Is cohesion policy's future at risk?
EU cohesion policy, whose long term future is currently under the spotlight, has come under fire on two fronts.
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Cohesion policy targets all regions and cities in the EU in order to support job creation, business competitiveness, economic growth. The aim is to reduce regional disparities in income, wealth and opportunities.
For the 2014-2020 programming period, the EU is allocating some €63.4bn in cohesion funds.
Cohesion funding for the post-2020 period is under review and formed part of the European Commission's recently published reflection paper on the future of EU finances.
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The Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions (CPMR), a body that represents coastal and outermost regions in Europe, says it is concerned by possible plans to limit cohesion funds to less developed regions only.
The Rennes-based CPMR says such a "drastic" scenario "would harm the EU's efforts to promote balanced development across Europe and send the wrong signal to European citizens at a time when solidarity in Europe is more needed than ever."
It says cohesion policy's success should be more widely acknowledged.
The CPMR is "worried about the Commission's more radical plans" to water down the post-2020 EU budget for cohesion policy.
If enacted, it says this will "further increase regional disparities and undermine the realisation of the EU's overall objectives."
CPMR Secretary General Eleni Marianou said, "It is worrying that yet again the Commission has highlighted economic, social and environmental considerations for sustainable growth, but has failed to mention the clear need for a territorial dimension."
Further criticism of possible plans to cut cohesion funds came from John Bachtler, director of the European Policies Research Centre, who called for more effective cohesion policy.
Speaking at the recent Cohesion Forum in Brussels on 27 June, organised by the Commission, he said that cohesion funds were important on grounds of solidarity.
But he said there is a widening gap between frontier regions and lagging regions.
"There is a risk of growing increasing economic and social disconnection between the motors of EU growth (capital cities and other regions) and other regions," said Bachtler.
Their comments come with a Eurobarometer survey on citizens' awareness and perceptions of EU regional policy saying that close to 80 per cent of EU citizens believe in the positive impact of EU-funded projects in their city or region.
Awareness of such projects varies greatly from one country to another, depending on the prominence and number of cohesion policy projects locally.
In eastern European countries, important EU funds beneficiaries, it reaches 60 per cent (Hungary) to 80 per cent (Poland), while it ranges from 14 per cent (Denmark) to 25 per cent (Germany) in western and northern Europe.
A Commission spokesperson said, "These findings highlight the need for a joint effort of stakeholders involved in cohesion policy at all levels to make EU-funded projects more visible."
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker stressed this in his speech at the cohesion forum, said the spokesperson.
Data shows that, despite the aim of closing economic disparities in Europe, such gaps may be increasing in some areas.
The situation in Greece, for example, has worsened. In 2011, four of the 13 Greek regions had a GDP per head above 75 per cent of the EU average. In 2015, the last year for which figures are available, this had fallen to just two: the capital region Attiki (95 per cent) and Notio Aigalo (75 per cent).
Italy has also suffered during the crisis. In 2011, five regions reported a GDP per head below 75 per cent of the EU average while in 2015 seven regions did.
In Portugal, only two regions are above the 75 per cent threshold: Lisbon (103 per cent) and Algarve (79 per cent).
Defending the policy, regional policy Commissioner Corina Crețu said, "The EU invests in tens of thousands of projects and each of them improves the citizens' everyday lives, creates job opportunities near them or fuels the local economy.
"They are all European success stories and concrete illustrations of EU solidarity, right in your backyard. If we want citizens to get actively involved in the discussion on the future of our Union, we - not only the EU, but also member states and local authorities - need to be better at showing what the EU does for them."
Committee of the Regions President Markku Markkula said, "Cohesion policy is a treaty obligation and has a proven added value. It also contributes to economic governance and ensures a sustainable growth potential.
"This is why regional and local political leaders will fight to secure that cohesion policy plays a key role after 2020 in the same proportion as today while keeping its three categories of regions."