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Thriving regions, stronger Europe

Elisa Ferreira, European Commissioner for Cohesion and Reforms

‘Thriving regions, stronger Europe’, the slogan of the European Week of Regions and Cities, reflects my firm belief that for Europe to thrive every one of our regions must prosper.
Cohesion Policy is the glue that keeps Europe together. Without it, the internal market would not hold, and the competitiveness of the EU would wane. It is also the policy closest to EU citizens, giving them a tangible manifestation of European added value.

It is for this very reason that every two years we conduct a Eurobarometer poll to gauge how citizens perceive Cohesion Policy. Some 66 % of respondents are aware that Cohesion Policy supported Member States both in the emergency response to COVID-19 and in the subsequent economic recovery.

Nearly EUR 24 billion of still available funds were ‘reprogrammed’ to support Member States’ purchase of medical equipment (from ventilators to protective masks) and computers for schools for digital classes, temporary work schemes, and small and medium-sized companies. This support during the COVID-19 pandemic was instrumental in preventing the worsening of existing regional disparities.

A stark comparison can be drawn with the financial crisis of 2008, where recovery was heavily “asymmetric” and uneven. Some regions bounced back almost immediately, while many others languished in decline for years.
However, after the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to the swift support from Cohesion Policy funds, as well as other instruments such as the Recovery and Resilience Facility, in most regions GDP successfully returned to its pre-pandemic level.

Cohesion Policy’s new-found role as a crisis response instrument is in line with its heritage of long-term investment.
Some achievements during the 2014-2020 programming period, which is reaching its closing by the end of the year, are remarkable: 2.4 million businesses have been supported, resulting in the creation of 350 000 new jobs; 560,000 households have had their energy efficiency improved; 640 000 energy users have been connected to smart grids; and 6 000 megawatts of renewable energy sources have been created, equivalent of 3000 wind turbines.

As a result of these and many other investments, many people across Europe have benefited from Cohesion Policy, often without realising. It is imperative that we get the word out. But we can’t do it only from Brussels; we must rely on the engagement and active role of Member States, regions and cities in this endeavour.

This outreach is especially important because, as the results of the Eurobarometer remind us, Europeans appreciate Cohesion projects when they know about them. A significant proportion (57 %) of respondents confirmed that EU-supported projects in their area helped increase their sense of belonging to the EU. 

This year marks a milestone in terms of programming. The 2014–2020 programmes are now in their final months of implementation, and the 2021–2027 programmes are getting started.
Payment claims for the 2014–2020 programmes have already been processed for over 85 % of expenditure, which is in line with previous periods. And payments are accelerating, not just because projects are being completed in time but also thanks to the new flexibilities offered by the new CARE and SAFE initiatives that we have created.

Through the Cohesion’s Action for Refugees in Europe (CARE) initiative, EUR 1.3 billion of Cohesion resources have been mobilised to support accommodation, healthcare and employment, as well as medical, social and psychological support to refugees. This is a clear sign of Europe’s solidarity with Ukraine, and with refugees and those who welcome them.

The Supporting Affordable Energy (SAFE) initiative channels Cohesion support for those particularly affected by high energy prices, including vulnerable households and small and medium-sized companies. Since its entry into force earlier this year, EUR 3.3 billion have been mobilised for this purpose, showcasing European solidarity once again.

With regard to the 2021–2027 programmes, EUR 73 billion will be invested in a smarter and more competitive Europe. We expect to support 850 000 enterprises, and create 1.3 million additional jobs. In addition, an unprecedented support of EUR 92 billion will be channelled to a greener Europe, with plans to improve the energy performance of 723,000 homes and generate 9.600 megawatts of renewable energy, the equivalent of the energy produced by 4 800 wind turbines.

To ensure all regions, including the less developed ones, benefit from the new green and digital economy and to boost investments in critical technologies in Europe, while preserving cohesion and maintaining a level playing field, we very recently proposed the Strategic Technologies for Europe Platform (STEP).

This initiative, currently under discussion by the Council and the European Parliament, supports the EU’s competitiveness., with a Cohesion and convergence logic, because relying only on State Aid would lead to a concentration of investments in only a handful of places.

Recent years have shown the imperative of adapting policies to a rapidly changing reality, and the significance of real-time data in supporting such adaptation. ESPON has been instrumental in providing in-depth territorial analysis for over two decades. This service is indispensable for identifying the specific needs of diverse territories, guiding investments and shaping future place-based policies.

As Europe builds its new future, and with the European elections on the horizon, Cohesion Policy and its principles should be an essential part of the construction. It is not just about economic and social development; it is also about addressing demographic challenges, such as brain drain, and fostering a more responsive political system through increased local governance, enhanced citizen engagement and more accountable democracies.

This article appears in Thriving Regions Stronger Together

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Thriving Regions Stronger Together
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