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The eighth Cohesion Report: initial reflections on the future of Cohesion Policy

Nathalie Sarrabezolles, Chairwoman of the COTER commission of the CoR and Member of Finistère Departmental Council

The eighth Cohesion Report of the European Commission in February 2022 sets out the main developments and territorial disparities that European regions have experienced over the last decade. In addition to this very well-known feature of the regular cohesion reports, it also points towards the upcoming debate on the future of cohesion after 2027.

This debate is not technical. It is highly political because it touches on many of the challenges in Europe in troubled times. It’s about all facets of the resilience of cities and regions; overcoming the existing disparities in Europe, despite the enormous success of Cohesion Policy in the past; facing climate change and adaptation; the rural–urban divide; the role of middle-sized cities in Europe; digital hyperconnectivity; and, last but surely not least, addressing discontent in Europe.

These challenges cannot be addressed, and most certainly cannot be solved, by Cohesion Policy alone. However, Cohesion Policy has always been a good indicator of investment priorities and trends in the territories of the European Union. In this contribution and in my capacity as rapporteur of the European CoR on the eighth Cohesion Report, I outline some of my initial reflections on the report and some ideas for the future.

Comments on the eighth Cohesion Report
When looking at the report, we note that the slow resumption of the convergence process in recent years hides very different trends: several less developed regions and transition regions in southern and north-western Europe have shown low or negative growth; at the same time, regional growth in the East is sometimes still marked by strong differences between capital regions and other regions.

The existing disparities, as outlined by the report, fully reinforce the legitimacy of Cohesion Policy as defined in the Treaties. This is primarily about reducing the disparities in wealth and development between the regions of the European Union. I therefore welcome the analysis presented in the Cohesion Report on the impact of Cohesion Policy for the period 2014–2020 on investment across the territories of the European Union. We should not forget that Cohesion Policy has often played a key role in maintaining a sufficient level of public investment in the face of a decline in national investments. 

The existing disparities, as outlined by the report, fully reinforce the legitimacy of Cohesion Policy as defined in the Treaties

While Cohesion Policy has also proven to be an effective tool in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, notably through the flexibility measures introduced as of April 2020, I would insist that the main focus of Cohesion Policy should be maintained: strengthening territorial, economic and social cohesion in Europe.

The concept of ‘do not harm cohesion’
I noted and strongly welcomed the introduction of a new concept in the Cohesion Report. The concept is aimed at extending the holistic approach to Cohesion Policy to any European public policy with territorial impact. This concept not only fully reflects the initiative of the European Committee of the Regions to demonstrate the role of cohesion as a fundamental value of the European Union; it could (and should!) also enable any European policy to take account of the diversity of the regional realities in the European Union, increase their effectiveness and improve the visibility of EU action among citizens.

Cohesion Policy at the heart of a long-term European strategy
Although Cohesion Policy is expected to play a role in achieving overarching EU objectives, namely the European Green Deal and the European Pillar of Social Rights, it is not part of a European long-term strategy as such, unlike Cohesion Policy 2014–2020, which was directly linked to achieving the objectives of the Europe 2020 strategy. This is unfortunate and I would therefore suggest drawing up a new long-term European strategy for 2030, linking the imperatives of the green and digital transitions, while also strengthening the EU’s economic, social and territorial cohesion.

I can only welcome the intention expressed in the Cohesion Report to strengthen multilevel governance and the partnership principle

Partnership with local and regional authorities
In all our discussions with members of the European Committee of the Regions, we have noted a certain centralisation of Cohesion Policy 2021–2027 and the undermining of both the partnership principle and the role of regional authorities in defining investment needs in the context of operational programmes. 
I can therefore only welcome the intention expressed in the Cohesion Report to strengthen multilevel governance and the partnership principle. We will make this a very important point in future discussions because it also touches on principles such as ownership, trust and involvement in European policy implementation. I would urgently call on the European Commission to enhance the role of the regions in the management of the European Structural and Investment Funds, and to strengthen the legislative provisions linked to the partnership, particularly regarding the post-2027 period.

Conclusions
As rapporteur of the CoR, I will engage our members representing all territories of the European Union to be vigilant in the discussions around the eighth Cohesion Report and the following debate on the future of Cohesion Policy. We need to ensure that Cohesion Policy remains not only a strong technical delivery tool for EU objectives in our cities and regions, but also a well-recognised idea and vision of the EU for strong cohesion among all.

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This article appears in the Stronger together Issue of TerritoriALL