Structural Funds have contributed significantly to job creation, job market reintegration and social inclusion and proved exceptionally useful during the economic crisis. Now, with the Sixth Cohesion Report entitled “Investment for jobs and growth: promoting economic, social and territorial cohesion in the Union,” there is a chance to strengthen and renew cohesion policy.
My report, recently discussed in the Regional Development Committee, contains three strategic issues as well as important questions about the Sixth Cohesion Report.
First of all, we must address the issue of late payments from the former programming period and the delay in the approval and execution of operational programmes in the current programming period.
The backlog in payments for the 2007-2013 programming period has reached nearly 25 billion euros and imposes a heavy burden on the budgets of Member States and on the final beneficiaries. Solving these persistent problems with liquidity, which pose a serious threat to cohesion policy, is essential. Therefore, I call on the Commission to elaborate a roadmap with a timeline of concrete, step-by-step policy actions, backed up by precise budgetary means in order to eliminate the backlog. We have to have tangible results already in 2015.
The adoption of new operational programmes must speed up as only about half of them (not counting the European Social Fund Operational Programmes) have been approved by early 2015. For this reason, I call on the Commission to explain the financial impact of the delay in payments and to put forward solutions to limit the damage.
Secondly, cohesion policy should not be reduced to nothing more than a tool for achieving the aims of the EU2020 Strategy. The original role of cohesion policy as defined in the Treaties – which is the reduction of regional disparities – must be emphasized more.
Thirdly, we have to start dealing with the future of cohesion policy beyond 2020, otherwise we will face serious time constraints in 2019. Besides preparing the post-2020 cohesion policy, a newly elected Parliament and a new Commission will have one year to cope with the final tasks of the implementation of the EU2020 Strategy, the elaboration of the new multiannual financial framework. Consequently, planning the future of EU cohesion policy must start soon.
Beyond these strategic issues, the report discusses other aspects of the Sixth Cohesion Report.
The financial, economic and social crisis has proved the utility of cohesion policy because in many Member States, Structural Funds became the main source of investment. The results of cohesion policy, the EU’s most comprehensive investment policy, are unambiguous and tangible. Still, the crisis has highlighted the need to focus more on the efficiency of cohesion policy in 2014-2020. Thematic concentration is welcome, however, it has to be flexible enough to allow considering local and regional specificities. At the same time, simplifying administrative procedures would enormously improve efficiency.
The issue of employment deserves close attention. The crisis has had a catastrophic impact on job markets, but the Structural Funds were able to contribute significantly to job creation, job market reintegration and social inclusion. The report contains four main ideas on this subject:
- For the efficiency of the European Social Fund, the relevant infrastructure and institutions must be in place. These latter can be created and strengthened by the European Regional Development Fund, therefore the integral use of funds should be supported.
- The role of SMEs in job creation and smart growth is undeniable. A regulatory framework and administrative environment that promotes access to financing for SMEs and reduces their bureaucratic burdens is very much needed.
- Youth unemployment has become alarming as a result of the crisis, twice as much as that of adults. Structural Funds have to be mobilized as soon as possible in order to support fighting youth employment.
- Job market integration remains an important element of social inclusion. The inclusion of disadvantaged groups, the Roma people and people with disabilities can be significantly promoted through measures supporting employment.
The Sixth Cohesion Report devoted little attention to the territorial dimension. Strengthening cross-border cooperation and European Territorial Cooperation is indispensable since many areas such as infrastructure, job market mobility, environment, water use, waste management, tourism, and R&D have a cross-border dimension. European Groupings of Territorial Cooperation (EGTCs) make up an essential element of comprehensive, integrated territorial development. It is also important to pay due attention to the relationship of rural development and cohesion policy.
The Sixth Cohesion Report provides an opportunity to strengthen and to renew cohesion policy. My report aims at contributing to achieve this objective.