President. − The next item is the report by Michael Theurer, on behalf of the Committee on Regional Development, on absorption of Structural and Cohesion Funds: lessons learnt for the future cohesion policy of the EU (2010/2305(INI)) (A7-0287/2011).
Michael Theurer, rapporteur. – (DE) Madam President, Commissioner, ladies and gentlemen, at a late hour this evening, we are debating a subject that is of absolutely crucial importance for us. In any case, 37% of the EU budget goes on cohesion policy. Let us take a closer look – today, in the middle of the period, in 2011 – at how much in the way of resources has actually been taken from the Structural and Cohesion Funds so far. We can see that, unfortunately, in many Member States, the absorption rate and absorption capacity are well below what should actually have been paid out already by this stage.
We have new Members States, such as Bulgaria and Romania, which have a poor absorption rate, but it is not only the new Member States; there are also Member States that have been in the Union for a long time, with regions such as Calabria and Sicily in the founder State of Italy, that with a rate of 7% – if we are to believe the budgetary controllers in the Committee on Budgetary Control – are well behind. This raises the question: why are these regions unable to spend the financial resources that we make available?
There is Greece, too. Here in Parliament we have been highlighting where action is needed for months and have been pointing out that a country like Greece is not absorbing these resources, and we are pleased that the Commission, which to start with did not attach the necessary importance to this matter, has now given it high priority. With regard to Greece in particular, President Barroso has pointed out that, out of 20 billion, 15 billion has not been spent, and Commissioner Hahn has also just been there. We have considered what we can do to help these regions. The first thing to consider, as always, is the subject of cofinancing. The fact is that the regions are finding it difficult, in this global economic crisis, to finance their own share and Member States like Greece, which appear to be on the brink of insolvency, are also finding it difficult to finance their own share. There is no question that help must be provided here. However, it is clearly not just a matter of cofinancing, because there are also regions in Greece that really do not want an increase in European Union subsidies, are happy with the current rate of 80% and would rather implement more projects. Thus, it is not just a question of cofinancing; there are many different reasons. The procedures are too complex and need to be simplified as a matter of urgency.
There is also the problem that, in many Member States, the central administrations of the governments in the capital cities take too long and the regions and regional authorities at local level have insufficient decision-making options in order to use the resources. Take Romania, for example, where the local authorities take 20 to 30 days to process applications, the regional authorities take around 60 days, but the central government takes 260 days. All of this provides an argument for delegating responsibility from the top down and introducing a strong local self-administration.
Where are the Council, the Council Presidency and Mr van Rompuy this evening, in fact? He has taken the floor with regard to other matters. We are talking about 37% of the EU budget here. The EU is putting off payment obligations of EUR 250 billion. How are they to be fulfilled? The President-in-Office of the Council from Poland could have attempted to answer this, as Poland, of course, has shown how the absorption rate can be increased. There are also examples of good governance. Poland has managed it – its absorption capacities have increased – but so has Estonia.
As Parliament, we are of the opinion that the Member States are now called on to ensure, as a matter of urgency, that the resources that we as Parliament have made available for the citizens in the regions are actually spent, also in the interests of increasing competitiveness and stabilisation of jobs and employment. In this regard, we expect the Commission to push forward with the method adopted and to very strongly urge the Member States to bring this matter to a positive conclusion.
Edit Bauer (PPE). – (HU) Madam President, as the rapporteur for the opinion of the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs, I would like to thank the rapporteur for the outstanding cooperation. The rapporteur aimed to investigate the cohesion policy, to see what improvements can be made and identify the obstacles to better utilisation, as well as the circumstances where improvements are crucial for better absorption and utilisation, and a more efficient use of these funds.
I believe that the primary responsibility of the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs is the European Social Fund, the task of which is immense, particularly at a time of crisis, when the issue of reducing unemployment must be treated as a priority. In this regard I feel that the rapporteur had every right to highlight the fact that there is a problem with cofinancing, because as a result of austerity measures not only governments, but also local enterprises and local governments have difficulties coming up with the resources required for cofinancing.
María Irigoyen Pérez (S&D). - (ES) Madam President, the subject we are discussing is crucial, even at this late hour. Absorption of the Structural Funds and the Cohesion Fund must be optimised in order to maximise the contribution of the available regional policy resources to social and economic cohesion.
We need to correct the main factors causing absorption problems and foster increased simplicity and flexibility in the rules and procedures, access to European funds for project organisers, and good management of these funds by the administrative services.
We should also pursue and penalise fraud instead of focusing on minor formal irregularities, and encourage greater synergy and complementarity between the different funds.
Lastly, I should specifically like to stress the importance of attaining maximum efficiency in the execution of the European Social Fund, so that an adequate response may be given to challenges we are currently seeing in the area of employment, stemming from the financial recession.
Ladies and gentlemen, we need to recover a sense of direction for the European project, because Europe can be built on necessity, but it also requires ambition.
Elena Oana Antonescu (PPE). – (RO) Madam President, the aim of absorbing as much financial support as possible requires continuous efforts from Member States, and it is vital that local and regional levels of administration are involved at every stage of the process.
The rules relating to these funds are complex and therefore difficult to transpose into national law and comply with. This may create problems, and Member States and regions have to spend an excessive amount of time trying to manage and control them. The rules and procedures need to be simpler and more flexible at both EU and national level in order to facilitate access to EU funds and promote sound management of these funds by the administrative services, without creating major difficulties for the beneficiaries.
This simplification must contribute to the speedy allocation of funds, higher absorption rates, increased efficiency and transparency, fewer implementation errors and reduced payment periods. The proposals in future framework documents and operational programmes must address the needs of the relevant actors as effectively as possible.
Silvia-Adriana Ţicău (S&D). – (RO) Madam President, the European Union’s regional policy enables it to reduce regional disparities, stimulate development and create jobs.
Member States’ absorption rates for EU funds vary. Romania has a very low absorption rate, but this situation must not lead to a reduction in the EU funds which Romania can have access to and needs during the 2014-2020 period. The prerequisites for increasing the absorption of EU funds are the timely adoption of the multiannual financial framework, greater flexibility in organising operational programmes, and preparing and adopting them in good time. We feel that the EU funds allocated to developing the energy infrastructure and devising energy efficiency measures for residential buildings need to be increased.
The Commission will allocate EUR 10 billion from the Cohesion Fund for the 2014-2020 period, targeted at the transport infrastructure in the countries below the convergence criterion. This money will be managed by the Trans-European Transport Network Executive Agency. I call for national envelopes to be kept, even if the calls for proposals will be issued by the TEN-T Executive Agency.
Elena Băsescu (PPE). – (RO) Madam President, I would like to begin by welcoming the establishment in Romania last week of the Ministry of European Funds, which will coordinate the management of these funds in the administrative system. Romania and Bulgaria are currently in a difficult situation regarding the absorption of funds, particularly to do with environmental protection.
I should stress that in June this year the European Commission stopped the payments for Axis 2 of the regional operational programme for our country. The Commission report refers in particular to the shortcomings noted in the public procurement system used for distributing them. In light of the current crisis, these funds provide a guarantee against the economic imbalances originating from the euro area.
I think that the way in which Structural Funds are absorbed can also be improved through regional cooperation between neighbouring states. Taking into account the drafting of the multiannual financial perspective, 2012 is crucial to the implementation phase of the projects financed by European funds.
Monika Flašíková Beňová (S&D). - (SK) Madam President, the disbursement of financial resources from the Structural Funds and the Cohesion Fund is still causing problems, as it has to many countries in the past. The complexity of the rules and conditions that must be fulfilled, as well as the number of errors, lead to undesirable consequences. The time spent on checking and administering the funds is disproportionate. It is therefore necessary to find a balance, a fair balance between simplification of the rules and procedures and their stability.
Another important point to focus on is the distinction between the individual forms of non-fulfilment of conditions for the disbursement of funds. I would like to call for the differentiation of formal errors, for example, according to their gravity. The aim of fund administrators should not be to punish but to find ways of cooperating with beneficiaries to eliminate any formal deficiencies caused by inattention or a shortage of personnel.
The disbursement of funds for addressing the Roma issue is a whole separate chapter. I would also like to call for the preparation of such funding to be viewed from a totally new perspective.
Iosif Matula (PPE). – (RO) Madam President, I would like to begin by congratulating Mr Theurer, including for the excellent cooperation we had during the visit made by the Committee on Regional Development to Romania.
We certainly must acknowledge that Romania still has a problem, at the moment, with absorbing European funds. This is precisely why the government has taken a whole series of measures which culminated, as has already been mentioned, in establishing the new Ministry of European Affairs, with former EU commissioner Leonard Orban as minister.
The projects at the outset were small and low-value, but now the measures adopted are starting to take effect. There is an ever-increasing number of high-value, in fact, very high-value projects which are appearing. I only need to mention that today the European Commission advised that funding has been approved for two transport projects amounting to EUR 724 million. I repeat, for just two transport projects involving motorways.
Miroslav Mikolášik (PPE). - (SK) Madam President, an effective EU cohesion policy is a prerequisite for the harmonious development of all regions of the EU, by helping to reduce economic, social and geographical inequalities. The ability to draw down resources, or in other words to make effective use of resources allocated from the Structural Funds and the Cohesion fund, varies from region to region. Unfortunately, the most disadvantaged regions, which need the funds the most, often lag behind in spending, because they lack the minimum financial resources necessary for cofinancing, as well as the human resources and administrative support.
The administrative and institutional resources of the public sector at national, regional and local level must be increased in a targeted way. The competent bodies should also consider new processes for boosting the qualifications of their employees.
I would like to end by saying that many countries have displayed an ability to draw down European funding much more effectively than in the past. My own country is an example of this, as it is drawing down funds much more effectively than it did when the previous government was in power.
Maroš Šefčovič, Vice-President of the Commission. − Madam President, first I would like to thank Mr Theurer for his report and for putting this very important topic on the agenda. I think that we really need to discuss these issues in great detail because they are very important and they will be even more important in the framework of the forthcoming discussions on the details and the future of the MFF. We would also like to welcome this report because we see it as a very important contribution from Parliament to the debate on absorption capacity as a very important part of the Commission’s policies.
We are also very pleased that the report refers to absorption capacity using the broader approach to, and broader concept of, absorption which goes beyond a purely financial notion and also includes effectiveness and good management of funds. Implementation of projects without jeopardising the effectiveness of resources is a very important issue which is challenging for some Member States, as we could hear in this discussion.
The Commission believes that there exists an important common ground in the analyses of the absorption problems between Parliament and the Commission. The Commission has shown in the current discussion its willingness to provide available absorption data, although some of these data depend on the information provided by the Member States.
We share the concerns in the report on the delays in absorption in some Member States in particular and reasons for this, notably difficulties in adoption of compliance assessments and the parallel implementation of the programming periods of 2000, 2006, 2007 and 2013. We can say, however, that absorption has accelerated, particularly in the last year, and our latest figures show that the absorption rate stands at 29.2%. These show that the absorption of structural funds has accelerated and is currently in a good place.
But judging from all the speakers we have heard this evening, I think it is quite clear that we need to learn a lesson from the current period and we need to improve the way in which the rules are set out for future spending in this area. Therefore, whilst we are currently preparing the proposals for the regulation for the period 2014-2020 we are going to take all these lessons into account.
These proposals, therefore, will incorporate the results of the analyses which we have just been discussing and a very important part of this will be the push and pressure for simplification of the procedures and a reduction in gold-plating, both at EU and national level. Here, we very much need your support because gold-plating always occurs at the final stages of the legislative process, be it at EU level or very often at national level as well.
We will also encourage the Member States to boost administrative capacity and to increase the efficiency of their public administrations because, from what we can see in some of the Member States, it is clear that the levels of administrative capability and capacity have direct consequences on the ability to absorb the funds efficiently and on time. We have therefore come up with the idea of improvement to the partnership and multi-level governance which, we believe, would set out the conditions for closer cooperation between the Commission and the Member States and will provide an essential improvement and contribute to better management of funds in the future.
In reply to Monika Flašíková-Beňová, concerning the absorption funds for Roma inclusion, I would say that here, we in the Commission are waiting anxiously for the national programmes and national strategies which should be sent to the Commission before the end of the year and I believe that once this is done we can evaluate them and have a wide discussion on how EU funds are used in the very important issue of Roma inclusion.
President. − The debate is closed.
The vote will take place tomorrow (Tuesday, 27 September 2011).
Written statements (Rule 149)
Zuzana Brzobohatá (S&D), in writing. - (CS) The report seeks to provide a comprehensive overview of the experience that was drawn on during the current programming period regarding the absorption of Cohesion Policy funds. The rapporteur, in my opinion, very correctly describes the three basic shortcomings of Cohesion Policy beneficiaries. These include a lack of financial resources for cofinancing, a lack of human resources and a lack of the administrative support required to make good use of the available resources. The rapporteur quite correctly points out the difficulties that accompany the start of each new programming period, when there are problems implementing management and control systems, usually as a result of delays in the development and implementation of EU and Member State rules or associated guidelines, and incomplete or imprecise rules for the absorption of Cohesion Policy funds. The problems are very often caused by insufficient separation between the authorities in the Member States, hierarchy problems with the institutions and internal difficulties over the allocation of tasks and responsibilities. I personally consider it very important that the rapporteur points out the need for a stronger focus on punishing fraud rather than punishing formal irregularities. Finally, I would like to highlight the paramount importance of timely adoption of the multiannual financial framework and of clear and definitive rules and guidance for the Member States. The experiences listed in the report are also highly relevant for the Czech Republic.
Brice Hortefeux (PPE), in writing. – (FR) As you are aware, regional policy accounts for 35.7% of the EU’s budget. It is a substantial budget, but it is necessary for the development and growth of our regions. In this period of economic and financial crisis, we bear a heavy responsibility, that of guaranteeing to our citizens that the money that they entrust to Europe is used for ambitious projects that promote growth. We have seen an improvement in the absorption of cohesion policy funds for the period 2007-2013, and we must continue to encourage these efforts. However, the absorption rates in some regions and some Member States of the EU continue to be low. That is why we must collectively strive to take all of the measures required to reverse this trend. EU procedures and rules already exist and work well. We must now simplify them in order to overcome the administrative burdens and enable small project organisers to access EU funds. Improving absorption capacity is a concern that we will have to take into account during the negotiations on the next financial perspective if we wish to ensure a return to growth in Europe.
Elżbieta Katarzyna Łukacijewska (PPE), in writing. – (PL) I was pleased to see the European Commission’s proposal setting the absorption capacity for European funds by any one country at 2.5% of GDP. There are still many Member States which qualify for the first convergence target. Access to EU funds will permit faster development of these regions, greater innovation and what this entails in being better able to withstand the recession with which the whole world is now grappling. The decision to concentrate funds on a smaller number of priorities and to monitor their use more efficiently are excellent ideas, as is the idea to reward Member States and regions which best implement the aims of the Europe 2020 strategy. This will certainly motivate Member States to make more considered and effective decisions on spending money from the Structural and Cohesion Funds. I am also pleased that attention has been drawn to more efficient use of the European Social Fund, as the money is meant to be spent on effective programmes which will allow the beneficiaries of the projects concerned to find work. Thank you very much.
Georgios Stavrakakis (S&D) , in writing. – (EL) May I start by congratulating the rapporteur on a very important report. The low absorption rate of cohesion policy funds translates in practice into untapped development opportunities for the regions. Today, when most Member States are under considerable fiscal pressure, prompt and proper absorption of the considerable cohesion policy resources available to each region could drive growth and cohesion, not only at national level, but also overall, at EU level. Luckily, we are now in a position to understand most of the main reasons that prevent regional authorities from making proper use of these funds. These reasons are set out in detail in the report. I should therefore like to welcome the initiatives and effort on the part of the Commission to provide technical support to bodies with inadequate administrative capacity and assistance for Member States with insufficient resources, due to the crisis, to cofinance projects. The European Parliament has shown that it is prepared to support any effort designed to simplify the rules and strike a balance between funds and efforts and audits and results, a differentiated approach to fraud and irregularities and the provision of technical support to bodies with insufficient administrative capacity.