Before Monday’s Regional Development Committee (REGI) hearing on “EU instruments and recovery from Covid-19, a view from towns and cities” a poignant and shocking incident reminded the committee and its guests that the COVID-crisis is, in many ways, far from over.
On Friday night, REGI committee member Pascal Arimont (BE, EPP), had a Molotov cocktail thrown underneath his children’s bedroom window and hateful slogans sprayed on his garage door by militant anti-vaxxers.
Opening the hearing, REGI chair Younous Omarjee (FR, Left), added that the incident showed that “our societies are divided, and elected members, be it mayors, MPs or MEPs, are often in the front line of disgraceful vilification in an increasingly hostile environment”.
As for the hearing itself, featuring four mayors from Bulgaria, Italy, Poland and the French overseas department and region of Réunion, a perhaps unlikely villain emerged when it came to which of these four Member States had managed least well in directing the EU’s recovery funds to some municipalities in need: France.
Starting with the Vratsa, of ancient Thracian origin and now the largest city in north-western Bulgaria, the answers to the REGI committee chair’s main questions, “how recovery funds and cohesion policy are being handled on the ground”, and whether municipalities had been consulted and involved by state authorities, sounded broadly positive.
Vratsa’s mayor Kalin Kamenov reported that fast and unbureaucratic fund distribution had helped the city to maintain crisis support teams for citizens, and to attract direct investments, resulting in the creation of 1500 new jobs. “Despite the pandemic, economic activity did not shut down”, Kamenov reported.
His colleague Pierluigi Biondi, Mayor of L’Aquila, the central Italian city that gained sad prominence in 2009 when an earthquake almost completely destroyed it, killing 308 inhabitants and making around 65,000 homeless, had a similar story to tell.
"Vratsa’s mayor Kalin Kamenov reported that fast and unbureaucratic fund distribution had helped the city to maintain crisis support teams for citizens, and to attract direct investments, resulting in the creation of 1500 new jobs. “Despite the pandemic, economic activity did not shut down”, Kamenov reported"
Just before the pandemic started, L’Aquila had come to the end of a ten-year reconstruction plan worth €1.8bn, largely EU-funded. “We have been the biggest building site in Europe”, Biondi recalled, and “every time a new school, hospital or even a new shop opened, it was party time!”
When the pandemic struck, the city was well versed in the use of emergency funds and, as in Bulgaria, found “good flexibility” shown by the EU when making funds available and by Italy when distributing them. “The most important tool for us has been the guaranteed bank credits, enabling us to invest, and improve liquidity for local companies in difficulty”, explained Biondi.
Perhaps the flexibility shown for using funds in crisis situations could be used for non-crisis ones in the future, he suggested, adding that “if we had tried to follow the regulations strictly, we would have been in real trouble”.
This suggestion was taken up by many REGI members, including Biondi’s Fratelli d’Italia party colleague Raffaele Fitto, co-president of the ECR Group, who argued that “with urgency and flexibility, better results were achieved than normally”.
Omarjee meanwhile commented: “This flexibility and efficiency should be source of inspiration for future EU legislation. We blew up all the habitual modes of thought, as we have been advocating for a long time. The Commission wasn’t keen initially, but now they are learning by seeing the results.”
Krystyna Danilecka-Wojewódzka, mayor of Słupsk, a city rich in medieval history in northwest Poland near the Baltic coast, highlighted that EU regional funding had helped to build, and subsequent recovery funding, to equip and fully prepare the city’s new hospital for the pandemic as it continues.
Danilecka-Wojewódzka , who succeeded Parliament’s current chair of the Delegation on Relations with Belarus, Robert Biedroń, as mayor of Słupsk, also underlined the importance of investment for local entrepreneurs made possible by EU money: “For us, like for everybody, the pandemic was trying, but it was also inspiring: a local start-up designed and produced a robot that can disinfect small rooms without any person having to be present”.
Another area universally acknowledged to have been severely challenged during the pandemic, with Słupsk no exception, education, also benefitted from recovery funds. According to Danilecka-Wojewódzka, enough laptops and PCs for all citizens in need of them were procured to enable proper distance teaching and learning.
“We have asked the French authorities responsible for the regions for €11m more funding from EU instruments in November 2020, and we are still waiting for an answer” Ericka Bareigts, Mayor of Saint Denis de la Réunion
“EU funds arrived quickly, the procedures were simple, and training to handle them was provided”, the mayor concluded.
This kind of vital support, among many others, has, unfortunately, so far not been made available to her colleague Ericka Bareigts, Mayor of Saint Denis de la Réunion, the biggest city on the French island 10,000 kilometres away from Brussels in the Indian Ocean.
In a city where 40 percent of its inhabitants still live below the poverty line, Mayor Bareigts had to finance the procurement of IT material for schools largely from a communal budget.
“We have asked the French authorities responsible for the regions for €11m more funding from EU instruments in November 2020, and we are still waiting for an answer”, she explained.
And she gave another example of Paris apparently not looking with too much favour to its outermost region which is, COVID apart, also very much on the climate change frontline.
“In the context of regional environmental development, we asked for €10m to protect the biodiversity in our two rivers. We got €149,000.”
The REGI committee is currently addressing development in the outermost regions with chair Omarjee’s own-initiative (INI) report “islands and cohesion policy: current situation and future challenges”, which was considered by the committee a little later that afternoon.
Concerning cities and towns, REGI already had its proposals ready for approval in the form of Katalin Cseh’s (Renew, HU) INI report “challenges for urban areas in the post-COVID-19 era”, which was adopted during the vote of the day.
The rapporteur told the Parliament Magazine on Monday that, despite being hit hard by the pandemic, cities had “shown leadership in managing the crisis on the frontline”.
For the committee, there was “no doubt that cities must be engaged as key partners in the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic toward an inclusive, sustainable and resilient Europe. It’s the only way to address long-standing vulnerabilities and persistent inequalities, and the report adopted today recognises that”.
In terms of proposals, Cseh specified that the report wants Council and Member States to “allocate up to 15 percent of the funding embedded in national recovery and resilience plans for urban areas to address post-COVID-19 challenges.”
In addition, there’s also a call for “more direct EU funding to be made available to local and regional authorities and for the European Urban Initiative to be given a greater budget and scope”.