Opening speech: “Cohesion and recovery” at the 9th European summit of regions and cities

(Source: European Commission)

“Seul le texte prononcé fait foi”

Madame la Ministre Jacqueline Gourault,

Monsieur le Président Omarjee,

Monsieur le Vice-Président Cordeiro,

Chers collègues,

Chers invités,

Merci beaucoup pour vos questions, permettez-moi d’abord de remercier le Comité des régions, la Présidence Française du Conseil et la région PACA pour l’organisation de cette réunion importante. Les autorités locales sont le premier pilier de notre maison commune: il n’y a pas de démocratie forte dans l’Union européenne sans un rôle important pour les autorités régionales et locales.

Nous nous rencontrons alors que la guerre frappe à nouveau sur le sol européen. Une guerre non provoquée, qui résulte d’une idéologie destructrice et dépassée, d’une logique de sphères d’influences, que nous pensions tous révolue depuis longtemps. Je voudrais exprimer ma pleine solidarité envers le peuple ukrainien et son combat juste. Cette guerre nous rappelle ce pourquoi l’Union européenne a été bâtie, et ce qu’elle a permis d’empêcher.

Si nous voulons que ces 70 dernières années de paix en Europe soient plus qu’une simple parenthèse dans l’histoire, nous devons faire en sorte que la démocratie et la liberté prévalent. La cohésion et l’unité seront essentiels.

This happens as we, in Europe, were striving for a strong recovery. Decisive action taken at European level after the pandemic crisis has averted worse consequences. And our economy was rebounding, faster than expected.

The 8th Cohesion report, published last month, gives us a more granular picture, a more regional picture.

As you point out in your question the report shows that Cohesion has played a crucial role in promoting convergence in the Union. Thanks to Cohesion support, we can say that the GDP per capita of less developed regions is expected to increase up to 5% by 2023. There was also a reduction of 3.5% in the gap between GDP per capita of the most developed and the least developed. This proves that Cohesion is, in fact, the engine of convergence in Europe.

But the report also finds evidence of persisting regional differences, recently aggravated by COVID.

Some regions have suffered more from the pandemic crisis because of their geography, for example border regions, islands, and outermost regions.

Other regions have suffered because of the structure of their economy, for example those dependent on tourism or certain other industries.

The report gives a snapshot of a Europe in which new territorial and social disparities are emerging, raising the risk of an asymmetric recovery.

Although not covered in the report, the current security tensions are affecting us all, but frontline states and regions will be particularly impacted. Cohesion and strong solidarity will be necessary to avoid a Europe at multiple speeds.

This is why the Commission will present new proposals to extend the 100% co-financing introduced in CRII for an additional year and will adapt the cohesion rules to allow Member States to support the incoming Ukrainian refugees. This is an economic necessity and a moral imperative.

The 8th Cohesion report also examines long-term trends. Some are positive, but some are cause for concern.

On the positive side, most of the less developed regions, especially in central and Eastern Europe, continue to catch up.

On the other hand, many less developed and middle income regions, especially in South and South-western Europe, are stagnating or falling behind.

This stagnation is very much linked to an innovation divide. Innovation is increasingly concentrated in a few favoured regions, leaving middle income regions behind. These figures are of great concern as we transition to a digital and knowledge-intensive economy. This why the Commission will work on a new innovation strategy putting a particular focus in bridging the innovation gap.

Similarly, the transition to a green economy offers new jobs and new opportunities in new sectors. But some regions are better placed than others to exploit these opportunities. The report analyses these differences, noting that some regions will have to make particular efforts, for example, regions more dependent on carbon intensive sectors. The Just Transition Fund will come in support of these regions to mitigate the economic and social impact of the green transition.

This is to be put into the context of long term demographic changes. By 2040, 51% of Europeans, so just over half, will live in a region where the population is declining.

An aging population, will pose challenges in all regions, but we must pay particular attention to regions at risk of serious brain drain.

One of the keys is job opportunities for young people, and regional attractiveness, including in terms of infrastructure and public services. This is why the Commission will come up in the second semester with an initiative to stem the brain drain from least advantaged regions.

So, the key risks and challenges, are highlighted in the 8th Cohesion Report: The risk of asymmetric recovery. The risk of a middle income trap. The risk of an innovation divide. The risk of a divide in the green transition, even though this transition could create new jobs everywhere.

Faced with all these challenges, what more can be done?

First, we need to use the opportunities under cohesion policy wisely. Let’s implement effectively the last years of the 2014-2020 period using all the flexibilities that have been provided by the Commission to adjust to the Crisis. For the programming period that started last year, we have the resources, but we need the vision, the long term strategic frameworks, and the development strategies, setting the path for this vision to be achieved, building on the territories’ strengths and assets.

Currently, only half of the Partnership Agreements and only a little over a quarter of programmes have been submitted to the Commission.

These are the enabling frameworks for investments which are vital! We cannot delay – and we cannot risk losing them.

But programmes alone are not enough.

So second, we must prepare a strong project pipeline. For this I count on all of you. We need the new programmes to hit the ground running.

Our green, digital, resilient and fair goals, require a new creativity in project generation. And the new programmes emphasise partnership and local territorial plans. This means you! We all count on your ideas, and your projects.

And I remind you, that the new programmes have generous provisions for support to administrative capacity. A strong capacity for managing authorities but also a strong capacity of beneficiaries is needed to submit quality projects, contributing to the implementation of our strategic goals. Use this to the full!

Third, facing these challenges cannot be the job of cohesion policy alone. Cohesion policy alone cannot ensure cohesive economies and societies. All policies have spatial impacts, and we cannot turn a blind eye to this. Other European and national policies must consider their regional impacts. In other words, we need regional proofing and a “do no harm to cohesion” principle embedded in all relevant policy areas. We also need to ensure a coherent intervention and good use of the various instruments made available RRF, Cohesion and JTF.

Fourth, we need to continue the process of modernisation and simplification of Cohesion policy. The reflection on the future of Cohesion policy should start now to make it more agile, nimble and user friendly, contributing to deliver our common political priorities and agenda of reforms. This should be done without losing the focus on the reductions of disparities and respecting three key tenets: territorial approach, partnership principle and multilevel governance. The contribution from Cohesion Alliance partners for this reflection will be crucial.

So in conclusion, we have work to do. Work in developing a coherent vision for each country, each region, each city work in finalising the programmes: Commission services will do all they can to help. Work in preparing a project pipeline: make the most of technical support and assistance. Work in ensuring that all policies take account of their spatial impacts and that none are spatially blind. Work in ensuring that Cohesion remains a modern and future oriented policy.

Today is a milestone in our work together.

I very much look forward to our discussion!

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