Monday

21st May 2018

Interview

EU regions chief fires warning shot over funding cuts

  • A sign showcasing a project which received money from the European Regional Development Fund (Photo: Peter Teffer)

The EU's funds for developing its poorer regions are at risk - but for most EU member states, the budget of the so-called cohesion policy is not a number one priority.

"It is always a problem to find a front state for a battle where regions are the most important actors," the president of the Committee of the Regions, Karl-Heinz Lambertz, explained to EUobserver in an interview.

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  • Although Austria's federal government is hawkish on the EU budget, a member of one of its regional governments came to visit Committee of the Regions president Karl-Heinz Lambertz (r) to show support for the Cohesion Alliance (Photo: European Committee of the Regions)

Lambertz spoke to this website in Brussels on Friday (4 May), two days after the European Commission presented its proposal for the next seven-year budgetary framework.

The cohesion policy is one of the two areas where the commission proposed to inflict the biggest cuts - the other one being the common agriculture policy.

But while France, one of the EU's two biggest member states, immediately stood up to call the proposed five percent budget cut in the CAP "unacceptable", the proposed seven-percent cut in the cohesion policy has gone largely unchallenged by national politicians.

At least, when this website asked Lambertz to mention a member state which had stood up to defend the policy, the Belgian politician had no example.

"Our allies are the regions and the cities," he admitted.

"They must have an influence on their national government and the ministers who come and discuss these things here in the European institutions."

"I am not sure that we will find [a lot of] national governments who will have as first priority 'we are fighting for the cohesion policy'," said Lambertz.

He noted that the CAP and cohesion policy were very different in that regard.

Agriculture has a high symbolic value in several member states, where national agriculture ministers will defend their farmers.

"Even if you have less people working in the [farming] sector, it still remains a very important one in some countries," said Lambertz.

Nevertheless, there are initiatives that want to safeguard the cohesion and regional development funds from suffering from Brexit and the desire to increase spending elsewhere.

"You can find a list of our allies in the Cohesion Alliance," noted Lambertz.

The Cohesion Alliance is a cooperation group set up by the Committee of the Regions and European associations of cities and regions.

Just before the interview, Lambertz had a visit from Martin Eichtinger, a member of the provincial government of Lower Austria.

"He came to me because he wanted to sign individually the Cohesion Alliance," said Lambertz.

Austria speaks with two voices

So while Austria's federal government is one of the budget hawks that call for a smaller budget, there is a pushback at the regional level.

And while regional governments may not sit at the negotiating table, Lambertz noted that few federal governments can survive without continued backing from the regional governments.

Lambertz also said that the Committee of the Regions had "many friends in the European Parliament, from all parties".

He stressed that the commission's proposal was only the beginning of the negotiations on the budget, not the end.

"At the moment nothing is lost definitively," he noted.

The seven percent budget cut in cohesion policy proposed by commission vice-president Guenther Oettinger was larger than Lambertz expected.

He said it was not the "worst case" scenario which some had predicted in advance.

"But it is a very serious cut."

The regions chief said that it was not possible to say what the exact consequences of the budget cut would be, because the detailed rules of how the regional funds should be spent have not yet been published.

"I cannot give definitive comments without the details," he noted.

Moreover, he added that it was also not clear whether the budget cut was actually seven percent, or higher, depending on whether you calculate in prices adjusted for inflation or not.

In its press statements, the committee referred to a 10 percent budget cut.

The overall EU budget was proposed to increase from 1 percent of the EU's GDP to 1.11 percent.

The Committee of the Regions and the European Parliament are in favour of a higher percentage.

"I cannot imagine that it will [be] a smaller amount," said Lambertz.

He said he was not sure whether the budget discussions could be wrapped up before the European Parliament elections of May 2019, as some are hoping for.

It will be more clear whether that is a feasible goal by the end of the year, he said.

"Personally I hope that we will have some progress. But I am really not convinced that it is possible to finalise the whole thing, certainly if I am looking [at] the positions," said Lambertz.

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While the European Commission's post-Brexit EU budget proposal for 2021-2027 calls for a less-than-expected increase in spending, prime ministers of net payer countries have already called the starting proposal "unacceptable".

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