Regions key to tackling EU challenges
Regional policy can help grow business, foster innovation and create jobs, argues Markku Markkula.
Regional policy rarely comes under the spotlight of public debate in Europe. Regional development ministers do not gather in Brussels for fraught meetings and there are few noisy political clashes or divisive votes in the European Parliament.
Yet EU cohesion policy - valued at €350bn between 2014-2020 - is used to drive sustainable growth, promote job creation, increase social inclusion, spur innovation and increase the public sector’s capacity to deliver services and opportunities for citizens.
Each time the Union is confronted by serious challenges - from the economic crisis to the unprecedented flow of refugees seen in recent months - cohesion policy is called upon and structural funds are identified as one of the most effective tools in shaping the EU’s response to shared problems.
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Making cohesion policy work effectively needs the knowledge of those working in our communities. It is a powerful investment tool for the vast army of practitioners - local administrators, experts, academics and politicians – who work every day to improve how we use it.
This wealth of experience will be shared in Brussels on 12-15 October as many of them attend Open Days organised each year by the European Committee of the Regions and the European Commission’s Directorate for Regional and Urban Policy.
The principal themes of this year’s event are priority issues for the EU and the Committee of the Regions. The themes include job creation, modernising Europe, the energy union, the digital single market and urban and rural development.
The headline of the event - ‘Europe’s regions and cities: partners for investment and growth’ - reinforces a message which was shared by Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission’s President, during our CoR Plenary in June.
The message is that local leaders have a pivotal role in opening up new opportunities for economic and social growth.
Economic growth and reducing regional disparity - the goals of cohesion policy - cannot be achieved without local leaders who can inspire change, reinvigorate our economies and promote innovation.
We – as local and regional leaders - are also very aware how hard it is to select priorities and innovate when businesses are suffering, unemployment is increasing and national funds are shrinking. Innovation and prioritisation require openness and partnership. Open Days represents the best example of this in policymaking.
The event gathers leaders of EU regions, European commissioners and 800 high-level speakers from national, regional and local administrations and universities, offering in-depth discussions and cross-cutting debates.
More than 6000 people from 40 countries will be in Brussels attending some 140 events. Now in its 13th year, Open Days is an opportunity to assess the state of health of our growth strategies and their impact on the lives of citizens and businesses.
It will review the progress that has been made to boost the integration of EU and local measures in areas such as energy, the digital economy and society to achieve new urban development. It will also help identify bottlenecks and offer possible solutions.
We will also discuss the most recent developments in the EU’s approach to growth. In particular how the €315bn EU Investment Plan can complement structural funds through attracting private investment.
To make sure that these changes bring new opportunities for regions and cities, the Committee continues to work to deliver solid opinions on all strategic aspects of the new programme’s implementation.
At the same time, we are renewing partnerships - such as the Action Plan with the European Investment Bank - to promote participation by regions and cities.
The goal of cohesion policy is to achieve economic, social and territorial cohesion and reduce disparities - a goal that cannot be achieved without innovating our economies and societies. Smart specialisation strategies and societal innovations are key challenges.
As local and regional leaders are aware, the major challenge is to prioritise and innovate when businesses are suffering, unemployment is rising and public funds are dwindling.
However, we know full well that only a clear choice of priorities and serious investment in bottom-up innovation can help us create new opportunities for economic and social growth. Smart specialisation and societal innovation can only work if choices are based on real knowledge of local potential and if the right actors are involved.
Effective policies require partnerships, which is why we at the Committee insist on respecting the “Partnership Principle” introduced by the EU when it agreed on the use of structural funds rules for 2014-20.
Open Days must reinforce the awareness among politicians and policymakers that the only guarantee that investment plans can address real problems and are accepted is if local leaders – in politics, business and society - have a chance of shared ownership in enriching policies.
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