Doubts hang over EU investment plan's future
By Jean Comte
Questions of why some projects are funded, others not, and whether value for money is being had, linger over plans to extend the Juncker investment plan.
The European Parliament and EU member states are starting to examine a European Commission proposal for an extension of the project, named after commission head Jean-Claude Juncker, but the commission has not presented any proper assessment of how the plan worked in the first year.
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The EU executive only commissioned an evaluation of the plan to private consultancy Ernst & Young to make an independent evaluation, which was published only on Monday (14 November), two months after it proposed the extension.
The report said that the design of the fund was "relevant in the current market and prevailing investment gaps in Europe”, but it questioned the added-value of the projects and their geographical spread, as the richest EU countries had received more support.
Some 92 percent of fund’s portfolio concerns operations in the 15 richest EU countries, with only 8 percent located in the less-developed ones.
The Juncker investment plan was supposed to bring in €315 billion of investment over 2015 to 2017, but the commission now proposes in extending it until 2020, with the aim to raise €500 billion.
The €315 billion do not come directly from the EU budget.
Instead, they are raised through the Juncker fund, also known as the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI), set up at the European Investment Bank (EIB).
The EFSI is supposed to focus on projects with a "higher risk profile", unable to find a financing source.
The EU Court of Auditors, in a report published on 11 November, has questioned the plan efficiency.
"It is still too soon for the economic, social and environmental impacts to be measured or for a conclusion to be drawn as to whether EFSI is achieving its objectives," said Mihails Kozlovs, the member of the court responsible for the opinion.
The Slovak EU presidency, whose task to is to reach a common position between finance ministers on a possible extension of the fund at their next meeting in December, waited for Ernst & Young's report to open talks.
This leaves only a few weeks for national experts to find an agreement.
"I don't understand why we have to rush to find an agreement so quickly since the parliament will need several months to find its position. It doesn't make any sense," a diplomatic source told EUobserver.
The parliament will indeed take longer to decide on the file, with several committees involved in the procedure. MEPs want to draw "in parallel" their own assessment report, according to a parliament source.
Crowding out investors?
There is a real need to assess, in detail, how the plan has worked so far.
The number of projects approved is encouraging, operations approved are expected to trigger a total investment of €138.3 billion, but there are concerns regarding how projects are chosen.
First of all, these projects are not substantially different from other EIB operations.
That means that, instead of attracting new investment, the plan could crowd-out investors from interesting opportunities.
"There are projects such as windmills - it's great, but the EIB was already supporting windmills before the EFSI", Gregory Claeys, from Bruegel, a Brussels-based think tank, told EUobserver.
He said that "the Juncker plan increases the EIB guarantee and therefore its lending volume, but it doesn't change the nature of its activity."
He said that "the investment committee makes a note on each project, which defines its level of risk. It is important to have this information, in order to assess whether the EFSI is taking more risk or not."
According to a Bankwatch Network report, the EFSI leveraged €1.5 billion for fossil fuel infrastructure, and 68 percent of its transport investment is destined for carbon-intensive projects - despite the EU commitment to the Paris agreement.
"At the same time, the EIB drastically reduced its support to renewable energy through it other financing facilities," Anna Roggenbuck from the Bankwatch NGO said. "The total size of these investments went from €2.8 billion in 2014 to €0.2 billion in 2016."
The commission tried to address these issues when it proposed to extend the plan until 2020.
Under the proposal, the EFSI investment committee must be more transparent and ensure every project approved could not happen without the support of the Juncker plan.
At least 40 percent of EFSI projects will have to include "components that contribute to climate action".
Highly polluting infrastructures such as motorways will be banned, except in less developed countries.
Finally, special attention will be taken regarding geographical distribution in order to fight bias in favour of the richest countries.
Stakeholders remain critical of the proposed changes.
"It goes in the right direction, but does not go far enough," said Roggenbuck, from Bankwatch.
She questioned the fact that polluting projects such as motorways can still be funded if they are built in a less well-off country.
She said there should be more binding targets regarding climate financing.
Roggenbuck wants the commission to live up to its transparency pledge, with an assurance that documents will be published, including the justification for each decision of the investment committee.