EU cohesion funds must keep serving long-term goals, says local admin chief –

EU cohesion funds must keep serving long-term goals, says local admin chief –

Long-term investment tools of the EU should be used for ‘strategic’ planning instead of ‘tactical’ operational targets, the president of the EU’s peripheral maritime regions told EURACTIV.

The debate around the future of the cohesion policy – the EU’s main investment policy to tackle regional disparities – has already started, three years from the Commission’s expected proposal on the matter for the next EU programming period of 2028-2034.

The EU executive scheduled a revision of the multi-financial framework (MFF) for the second quarter of 2023, which will likely also deal with the issue as cohesion policy represents a consistent part of the EU budget.

“I have very much confidence that we take lessons from the past and come up with a very good proposal to make these instruments more agile and more up to the task,” said Cees Loggen, president of the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions (CPMR), in an interview with EURACTIV.

For Loggen, who is also the regional minister of the Dutch province of Noord-Holland, the best solution is a single investment tool for all shared management funds in the EU budget with the cohesion policy at its core.

“For almost 25 years, I have heard the calls for simplifying instruments, downscaling rules etc […] and in these 25 years, I only saw increasingly more complex rules,” he said.

In a reflection paper published in October, CPMR presented five potential settings for the post-2027 cohesion policy – each named after a famous film.

The proposed scenarios ranged from ‘The Matrix’, that is with an innovative architecture for EU’s territorial funds, to ‘Frozen’, meaning the preservation of the status quo.

The worst option – called ‘Titanic’ – implies the end of cohesion policy as we know it, with an increased renationalisation and less involvement of local and regional authorities.

Competition with RFF

The other main aspect of the ‘Titanic’ scenario is the abandoning of the shared management approach in favour of a direct management one similar to the Recovery and resilience facility (RFF) used for the disbursement of NextGenerationEU, the EU flagship initiative to mitigate the economic and social impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A certain competition started to arise between the payment-by-result model of the recovery funds and the traditional cost-related approach of the cohesion policy, which could be less easy to spend.

But according to Loggen, cohesion policy serves long-term goals and cannot be compared to recovery funds as they’re intrinsically two different things.

“If your house is on fire, you don’t rent a mover to put your furniture out: you save what you can and you accept the rest is damaged by the fire or the water from the fire brigade,” he explained.

Restructuring a house, on the other hand, is a different task as it includes the need to set rules that serve different long-term objectives.

“You start saying: I want a house with enough rooms for my guests, or for my children, it’s a totally different way of thinking and planning,” he continued in the analogy.

“For recovery funds, you have to act swiftly so you need to accept that the money you spent on that is maybe not the best way to spend,” he added.

Cohesion, recovery funds clash causing headaches for regions

Critics are warning of significant delays in the EU’s cohesion policy spending following the adoption of the bloc’s long-term regional support plan, while stakeholders say more time is needed at the local level to devise spending strategies for recovery aid …

Cohesion money on strategic planning

However, the pressure on cohesion funds is mounting as they often remain unused by local authorities while the easier criteria of the recovery money enable member states to spend it with fewer barriers.

In October, the Commission announced a new investment tool that would redirect unused funds from the cohesion policy to support people and companies to pay their increased energy bills.

Loggen criticised this recent decision, advising that cohesion money should not be used for these purposes as it is not the most logical way to spend it.

“Cohesion funds is a strategic instrument – it’s a long-term investment tool. If this money is not spent, you should not spend it on tactical operational targets but rather on strategic goals,” he said.

According to him, unspent money that comes back to Brussels should be used for strategic planning. The energy crisis offers an example, in this sense.

“We have a lot of member states who have very old energy-producing – or even coal – installations. Why don’t use that on a strategic level to help these installations to become greener?” he suggested.

Regional fund spending slow despite Commission claims

EU countries have been much slower to spend structural funds aimed at reducing regional and social inequalities than in the previous seven-year budgetary period, figures from the European Commission show.

Member states had by the end of last year spent 56% …

Treaties reform

Rethinking of the EU’s investment tools should be accompanied by a reform of the EU treaties, the last significant change dating back to the 1992 Maastricht treaty, according to Loggen.

“We might [change the treaties] because the world is changing,” he said.

In terms of topics, climate change and migration should have a privileged space in a potential reform, Loggen stressed, highlighting projections that around 80 million to 200 million people are expected to become climate refugees in the upcoming years.

“If we have a reform of the treaties, we should consider a multi-level government approach, with the regions at the heart of this new EU’s thinking,” he concluded.

[Edited by János Allenbach-Ammann]

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