposed reforms, the Committee rejects the proposals for macro-economic conditionality, the n+2 decommitment rule and the decrease in co-financing rates. These proposals would give rise to economic circumstances which would create an overly rigid environment and could harm investment. More flexibility would be needed to address the specific circumstances of the different European regions.
The decrease in national co-financing rates will hinder the implementation of projects, especially in those Member States facing budgetary difficulties and of course in those that were hardest hit by the last economic and financial crisis, said Ester Vitale, co-rapporteur for the opinion on the European Regional Development Fund and European Cohesion Fund post 2020.
The EESC believes that areas with structural and permanent disadvantages (islands, mountain regions, cross-border regions, etc.) should benefit from higher co-financing rates; it also feels that the situation of regions which previously benefited from a co-financing rate of 80 %, and which will now receive only 55 %, should be addressed.
On the planned thematic concentration of measures and investment priorities, the Committee asks that other social indicators be considered in addition to gross national income per capita for classifying Member States according to the requirements that apply to them.
In the EESC's view, cohesion policy must allow areas with structural and permanent disadvantages to effectively tackle their specific, complex challenges. It therefore welcomes, for example, the proposed mechanism for resolving legal and administrative obstacles in cross-border issues. The mechanism could strengthen opportunities for cooperation on regional challenges between cross-border regions (40 % of EU territory) and contribute to legal harmonisation and territorial cohesion.
Etele Baráth, rapporteur for the opinion on this subject, said as regards the factors for success:
If the Commission wants the mechanism to be a success, it must ensure legal certainty for potential users and offset possible imbalances between partners. Backward steps and detrimental effects for the parties involved must be avoided. In order to ensure accessibility, offering e-governance facilities should be considered for encouraging participation and the possibility of linking up the various cohesion funds and the mechanism.
On the European Territorial Cooperation goal, the EESC proposes in an opinion on the subject:
- reinforcing young people's involvement through specific mobility programmes;
- prioritising the reduction of the digital divide by incorporating digital transformation and skills improvements into the architecture of all ETC programmes; and
- considering the incorporation of civil protection and mitigation of major risks as a priority.
In general, the Committee advocates a more integrated funding approach as well as a link to the European Semester and Reform Support Programmes for cohesion policy. Synergies and integration with and between funding programmes and investment tools and the participation of the private sector should be further reinforced. This approach should also be reflected in territorial cooperation, whose budget should be increased. Investment strategies should be geared to the objectives of macro-regions and territorial and cross-border cooperation in order to address complex phenomena such as migration.
As stakeholders and civil society organisations play a vital role as intermediaries in this field, the EESC welcomes the Commission's efforts to improve multi-level governance. However, the European Code of Conduct on Partnership should be fully respected at all levels and strengthened with strong guarantees and measures for ensuring its full implementation. The EESC recommends establishing a European Civil Society Cohesion Forum so as to structure the involvement of civil society organisations at EU level in the process of monitoring cohesion policy implementation.
Finally, the Committee is of the view that EU-funded projects must be better communicated in order to raise public awareness about the added value of the European Union. A more effective information strategy needs to be put in place.