Sunday

29th Mar 2020

Opinion

Cohesion policy for a stronger Europe

  • Ghent, Belgium – a city that has made use of EU cohesion funds. (Photo: VISITFLANDERS)

The EU has struggled to deliver solutions to some of its main challenges in recent years, including high unemployment, low levels of growth, migration flows, as well as environmental issues. These problems have given rise to euroscepticism and a lack of trust in the EU.

Brexit has also been a wake-up call, carrying with it a loud and clear message for change.

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This is the background for the debate on the future of the EU’s cohesion policy.

We must change the narrative and recognise the added value of cohesion policy as a strong expression of European solidarity.

There is huge potential to deliver visible results that matter to people: from better access to schools, health and social care, cleaner air and water to improved and more sustainable mobility.

Cohesion policy is also one of the most important investment policies of the EU, vital to ensuring the competitiveness of the EU globally, through its cities and regions.

A strong cohesion policy for the future will be an essential tool to deliver the results the EU badly needs, and to safeguard what already works well.

In my own city – Ghent, in Belgium – the European Regional Development Fund (part of the cohesion policy funds) has made it possible to invest in both high-tech and low-tech solutions.

We have invested €5 million to create a new business district, known as "het eilandje" (the island). A state-of-the-art building will re-use natural resources and stimulate research, innovation and entrepreneurship.

Ghent, together with our neighbouring communities and Terneuzen in the Netherlands, is also a partner in the cross-border project "socio-economic development". This puts into practice the idea of the European/Benelux grouping of territorial cooperation.

The project focuses on the creation of a future fit skills agenda, sub-regional branding, an accessible network of public transport, capitalising on the announced merger between the two harbour companies (Dutch Seaports and Ghent Harbour), and a revitalisation of the rural area.

Across Europe, hundreds of cities are improving the lives of their citizens in similar ways. To continue to do so, we need cohesion policy to remain the EU’s main public investment policy.

Cities as partners

City authorities need a much stronger role in shaping decisions on policy and investment priorities in their metropolitan areas, to maximise the potential of cohesion policy.

As mayor, I know every corner of my city. Together with my administration, we have daily contact with our citizens.

We play a pivotal role – connecting citizens, companies and knowledge institutions. We stimulate cooperation and leave room for experimentation. We can connect EU investments with local needs and we play a central role in implementing EU policy goals.

But when it comes to decisions on longer-term investments through EU cohesion policy funding, our role – as for many other cities - is marginal.

This undermines the shared ownership and targeted investments that cohesion policy should be based on.

The urban agenda for the EU has recognised the added value of bringing cities and other levels of government together, on matters that concern us and our citizens.

Let’s bring the way we deal with cohesion policy in line with this partnership approach, to strengthen the policy and position it closer to citizens.

Urban ownership

A stronger cohesion policy will come with solid local ownership.

The area and place-based approach is unique to cohesion policy. It makes sense for cities, where challenges affect several sectors of the overall local economy.

We must continue to develop the options we have at EU level to address this, through joined up policy and investment instruments.

One of our EU-funded projects in Ghent (REFILL) focuses on social innovation: We exchange knowledge with colleagues from other European cities and work together with citizens on how to provide temporary uses for derelict places and unused buildings in the city.

The cohesion policy funds invested in this project were essential for us to experiment with new forms of decision-making and social innovation, ecological use of buildings, and for involving our citizens in the process.

Similar examples from other cities demonstrate a strong commitment and capacity to engage in both European and local partnerships.

Through local expertise, city solutions can be scaled to the EU level or duplicated in other cities, contributing to more effective solutions for everyone.

Cities leading in a globalised world

Sustainable cities have been internationally recognised as one of the goals in the UN’s sustainable development agenda. This highlights the growing importance of cities globally, and at the EU level.

Cohesion policy post-2020, a topic of conversation at this week’s Cohesion Forum in Brussels on 26-27 June, must reflect this global recognition of the role of cities – enhancing the tools and mechanisms to empower and support cities directly.

As president of EUROCITIES, the network of more than 140 large European cities, I can testify to the commitment of my fellow city mayors to building a stronger and fairer Europe.

We do this through local leadership, and in partnership with regional and national governments and the EU.

Together, we can ensure that cohesion policy delivers results for citizens and contributes to a stronger Europe.

Daniel Termont is the mayor of Ghent in Belgium, and is the president of EUROCITIES

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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