Cohesion policy is our best tool against Euroscepticism

Written by Markku Markkula on 10 October 2016 in Opinion
Opinion

Supporting cities and regions and encouraging them to work together can restore confidence in Europe, writes Markku Markkula.

Markku Markkula | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual


How to intensify growth, cohesion and job creation in Europe's regions and cities is a priority for us all.

From its very beginning, the EU has devoted much attention to reducing disparities among and within member states, creating new opportunities for social and business innovation and promoting a better quality of life. 

Thousands of local and regional authorities are working throughout Europe to deliver cohesion policy's investment programmes, which are worth almost €640bn between 2014 and 2020 (€454bn come from European Structural and Investment Fund; the rest from national and regional matching funds).


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This growth policy is unique not only in terms of resources, but also because it benefits all regions in all countries, engaging thousands of municipalities, universities, small and medium enterprises, associations, research centres and NGOs. 

It is a collective effort to pursue a better way of growing together. No other policy, tool or plan has this capacity of reaching out to all different EU local communities, with such a bold and massive investment on participated, inclusive and sustainable growth.

This is why the European Committee of the Regions works tirelessly to improve cohesion policy. We support local authorities in charge of its delivery, to spread best practices and to cooperate with - and put pressure on - EU legislators to overcome problems.

We also recognise that if we are to create a stronger cohesion policy fit for the future, it needs reform to make it more efficient, more result oriented and simpler.

The European Week of Regions and Cities 2016 - the world's largest event focused on local development - represents a precious opportunity to exchange experience, assess the impact and discuss priorities with EU, national and local leaders. 

The key message of this year's Week is that only by integrating cohesion policy's structural and investment funds with other financial instruments such as the European fund for strategic investment, can we make a difference in tackling Europe's investment gap. 

We must also recognise that financial instruments cannot replace grants when it comes to reducing disparities and spreading growth and innovation, especially in the less developed areas.

For citizens, communities and businesses to fully exploit the investment potential, we need to simplify structural funds. This may sound like a technical problem, but it is also a political question. Involving different actors in delivering EU co-funded investment can be a complex exercise. 

This complexity rises if cohesion policy becomes a lever to promote member states' compliance with the EU legislation in strategic sectors such as public procurement or environmental protection - as was the case during the 2013 reform.

If we add the late adoption of the 2014-2020 regulations and the introduction of tougher rules on audit and control entities, we can understand why the use of available funding is currently worryingly low. This risks being a perfect argument for those who believe Europe does much less than it does, with fewer resources and capacities. 

Showing added value on the ground is the only way to protect cohesion policy from the fury of Euroscepticism. Europe's regions need to rely on a timely, fully-fledged growth policy and innovative, well targeted and selective financial instruments.

For this reason, together with the European Investment Bank and the European Commission, we will ensure that the second phase of the investment plan for Europe, with its European fund for strategic investments 2.0, is closer to the needs of regional and local economies, not only by supporting SMEs - as was the case in the past months - but also promoting regional investment platforms, matching relevant investment tools, projects and partners. This will allow us to increase the quality and impact of EU supported investment projects.

Together, these commitments will form part of the response that locally elected politicians can give to citizens, who are witnessing the economic crisis transform into a social and institutional crisis. Cohesion is and must remain a core task for our Union.

Its role becomes even more relevant in a time where isolation, social conflicts and exclusion risk feeding populism, racism, xenophobia or radicalisation of migrant communities.

The best argument the EU has to regain citizens' confidence lays in its capacity to deliver results and show that together we are better. Together we can grow faster, make our societies more inclusive and innovative, our business more competitive and green, our cities more dynamic.

Cohesion policy is one of the best tools we have to make this a reality. If regional policy fails, Europe risks failing. If it succeeds and keeps its promises, we can succeed together, convince and inspire.

 

About the author

Markku Markkula is President of the European Committee of the Regions

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