Corina Crețu talks cohesion policy: It's up to us to do more with less
European regional policy Commissioner Corina Crețu on the importance of cohesion policy, what it will look like in the future, and what Brexit might mean for Europe's regions.
Corina Crețu | Photo credit: Natalie Hill
For a very long time, 'cohesion policy' was one of those terms I heard people use and I pretended to know what they were on about, when really I didn't have a clue. It was just very abstract to me. I was pretty certain there was a lot of money involved - almost a third of the total EU budget, I found out after a quick Google search - but the details of what the money was used for were hazy.
So I jumped at the opportunity to sit down with European regional policy Commissioner Corina Crețu and ask her to explain to me, in her own words, what exactly cohesion policy is. After all, she's the one managing it. Call it my path to personal enlightenment, Brussels-style.
First things first - "Cohesion policy was introduced in the treaty. Ironically, it was a requirement of the UK and Italy, after the mines in Wales closed. It was designed as a tool for financial solidarity among member states, in order to reduce the disparities between EU regions."
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The policy, says Crețu, "is designed for all our regions - all 300 of them. Socially, it's very important, because we invest in areas the private sector doesn't deem profitable - public transport, for instance."
But cohesion policy isn't just about building highways. "We have thematic objectives, for example establishing a low-carbon economy."
She adds, "There is no 'one-size-fits-all', and some regions still need help with basic things like water, waste water treatment, transport and so on, while others need help with research and innovation. What we want is to drive the economy and help SMEs."
And although there are huge inequalities between Europe's regions, cohesion policy, says Crețu, "benefits all regions," from the Netherlands, to Germany, to Greece.
At a time when some are critical of how much money is being spent on the EU, the Commissioner insists that, "cohesion policy is needed more than ever. I will fight for it - it is one of the most important achievements of this unique project. But like other EU achievements - freedom of movement, freedom of expression - we take it for granted."
Then I got to thinking - if, even though I live and work at the heart the EU bubble, I was unclear on what cohesion policy entails, then what about the people outside the Brussels cocoon? When I asked Commissioner Crețu about this, she admitted that at the start of her mandate, almost three years ago, "almost 80 per cent of cohesion policy beneficiaries don't know they went to a school or hospital paid for with European money. It's a very big problem."
With so many people turning on the European project, why isn't more being done to publically acknowledge that so much of the infrastructure we use every day was funded with EU cash? Here, the Romanian official, a former Vice-President of the European Parliament, blames the local authorities in charge of managing the money.
She explains that "about five per cent of each programme's budget is geared towards communicating about the project - not for ministers to carry out electoral campaigns. We have asked very clearly how this communication money is being spent. We need to be a lot tougher."
Looking to the future, there are fears cohesion policy could be in jeopardy, as the EU seeks to redesign its financing model ahead of the UK's departure from the bloc. A few months ago, the Commission published a reflection paper on the future of Europe, and in this, explains Crețu, "we have five scenarios, and unfortunately in four scenarios, cohesion policy is cut back. This means we have to look very carefully at how to engage our own resources - it's up to us to be more ambitious and do more with less."
The other option, of course, is asking member states to contribute more money. "We need to launch a very honest conversation and see if they are willing to replace UK money. Of course some countries will refuse, but you have to remember, this budget represents one per cent of the 28 member states' budgets combined. For the cost of less than a cup of coffee per person, we are asked to build highways, hospitals and so on."
The Commissioner believes that in the face of new challenges - migration, defence - the budget needs to leave room for more flexibility. Right before our interview, she explains, she granted €50m in emergency funds to Portugal, which at the time was grappling with devastating forest fires.
"We have to find a way to be much more flexible when things like this happen, this is why I am very open to changing operational programmes at the request of a member state. No one could have predicted the migration crisis, no one could have predicted the earthquake in Italy. We want to show, through this policy, that we care about the 500 million people living in Europe."
That's fair enough, Commissioner, but how flexible can you be when you're facing a gigantic UK-shaped hole in your wallet? The gap, which Crețu says is estimated between 12 and 15 per cent of the budget, may not be felt straight away.
"This all depends on the negotiations, but for us one thing is very clear - the UK has commitments to honour until 2023-– it has committed itself to fund new policies and projects until then."
And if they don't? Brussels won't be the victim, but instead smaller countries will feel the hit, and "the UK will have to explain to each region why the European Commission is unable to finance projects. This isn't a punishment, it's not a divorce bill - it's just what the UK committed itself to. The UK was in the Council when the budgets for 2014-2020 were voted on."
Other than the financial side of cohesion policy, the Commissioner has also been working on simplifying access to funds. Currently, she says, prospective beneficiaries must fill in "thousands of pages of application forms to access EU funds, but there are no conditions for accessing government funds. We need a simpler set of rules." A high-level group on the topic was set up at the start of Crețu 's mandate.
The Romanian official is adamant that "cohesion policy should be simplified, more flexible and more result-oriented. In many member states, there are projects just for the sake of having a project, and not really to promote jobs and growth."
But then what happens once the funds have been distributed? How does the Commission make sure the money is used for its intended purpose? We are, after all, talking about over €350bn.
Crețu insists that "European money is the most controlled money. We work with a board of auditors and carry out our own audits. With the last discharge, four per cent of cohesion policy funds were misused, but only 0.5 per cent was fraud. The rest was because people didn't know the rules on public procurement."
This is why, she says, she is in discussions "with both beneficiaries and contributors - people ask questions, and we have to provide the answers, because it's very important to keep this financial solidarity."
Right now, the Commissioner is working on setting up a 'cohesion alliance', in close cooperation with the Committee of the Regions (CoR), as well as Parliament.
The aim, she says, is to encourage cohesion policy beneficiaries to "speak up more loudly about what they gain from cohesion policy. I think it's very important to say how much this regional policy fund has contributed to improving their lives and wellbeing."
The alliance, which is being coordinated by the Committee of the Regions, is also a way to "raise awareness about what cohesion policy does".
Asked how the alliance will work in practice, Crețu defers to the CoR, but, she says, "you can be sure that as Commissioner, I will fight for it - it's my job."
A key feature of the cohesion alliance is the Week of European Regions and Cities taking place in early October in Brussels, where "more than 1000 people will come here from lots of different regions and share their experiences and talk about projects on different themes, such as education, health, innovation and low carbon economy, providing big momentum for cohesion policy."
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