The budgetary and policy debates on the post-2020 reform have potentially major implications for the future of Cohesion policy. In my view, post-2020 Cohesion Policy should continue to pursue the reduction of regional disparities. The importance of maintaining a strong Cohesion Policy is particularly evident in small Member States, like Croatia.
It is clear that the EU’s future multiannual financial framework will face special challenges. Consequently, the weighting of European policy will shift. Most obviously, the EU budget will be under pressure as a result of Brexit and the loss of the second largest net payer. The spending review being conducted within the European Commission is looking at scenarios of cuts of 15-30 percent in the budgets of different policy headings. In future, assistance from the EU Structural and Investment Funds should be better integrated and more effective in reaching the regional and local level.
Within the framework of the fund-specific objectives, Cohesion Policy supports smart, sustainable, innovative and inclusive growth and employment. Because of its fundamental role in strengthening the EU’s economic, social and territorial cohesion, we should all make sure that Cohesion Policy will continue to be an investment area of outstanding importance and a key element of EU economic and employment policy.
In the next programming period,all regions within the EU will continue to be supported by Cohesion Policy – differentiated according to their respective structural development and their regional needs. Therefore, the most important goal remains to reduce the backlog of severely disadvantaged regions. At the same time, however, Cohesion Policy should also provide funds to help regions effectively tackle demographic change and brain-drain.
Furthermore, simplification of the regulatory framework and harmonisation of rules across the ESI Funds and potentially other EU instruments has been extensively discussed, but the challenge will be to simplify and maybe differentiate while ensuring that the progress with reducing the error rate is not reversed. Flexibility is another important theme, either by enabling programmes to respond more quickly to unexpected shocks. The Structural Reform Service is likely to play a greater role in developing the institutional and policy frameworks, including administrative capacity-building, for implementing the policy.
The existing Cohesion Policy already addresses many of these challenges and contributes to mobilisation at a local and regional level, which is crucial when it comes to achieving concrete results.The challenge for the EU is how to promote stronger and sustainable growth while ensuring that national, regional and local levels are able to exploit opportunities from globalising trade and technological change. In this regard, recent research has focused on the longer term pathways of economic development, providing a better understanding not just of the current or recent development positions but how these are evolving over time – and their prospects for sustainable development in future, in particular whether lagging regions have a prospect of catching up.
Smart specialisation is a particularly successful working methodology for focusing resources regionally. It is based on each region’s specific strength and is important for the whole Europe to develop. A clearer focus on smart specialisation in the next programming period would lead to a more strategic linkage between projects, better synergies with other EU programmes, and better complementarity and cooperation between regions across Europe.
While maintaining its focus on disparities, future Cohesion Policy should also be capable of addressing the different social, territorial and economic realities in Member States. In this respect, the forthcoming discussions regarding the allocation mechanism of the next Cohesion Policy and its thematic concentration could also explore some new avenues such as introducing specific criteria related to national and/or regional needs and particularities.
Cohesion Policy has been a driver for economic growth and jobs and has helped many regions to develop. Therefore, it clearly has an added value. During and in the aftermath of the economic and financial crises it helped to prevent major disruptions in many regions. So, this policy should remain an important part of the future EU budget. But we should be thinking if we can further enhance its EU added value by focusing even more on projects that contribute strongly to EU priorities, notably growth and jobs. An important question is whether we should focus more on regions in need. We need to reflect how we can help regions that are strongly affected by globalisation and technological change.