At the Europe Together event in Valencia, we adopted the following statement on the EU Cohesion Policy, including the comments received here online. We thank you for your contribution. Continue the discussion with us on how to shape the future of Europe.
Investment has fallen by 15% in the EU since the outbreak of the financial crisis in 2007 while the gap between poorest and richest regions has widened. This is untenable: The EU needs a credible and ambitious investment agenda which creates sustainable growth and quality jobs, and supports the ecological transition. Such an investment agenda requires a more robust EU cohesion policy, which represents at the same time the EU’s main investment tool and the most significant expression of solidarity within the Union. Cohesion Policy was created 30 years ago to reduce regional disparity, ensuring nobody is left behind.
Against this background, we call for a stronger EU cohesion policy based on the following ten priorities:
1. Prepare for the future. Cohesion policy must be part of a coordinated, comprehensive stimulus programme to strengthen the ongoing Fourth Industrial and technological Revolution in Europe. With our action we are setting ambitious targets for the digital and ecological transition, and boosting education, research and innovation. A better future will be based on a broader dialogue with the society and concrete measures to tackle inequalities and challenge climate change and clean energy issues.
2. Put human capital first. The future cohesion policy should be geared to more inclusive growth and give priority to qualitative and human capital investment. The focus must be on high-quality education, training and vocational training to address youth unemployment, promote gender balance as well as social inclusion, combat poverty, and make the work-force more resilient to globalisation. Focusing on people, we can ensure that educated, open minded citizens will be ready to use their potential to face the future challenges, leaving behind linguistic, cultural and other barriers.
3. EU support for all regions. The objective of convergence has gradually been broadened to include issues affecting all Member States, such as growth, investment and employment, as well as tackling climate change. Considering that disparities between regions have increased since the recent crises, we believe that a strong and transparent cohesion policy must apply to every single region of our Union. Targeting financial assistance at the poorest regions only would be counterproductive as it might prompt a renationalisation of cohesion policy in the richer Member States and thus a diminishing sense of solidarity throughout the EU.
4. More funding for cohesion policy. The current level of funding for cohesion in the EU budget is not sufficient. Indeed, the current EU cohesion funding, which is essential for European citizens, amounts to only 0.5% of the equivalent funding from national budgets, does not allow for EU-wide answers to the global challenges of climate change, migration or globalisation. We also reiterate our call for a “golden rule” whereby co-financing provided by local and regional authorities under EU cohesion policy is excluded from the rules of the Stability and Growth Pact.
5. Evaluate the quality of progress, not just the figures. As indicated by the Social Progress Index, regions with the highest GDP per capita are not necessarily the top performers in terms of social progress. We therefore stress the need to include this Index in the new generation of European Structural and Investment Funds to complement the current GDP-based measurement. Demographic, social, environmental and geographical disparities and political priorities such as the European Pillar of Social Rights and the implementation of the COP 21 agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals should be taken into account in determining eligibility for cohesion funding at regional and subregional levels.
6. A participatory cohesion policy. The “partnership principle”, which gives stakeholders a voice in decisions that concern them directly is a “win-win” process and must be upheld at all stages of planning and implementing cohesion policy, with full involvement of regions, cities, communities, social partners, chambers of commerce and associations.
7.”No borders” within our Union. A substantially increased share of the cohesion funds should be earmarked for European Territorial Cooperation, i.e. cross-border, transnational and interregional cooperation, since such activities encourage solidarity between EU regions and neighbours, and facilitate the exchange of best practice.
8. Serve the public interest, not private profit. Cohesion policy is based on regional strategies aimed at increasing economic, social and territorial cohesion and thereby ensuring the balanced and harmonious development of the EU as a whole. It supports investment through “patient capital” as part of a long-term approach to funding essential services and infrastructure. Such an approach does not fit the logic of making quick profits. Grants rather than loans must remain the main policy tool of cohesion policy.
9. Cut red tape. The complexities of cohesion policy management, and the need for further simplification, are the main challenges ahead. Applying for EU funds should be eased, particularly in order to avoid smaller entities – such as SMEs, associations and small municipalities – being put off from applying altogether. A European level training program for EU fund managers in governance at a local level could drastically cut red tape.
10. Smart and flexible. The necessary long-term planning of cohesion policy, possibly for a 5+5 year programming period, should go together with sufficient simplification and flexibility to cope with new and unforeseen challenges. We therefore call for a flexibility reserve to be created with uncommitted sums which should not be returned to the Member States.