Monday

21st Sep 2020

Magazine

Tug of war between 'top-down' and 'bottom-up' cohesion money

  • Stockholm's Metro. Some 70 percent of people in Europe now live in urban areas (Photo: Arild)

Carola Gunnarsson is the mayor of Sala, a town north of the Swedish capital, Stockholm.

Like many of her counterparts throughout other member states, Gunnarsson wants much greater say, input and flexibility into how EU funds are divided up and spent on the ground.

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"Sometimes I think that we can't do exactly what we need, and we can't use the money in the best way...in the proper way," she told EUobserver in an interview.

Gunnarsson's frustration is a reflection of a complex administrative machine that divides out EU cohesion policy funding, often with a top-down approach.

Getting the money to the right projects at the local level, she said, also makes the European Union more 'tangible' for the majority of people.

"I think some of the funds are the only way to show the citizens that we are a part of the European Union," Gunnarsson believes.

Because of that, she wants the local level more involved in the decision-making and regional programming of EU funds.

And the European Parliament agrees, noting that more than 70 percent of Europeans live in urban areas.

In a non-binding resolution passed in early July, MEPs backed the idea of creating a legal basis to allow cities to get more formally involved in EU decision-making.

One of the concepts coming out of the resolution would also require a European commissioner to take political charge of setting up a 'one-stop shop' for urban areas to obtain easier access to EU funds.

Stefano Bonaccini, who presides over the Council of European Municipalities and Regions, described the MEP's position as a major victory.

"By their very nature, mayors and local councillors are in a unique position to understand citizens' needs and make EU legislation rooted in reality," he said in a press statement.

Yet that idea has been around since 2001.

Fifteen years later, the EU put together an EU Urban Agenda that created a governance model allowing member states, the European Commission, the European Parliament, and local governments to review existing legislation.

Poland

But those battles have yet to produce some of the desired victories sought after at ground level. Take Poland, for example.

"More than once before, the Polish government has talked about 'decentralisation' while carrying out 'centralisation'," Olgierd Geblewicz, the marshal for the West Pomerania region of Poland, told EUobserver, in an emailed statement.

Geblewicz said recent federal ministerial assurances to the contrary need to be set out in a formal decision, and that discussions on post-2020 EU funds have only just started.

"We see a great deal of risks and threats going forward, not only in terms of the future financial framework, which will weaken cohesion policy, but also in terms of how funds are spent," he said.

Poland currently has 16 regional operation programmes - yet 15 member states have no regional programmes at all.

Regions still manage a large part of the EU money that is poured into some 540 programmes. This accounts for one third of the total allocation.

Of that, more than two-thirds of regional programmes are concentrated in Germany, Spain, France and Italy. These four EU states alone represent some 56 percent of the total population of the EU-27.

The European commission wants to set aside some €373bn for its cohesion policy post-2020. Its broad aim is to reduce the gap in low-income and low-growth regions.

The commission says the policy is designed for all regions, and has a more 'tailored' approach (with money geared towards less-developed regions, transition regions, and more-developed regions.)

The less developed the region, the greater flexibility in terms of spending, whereas more developed regions will need to focus on areas like innovation and climate change.

The commission has also promised to cut red tape and make life easier by creating a single rulebook for the various EU funds.

While such moves appear welcomed, there are some concerns among regional authorities that the big political compass remains centralised.

The 'European Semester'

Among them is the European Semester, a roadmap that guides EU-level economic and fiscal policy objectives in six-month cycles.

The commission wants to use country-specific recommendations drawn up under the European Semester to serve as a guide when it comes to programming the funds and the design of cohesion policy programmes.

It means the European Semester would be used as a tool to coordinate macroeconomic policies, in what some critics say is divorced from the everyday realities of people at the local level.

"The European Semester is not attentive to the living conditions of people on the ground, it is designed to deliver stability," conceded one EU official.

It also means that if an EU state fails to control its national budget deficit, then the European Commission can request the funds be suspended.

To help guide EU states, the EU commission in its proposal then shuffled money away from Cohesion Policy to create a new 'Reform Support Programme' worth some €25bn.

The programme rewards EU states that carry out country-specific recommendations made at the EU level, as an incentive not to risk funding cuts that affect people on the ground.

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2018 Regions & Cities Magazine.

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