EU regions and cities are calling on the European Commission and the Member States to intervene to speed up the adoption and launch of 2014-2020 cohesion policy investment plans. Proposed measures include the exclusion of national and regional co-financing from the Stability Pact ceilings, greater administrative assistance for regions and managing authorities and a more active role for the European Investment Bank in providing tailored loans and project oversight.
As confirmed by the EU Commissioner for Regional Policy, Corina Creţu, at the Committee of the Regions' plenary session held on 3-4 December, the launch of 2014-2020 Structural Funds is facing heavy delays. With the first programming year about to end, only 40 out of 535 operational programmes have been adopted. Those programmes are in many Member States the main investment tool in local communities striving to overcome the recession. The Committee of the Regions therefore calls for a joint institutional effort aimed at preserving the impact of 2014-2020 cohesion policy, removing the bottlenecks encountered in implementation during the previous programming phase and preventing some of the new provisions introduced with the reform from jeopardising the effectiveness of planned investment. "Against heavy cuts in public budgets, cohesion policy has become for many regions the only channel through which public investment programmes and quality services for citizens are supported," said Nicola Zingaretti (IT/PES), President of the Lazio Region and rapporteur for the CoR opinion on the Sixth Cohesion Report.
In the opinion, regions and cities express several concerns about the impact of the new rules introduced in December 2013, in particular with regard to all new "conditionalities" and the performance framework. The effectiveness of these new provisions should be carefully assessed over the coming years. In this respect, Mr Zingaretti stressed: "Cohesion policy may be conceived in Brussels, but it is rooted in our municipalities and regions, and it involves even the smallest and most remote local communities. This is why it must be further strengthened in the future". To this end, the Committee also feels that a Cohesion Policy Council needs to be set up, in line with the commitment of the Italian Presidency of the Council of the EU, to ensure a proper political debate on the EU's main investment tool.
At the beginning of the new programming phase, regions and cities also urgently reiterated their request to exclude from the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) debt calculation public spending made by Member States and local and regional authorities as part of structural funds co-financing. This measure would free up resources for investment selected on the basis of European interest and speed up take-up of funds. The need for greater flexibility in applying the provisions of the SGP was at the heart of the opinion on Promoting quality of public spending in matters subject to EU action, drafted by the Committee's First Vice-President and President of the Umbria Region, Catiuscia Marini (IT/PES ). Recalling the conclusions of the European Council of 27 June 2014 on "making best use of the flexibility that is built into the existing Stability and Growth Pact rules", and the Commission's own evaluation that "the EU fiscal framework offers enough scope to balance the acknowledgment of productive public investment needs with fiscal discipline objectives", regional and local leaders ask the European Commission to publish a communication on how it intends to apply the existing flexibility provisions of the SGP to promote the public investments needed to boost economic growth.
The Commission should also present a White Paper setting out EU categories for quality of public investment shown in public expenditure accounts according to long-term effects. This could pave the way for a "golden rule" allowing for a separation in public accounts between current spending and investment, so as to avoid only the short-term negative "costs" of public investments with long-term net benefits being taken into consideration. In this connection, Ms Marini, stressed that the investment plan presented by President Juncker is a first step in the right direction, for it places at the top of the EU agenda the need to relaunch investment also by introducing initial elements of flexibility into the implementation of the SGP.
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