Mr Lambertz, congratulations for being elected President of the European Committee of the Regions. Your first interview for Bulgarian media is for Stroitel Newspaper. What are the current challenges for Europe and your priorities?
The past few years have certainly been challenging for the EU given the migration crisis, ongoing Brexit negotiations and the recent events in Catalonia. The EU now needs to demonstrate its added value to recapture citizens’ support by creating more economic growth, more solidarity through social inclusion and fiscal harmonisation, mitigate against climate change and, above all, be directly visible to demonstrate that it does improve citizens’ daily life. This means building a different Europe which is more integrated, more efficient and more local. To achieve this, the European Union cannot act only from Brussels and Strasbourg, it needs regions and cities to engage and listen to citizens whilst delivering Europe in our communities. That is why one of my priorities is to strengthen the actions of the European Committee of the Regions first within the European institutions but also towards the people to make Europe real to the citizens it serves.
This comes to another of my priorities: the future of EU cohesion policy. It is responsible for reducing regional disparities, improving our transport infrastructure, making our buildings more energy-efficient and promoting social integration. It is the ultimate expression of European solidarity which is why I cannot imagine the future of Europe without a strong cohesion policy for all regions. Finally, reconnecting with the citizens is a priority. Everyone who works and in the EU are there to serve its citizens but this means listening, not lecturing. This is why since March 2016 our members have held more than 140 public debates in nearly all member states to gather citizens’ concerns and vision for the future of Europe which are being shared back in Brussels. I firmly believe that it is by addressing citizens’ expectations that suspicion towards Europe will be replaced by a desire for Europe.
You took part in the 15th European Week of Regions and Cities 2017. What was its purpose?
This year the European Week of Regions and Cities celebrated its 15th birthday. It was a moment to reflect on where EU regional and urban policy is today, to be honest about the challenges and to find ways to improve it in the years ahead. It was a key moment to do so as the European Commission published its 7th Cohesion Report during the Week’s opening which provoked a debate on the future of cohesion policy and the future EU budget. Money matters to every local and regional authority in every corner of Europe. The next EU budget is of immense importance as it will rightly reflect new challenges – such as migrations, defense, security – but it needs to also continue to be a people’s budget that delivers on the issues that matter most to citizens such as rural development, digitalization, sustainable development and youth unemployment. On 9 October, we also launched a Europe-wide coalition – #CohesionAlliance – calling for the EU budget after 2020 to make cohesion policy stronger, more effective, visible and available for every region in the Union.
What precisely is the aim of the #CohesionAlliance?
Supporters of the #CohesionAlliance are looking ahead to the draft EU budget post-2020 which is expected to be released by the European Commission in May 2018. The #CohesionAlliance reflects a simple belief that by investing in our communities, tackling regional disparities and supporting social integration, cohesion policy is the ultimate sign of European solidarity. Ambition must now be matched by a flexible ambitious EU budget with a strong cohesion policy for every region and city. Local and regional leaders from across Europe, together with Members of the European Parliament, civil society and business associations representatives, have signed-up calling for a commitment that one-third of the EU budget will remain for cohesion policy. Efficient cohesion policy is important for Bulgaria, a country that has been allocated EUR 7,6 billion between 2014-2020. I recommend each of your readers to sign up by going to www.cohesionalliance.eu!
The gap between certain regions in the EU is huge. How can it be overcome?
First of all, I would like to highlight that the 7th Cohesion Report demonstrate that, since 2015, the disparities between the European Regions are shrinking. This is a proof cohesion policy is working and fulfilling its objective. Nevertheless, the report also shows some weaknesses such as low public investment or some regions stuck in a „middle-income trap“. This situation calls for a stronger and better cohesion policy. We need to continue to invest in human capital, education, health, as well as infrastructure, transport, research, innovation and green energy. These public investments are essential to build a fairer Europe in the future. Without this solidarity, there is a risk to break the motor of integration.
How do European funds support the Member States?
Between 2014 and 2020, EU cohesion policy will have financed 1.1 million SMEs, created 420 000 new jobs, helped more than 7.4 million unemployed people to find a job and supported 8.9 million people gain qualifications. It will also have provided 14.5 million additional households with broadband access. An extra 17 million people are planned to be connected to wastewater treatment facilities. Finally, more than 4 600 km of TEN-T railway lines will be built or renovated. Altogether, the EU budget is around 1% of the GDP so we need to be realistic. This amount is small which is why we need to find synergies with other programmes such as the EU’s Horizon 2020 for research and innovation or the so-called Juncker plan – the European Investment Plan. We have to rely on a virtuous triad. First, cohesion policy is mainly about leveraging public investment to set up the structural condition for economic, social and sustainable development. Second, with the European Investment Plan, Europe is also trying to attract more private investment. Finally, we have to change the European rules and especially make the Stability and Growth Pact more flexible.
How Juncker plan will help regional development?
The Investment Plan for Europe was presented in 2015, within the post-financial crisis context, at a time when sovereign states, local and regional authorities, the private sector, were struggling to balance their budgets. The European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI) is the central plank of the Investment Plan and together with the European Investment Bank, the long-term lending institution of the European Union owned by its Member States, makes long-term finance available for sound investment making smarter use of new and existing financial resources, removing obstacles to investment and providing visibility and technical assistance to investment projects. The EFSI is already showing results. The projects and agreements approved for financing under the EFSI so far are expected to mobilize more than EUR 225 billion in investments and support around 445,000 SMEs across all EU Member States so it is contributing to regional development. Nevertheless, it seems to be being taken up primarily in the richer cities and regions which is why cohesion complements it to reduce exasperating the disparities between regions and inside each region.
How to help small and medium enterprises?
SMEs are one of the priorities of the European Union. They can get financing through European Structural and Investment Funds (cohesion policy), EFSI (European Investment plan), Horizon 2020 (Research and Innovation) and it’s SME Instrument for the very innovative companies and COSME which is a programme dedicated to SMEs. The EU also established the Enterprise Europe Network that helps small companies make the most out of business opportunities in the EU which is a one-stop-shop for all business needs. Providing support on access to market information, overcoming legal obstacles, and identifying potential business partners across Europe. The network offers a wide range of services and helps SMEs find international business, technology, and research partners. It also guides the companies to better access EU financing programmes. The Enterprise Europe Network comprises about 600 partner organisations in more than 50 countries. Furthermore, only 25% of European SMEs export to another country. This means that many SMEs are missing out on opportunities offered by the European Single Market. Here the EU created Your Europe Business portal offering help to businesses and entrepreneurs who want to expand their activities to other EU or EEA countries. It provides practical information on EU rules and links them to national rules, authorities, helpdesks, and support services.
How can you work with Bulgarian construction industry chamber?
You could join the #CohesionAlliance with us to make sure that your government supports a strong and ambitious multiannual financial framework for the future of the EU and a strong and efficient cohesion policy. If every local and regional authority, every business corporation and trade union gather to lobby their government in every country of the EU, then, we stand a chance to build a better future for Europe. Without you, your counterparts and your readers, this battle cannot be won.