"Regional policy is a success story of European integration" and there is no alternative to continuing it. This was the main message delivered by the regional policy commissioner-designate Johannes Hahn (Austria) during his hearing at the European Parliament on Thursday. Mr Hahn strongly advocated a strategic and integrated approach to regional policy, highlighting his opposition to any attempts to renationalise it .
The commissioner-designate stressed the need to invest more EU regional policy money in education and creativity to boost competitiveness and innovation, which would help get Europe out of the current crisis. He added that "no region in Europe can assume prosperity forever", so it is important for regions to diversify their economic activities in order to sustain their successes. "We mustn't leave the poorest regions behind. Everyone must get a fair chance to participate in progress and prosperity".
Investing in research, education and innovation
Answering concerns expressed by Lambert van Nistelrooij (EPP, NL) about the "increasing trend to chop up funds on a sectoral basis", Mr Hahn claimed that only an integrated policy approach with adequate resources can meet the policy objectives.
Constanze Angela Krehl (S&D, DE) quizzed the commissioner-designate's on the future use of the European social fund. Mr Hahn pointed out that "Europe needs well educated people" to boost successful business. Creativity "should be promoted from the kindergarten" and the EU "has a role to play" here, he added, stressing the need to invest more EU regional policy money in research, education and innovation, but also infrastructure in order to help Europe get out of the current crisis.
Several MEPs, among them Franz Obermayr (NI, Austria) and Jan Olbrycht (EPP, Poland) were interested in future funding of regional and cohesion policy. Mr Hahn stated that he considered the current level of funding as a "good guideline" for future negotiations and that he would fight for a strong budget - "but I need your support for that", he told MEPs.
Support for "transitional regions"
Elie Hoarau (GUE/NGL, FR) and Nuno Teixeira (EPP, PT) called for more support for outermost regions. Mr Hahn reassured them that such regions would continue enjoying special EU attention. He also promised continuing support for so-called "transitional" regions. "We will find a solution here", he said. John Bufton (EFD, UK) asked if Wales would continue receiving EU help, which in fact is "people's money". The commissioner-designate confirmed this, emphasising that Wales has benefited a lot from EU membership.
Simplification of funding rules and procedures
According to Evgeni Kirilov (S&D, BG), recipients often have difficulties in accessing structural funds. The commissioner-designate expressed hope that the "third simplification package", to be adopted soon, will improve the situation. Mr Hahn supported the simplification of funding rules and procedures, at the same time advocating "zero tolerance for errors" in using EU money.
Elisabeth Schroedter (Greens/EFA, DE) asked the commissioner-designate about his intention to deal with any information indicating the improper use of EU regional funds. Mr Hahn said he would follow it up and encourage the Court of Auditors to investigate the matter and that he strongly favoured the fight against fraud. Recent developments would, however, result in a "tremendous catch-up" and improvements.
Involvement and participation of regional and local authorities
Responding to a question raised by Old?ich Vlasák (ECR, CZ) on how to better involve local and regional authorities, Mr Hahn strongly favoured more active involvement of regional and local authorities. Taking subsidiarity seriously and working together with many players might sometimes take a while, "but it pays and the impact of our measures is bigger".
"I support any kind of policy that transcends borders, any kinds of borders", the Commissioner-designate replied to Marie-Thérèse Sanchez-Schmid (EPP, FR), who asked him if cross-border policy was one of his priorities. That kind of policy would create a real added value and he therefore strongly supported better co-operation between regions.
In the chair: Danuta HÜBNER (EPP, PL)