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Procedure : 2017/2208(INI)
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Document selected : A8-0046/2018

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PV 12/03/2018 - 20
CRE 12/03/2018 - 20

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PV 13/03/2018 - 7.8
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Tuesday, 13 March 2018 - Strasbourg
Lagging regions in the EU

European Parliament resolution of 13 March 2018 on lagging regions in the EU (2017/2208(INI))

The European Parliament,

–  having regard to Articles 174, 175 and 176 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU),

–  having regard to Regulation (EU) No 1303/2013 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 December 2013 laying down common provisions on the European Regional Development Fund, the European Social Fund, the Cohesion Fund, the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development and the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund and laying down general provisions on the European Regional Development Fund, the European Social Fund, the Cohesion Fund and the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund and repealing Council Regulation (EC) No 1083/2006(1),

—  having regard to Regulation (EU) No 1299/2013 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 December 2013 on specific provisions for the support from the European Regional Development Fund to the European territorial cooperation goal(2),

—  having regard to the Commission communication of 14 December 2015 entitled ‘Investing in jobs and growth – maximising the contribution of European Structural and Investment Funds’ (COM(2015)0639),

—  having regard to its resolution of 8 October 2013 on effects of budgetary constraints for regional and local authorities regarding the EU’s Structural Funds expenditure in the Member States(3),

—  having regard to its resolution of 6 July 2016 on preparation of the post-electoral revision of the MFF 2014-2020: Parliament’s input ahead of the Commission’s proposal(4),

–   having regard to its resolution of 16 February 2017 on investing in jobs and growth – maximising the contribution of European Structural and Investment Funds: an evaluation of the report under Article 16(3) of the CPR(5),

—  having regard to its resolution of 13 June 2017 on increasing engagement of partners and visibility in the performance of European Structural and Investment Funds(6),

–  having regard to its resolution of 13 June 2017 on building blocks for a post-2020 EU cohesion policy(7),

–  having regard to its resolution of 24 October 2017 on the Reflection Paper on the Future of EU Finances(8),

–  having regard to the Commission staff working document of 10 April 2017 on competitiveness in low-income and low-growth regions: the lagging regions report (SWD(2017)0132),

–  having regard to ex ante conditionalities for smart specialisation strategies,

–  having regard to the seventh report on economic, social and territorial cohesion, published by the Commission on 9 October 2017,

—  having regard to Rule 52 of its Rules of Procedure,

—  having regard to the report of the Committee on Regional Development and the opinions of the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development and the Committee on Fisheries (A8-0046/2018),

A.  whereas the protracted economic and financial crisis in the EU has adversely affected economic growth at regional level, although cohesion policy has contributed around one third of the EU budget towards growth and employment and reducing disparities between EU regions; calls on the Commission, in this context, and in the framework of the European Semester, to look into regional and national co-financing under the European Structural and Investment (ESI) Funds and its impact on national deficits;

B.  whereas cohesion policy – implemented through the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the European Social Fund (ESF) and the Cohesion Fund (CF) – is the EU’s main investment, growth and development policy, is aligned with the goals of the Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, and aims to reduce economic, social and territorial disparities between regions, promote convergence and ultimately improve the quality of life of European citizens;

C.  whereas the principal objective of the ERDF, ESF and CF for the period 2014-2020 is investment in growth and employment with a view to strengthening the labour market, regional economies and European regional cooperation, improving cross-border, transnational and interregional cooperation within the Union, and ultimately reducing development disparities between the individual regions of Europe;

D.  whereas according to the Commission’s lagging regions report, 47 regions in eight Member States are lagging behind; whereas the report may lead to a better understanding of the complexity of the challenges faced by lagging regions, and should therefore be publicly available in all the official EU languages;

E.  whereas cohesion policy plays an important role in all lagging regions and accounts for a very high share of public investment in most of them;

F.  whereas lagging regions have lower productivity, employment and school attendance rates than other regions in the same Member State;

G.  whereas the Commission’s report distinguishes between two types of lagging regions: ‘low-growth regions’ – less-developed and transition regions that did not converge to the EU average between 2000 and 2013 in Member States with a GDP per head in purchasing power standards (PPS) below the EU average in 2013, which comprise almost all the less-developed and transition regions in Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal; and ‘low-income regions’ – all regions with a GDP per head in PPS below 50 % of the EU average in 2013, which comprise several less-developed regions in Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and Romania;

H.  whereas low-growth regions suffer from economic stagnation, owing, in particular, to a drop in public and private investment, unlike low-income regions, which generally maintain their development potential;

I.  whereas lagging regions suffer more than others from the shortage of public and private investment, which is also due to public debt reduction requirements imposed by the Stability Pact;

J.  whereas lagging regions are often characterised by a lack of structural reforms, which reduces the impact of already limited public investments;

K.  whereas lagging regions suffer from serious disadvantages in terms of public transport, economic and energy infrastructure, and require more efficient and effective investments;

L.  whereas the Commission takes the view that a closer relationship between cohesion policy and country-specific recommendations in the framework of the European Semester is needed;

M.  whereas lagging regions, and in particular low-income regions, are often confronted with the flight of young people and skilled labour, both of which are necessary resources for the economic and social revitalisation of the areas concerned, making those regions less attractive in terms of employment and investments;

N.  whereas the definition of low-income and low-growth regions should be refined;

O.  whereas it is important to raise awareness among end-users of EU-funded regional and local programmes and the results achieved, regardless of funding levels in any specific region;

P.  whereas good governance and an efficient public administration are needed in lagging regions, as they contribute significantly to creating the conditions for economic growth; whereas reducing the excess of rules and controls, and the length and complexity of procedures, and using ICT tools better, would contribute to improving efficiency and good governance in lagging regions;

Q.  whereas according to the seventh report on economic, social and territorial cohesion, lagging regions are ranked lowest in the European Quality of Government Index, which means that the impact of public investment is reduced;

R.  whereas reliable, up-to-date and disaggregated figures and statistics are important for well-informed, more transparent, impartial and fairer political decisions;

S.  whereas obstacles to growth should be removed and gaps in infrastructures reduced in lagging regions;

T.  whereas SMEs in lagging regions are financed with much higher interest rates and encounter more difficulties in being granted loans from the banking sector in order to co-finance ESI fund projects;

U.  whereas four out of five lagging regions have at least 25 % of their population in a city or its commuting zones, known as a functional urban area (FUA), and one out of five lagging regions has more than 50 % of its population in an FUA;

V.  whereas traditional activities, such as small-scale artisanal fishing or farming, define identities and lifestyles in most coastal and rural areas of lagging regions, and are of economic, territorial, social and cultural importance; whereas development strategies are needed in order to enhance the capacity to retain and attract talent, adopt new technologies, and stimulate new investments;

1.  Welcomes the fact that the Commission has presented a staff working document on competitiveness in low-income and low-growth regions: the lagging regions report; notes that the report proposes a number of positive solutions to support economic growth, sustainable development and job creation in these regions; stresses, furthermore, that the analysis concerning their competitiveness makes an important contribution to the future debate on cohesion policy;

2.  Welcomes the implementation of the pilot initiatives for lagging regions in two regions in Romania and, with the support of the World Bank, two regions in Poland, particularly the definition of strategic priorities and concrete, quickly implementable actions; looks forward to the publication of the results of these initiatives;

3.  Stresses that cohesion policy plays a key role in ensuring and promoting public and private investment in all EU regions, both directly and by contributing to the creation of a favourable environment for investment; considers that the EU as a whole, in order to promote its overall harmonious development, should carry out actions which strengthen its economic, social and territorial cohesion and reduce disparities between the levels of development of the various regions and the backwardness of lagging regions;

4.  Calls on the Commission to define lagging regions at NUTS III level, on the basis of general economic and social conditions, and to better target the financing of these areas in line with ESI fund programming cycles;

5.  Calls on the Commission and the Member States to create tailor-made strategies, programmes and actions for the different lagging regions, taking into account the trends and sub-regional disparities, as the paths taken and the challenges facing low-income and low-growth regions differ greatly, depending on their specificities, using smart specialisation strategies, to accelerate their convergence and secure the best solutions for job creation, economic growth and sustainable development; considers that these strategies, programmes or actions should be coordinated with the Urban Agenda, as lagging regions are not purely rural;

6.  Stresses that, in addition to the low development of and investment in SMEs, unemployment remains drastically high, particularly among young people, and represents one of the most serious and pressing problems in the vast majority of lagging regions; underlines the fundamental role of secondary and higher education, of professional, on-the-job training and of knowledge transfer in combating the alarming levels of youth unemployment and the large numbers of young people departing these regions; points out the importance of education and training and of increased investments in relation to the needs and development of SMEs and family businesses; is of the opinion that the involvement of young people leads to improved performance, since they often provide innovative solutions;

7.  Notes that the presence of an educated and trained workforce that matches the needs of the regional economy has a powerful impact on competitiveness, productivity and the attractiveness of the labour market, which can then flourish in an environment of growth and openness to public and private investment; is of the opinion that, in this context, account should be taken of the present situation of lagging regions, particularly the negative migration rate and its adverse impact on employment; highlights the role that agriculture and fisheries play in lagging regions, as they, through the promotion of family businesses and jobs, and the facilitation of social inclusion, supply food and guarantee food security;

8.  Notes that diversification has become a necessity for farmers and fishermen, particularly in the lagging regions, as a means to provide additional sources of income and boost economically and environmentally sustainable activities; notes, however, that such diversification must in no way replace more traditional activities, such as sustainable fishing; encourages the Member States and regional and local authorities to support blue economy and similar projects in order to help people in the lagging regions develop environmentally sustainable income sources;

9.  Hopes that the implementation of the EU 2020 Strategy in the area of employment, education and training, as well as the forthcoming EU long-term strategy and its objectives, will continue to take due account of the specific needs of lagging regions, and in particular of the persistent infrastructure gaps and the development of human capital, focusing particularly on the rate of early school leavers and their adverse impact on employment; calls on the Commission, in this context, to look into the impact of a possible increase in the ESF co-financing rate for the next financing period;

10.  Considers it necessary to strike the right balance between structural interventions, social policies and industrial policies in the programming and implementation of ESI funds, in order to stimulate economic growth, sustainable development and job creation by combining grants with financial instruments and attracting extra financial support, thereby helping to address the remaining shortcomings; stresses, in this regard, that low-risk financial instruments could be preferable to higher-risk ones wherever the economic outlook allows for it;

11.  Notes that cohesion policy can serve as a tool for rectifying competitiveness gaps and imbalances, as well as macroeconomic asymmetries between regions, by encouraging the creation of an attractive and sustainable environment for businesses and citizens; underlines the fact that, in low-growth regions, accessing credit, enforcing contracts and protecting minority investments are the main problems identified, while in low-income regions, the biggest issues are resolving insolvency, electricity supply and contract enforcement;

12.  Notes that lagging regions are under considerable migratory pressure; believes that the contribution of the ESI funds to tackling this challenge can only be successful if the principle of solidarity is also applied effectively; considers that refugees and migrants under international protection need to receive appropriate training and education with a view to being integrated into the labour market;

13.  Notes that many of the problems of lagging regions are similar to those experienced in the outermost regions; welcomes, therefore, the strategy proposed by the Commission in its communication: ‘A stronger and renewed strategic partnership with the EU’s outermost regions’(9);

14.  Considers that demographic and social development criteria, such as the Regional Social Progress Index, and environmental or other indicators, along with GDP, could be considered in the context of cohesion policy and included in future Commission reports on lagging regions, in order to ensure that the potential of lagging regions is fulfilled;

15.  Highlights the adverse effects of the economic and financial crisis, especially for low-growth regions, which have reduced the margins of budgetary policies, leading to public investment cuts; stresses, on the other hand, the importance of debt reduction with a view to eliminating the budgetary deficit and tailoring public investment to growth requirements;

16.  Considers that cohesion policy has a positive impact in creating growth and employment; stresses the need to apply the agreed position on the Stability and Growth Pact regarding flexibility for cyclical conditions, structural reforms and government investments aimed at implementing major structural reforms and similar projects, with a view to achieving the Europe 2020 goals; recognises the necessity of clarifying the context and scope of application of structural reforms within cohesion policy; notes, however, that such structural reforms in Member States and regions under support programmes may help to achieve a better outcome for investments under cohesion policy;

17.  Calls for stronger action to increase convergence between all regions, including action to ensure their resiliency to sudden shocks;

18.  Notes that access to credit is harder in lagging regions, especially in low-income regions, because of higher interest rates and, to a certain extent, the risk aversion of the credit system; stresses the importance of ensuring easier access to credit in order to assist SMEs, to encourage new business models, and to promote growth in lagging regions;

19.  Stresses the importance of EU funds in boosting the economic resilience and cohesion of those regions, as well as competitiveness, investment and opportunities for cooperation; acknowledges, therefore, the input of local action groups in developing local strategies; suggests that the Commission should look into the possibility of proposing the allocation of a larger share of support to community-led local development (CLLD), thus helping to both tackle challenges and build up capacities; recalls that lagging regions often experience difficulties in accessing finance, as well as bureaucratic and administrative delays which hamper the operations of EU funds;

20.  Is of the opinion that positive incentives could be sought for the regions within the existing framework of the macroeconomic conditions imposed by the European Semester;

21.  Takes into consideration the importance of sound economic governance for an efficient overall performance of ESI funds, with the ultimate aim of rectifying shortcomings and preventing delays; supports, in this regard, the need to analyse and subsequently review the very rationale of the link between the European Semester and cohesion policy;

22.  Believes that solidarity, stronger institutional capacity, respect for the principle of good governance, better connectivity and digitalisation in these regions have a significant impact on their economic growth and on the more efficient and effective use of existing resources; draws attention, for this reason, to the issue of supporting and improving the quality of administration and institutions in the regions affected; calls on the Commission and the Member States to disseminate best practice examples on the increased efficiency of public administration, as effective governance should be the basic recommendation for lagging regions;

23.  Underlines, in this context, the importance of the partnership principle, and of multi-level governance, which needs to be strengthened without prejudice to the principle of subsidiarity; believes that the involvement of all levels of government and interested stakeholders in designing and implementing strategies and specific programmes and actions aimed at these regions is fundamental in order to create effective European added value for citizens;

24.  Reiterates the importance of innovation, digitalisation, and improving local services (health, social, postal) and infrastructure for creating a positive environment and a good foundation for boosting growth and enhancing cohesion in lagging regions; considers that the provision of high-speed internet connections is a precondition for the viability of rural and mountainous areas; highlights the potential of multi-sectoral projects that promote economic, social and territorial development by capitalising on synergies between European funds;

25.  Suggests that country-specific recommendations within the framework of the European Semester should be made on a multiannual basis, with medium-term monitoring and reviews, and seen as positive incentives for the launch of structural reforms rather than as instruments that could exclude access to investments under the cohesion policy, with a view to contributing to the common objectives of the Union;

26.  Believes that the measures linking the effectiveness of ESI funds to sound economic governance, as outlined in Regulation (EU) No 1303/2013, should be carefully analysed, including through the involvement of all stakeholders; believes, furthermore, that the rationale behind the link between the ESI funds and sound economic governance should be rethought, with a view to the next programming period and taking into account its implementation over the period 2014-2020; is of the opinion that the Commission should consider adjustments to how the European Semester and cohesion policy are linked; suggests, in this regard, a system of positive incentives, with margins to be created in the new multiannual financial framework (MFF), which could serve as an envelope to be used when Member States comply with the country-specific recommendations and other requirements under the European Semester;

27.  Considers it particularly necessary to support productive and indigenous business activities specific to lagging regions, including sustainable tourism, the circular economy, local energy transition, agriculture, manufactured products, and innovation focused on SMEs; considers that synergies arising from the effective combination of funding from regional and national bodies and from EU instruments, using integrated territorial investments, should help to create economic opportunities, particularly for young people;

28.  Underlines the importance of exploiting all the opportunities offered by the EU for sustainable development and growth in these regions; considers that Member States should pay particular attention to lagging regions when preparing operational and cross-border cooperation programmes; recalls, therefore, that it is important to encourage the use of funds under direct management and the EFSI, alongside and in coordination with the opportunities offered by cohesion policy;

29.  Stresses the importance of reliable, up-to-date, disaggregated statistics; requests, therefore, that the Commission and Eurostat provide statistics with the greatest possible detail and geographical disaggregation, so that they may be used to devise suitable cohesion policies, including in the lagging regions; welcomes, in this context, the information provided in the Commission’s report;

30.  Calls on the Commission to consider reviewing the existing relationship between cohesion policy and macroeconomic governance, recalling that the policy has legitimacy stemming directly from the Treaties, and is one of the most visible European policies and the most important expression of European solidarity and added value across all European regions; believes that the link between cohesion policy and economic governance processes within the framework of the European Semester must be balanced, reciprocal and focused on a system of positive incentives; supports further recognition of the territorial dimension, which could be beneficial for the European Semester; considers it necessary, accordingly, to take a balanced approach to economic governance and economic, social and territorial cohesion objectives as laid down by the Treaties and to sustainable growth, employment and environmental protection;

31.  Recalls the need for all political actors to recognise the role played by cohesion policy as the main European economic policy instrument to promote public and private investments which take into account regions’ specific economic, social and territorial characteristics;

32.  Calls on the Member States, as proposed in the Commission’s report, to adopt national and regional development strategies and programmes aimed at supporting lagging regions and improving their administrative capacities, governance and other key growth factors; calls on the Commission, in this regard, to provide technical, professional and practical assistance to Member States, regions and municipalities in order to use best practices and support the digitalisation of public services;

33.  Calls for cohesion policy to continue to be a priority for the Union and to be backed by ambitious funding accordingly, even in the light of pressures on the EU budget, and for the synergies with other EU funds to be increased and complementary financial support via financial instruments in the post-2020 multiannual programming framework to be attracted; stresses that values such as European solidarity, which cohesion policy embodies, should not be undermined;

34.  Recalls Parliament’s responsibility in designing and approving the appropriate legislative framework for the future cohesion policy; highlights the need to preserve the basic role and goal of cohesion policy in line with Article 174 TFEU, in order not only to achieve convergence, but also to prevent territories from falling behind; points out the need to streamline rules, and to ensure a proper balance between the simplification of the policy and adequate controls, while reducing excessive administrative burdens; is of the opinion that the Commission and the Member States should consider an extension of the provisions of Article 7 of Regulation (EU) No 1301/2013 on the ERDF, by financing the links of cities with their surrounding areas in the lagging regions;

35.  Calls on the Commission to better support the development of innovation systems, such as innovation strategies for smart specialisation, and to strengthen the interaction between businesses, universities and research centres in lagging regions; stresses, furthermore, that well-connected territories are essential for the work of research partnerships, including European Innovation Partnership initiatives, so that innovative practices can further enhance the sustainable development of agriculture and associated businesses in lagging regions;

36.  Instructs its President to forward this resolution to the Council, the Commission, the Committee of the Regions, the European Economic and Social Committee, and the governments and national and regional parliaments of the Member States.

(1) OJ L 347, 20.12.2013, p. 320.
(2) OJ L 347, 20.12.2013, p. 259.
(3) OJ C 181, 19.5.2016, p. 29.
(4) Texts adopted, P8_TA(2016)0309.
(5) Texts adopted, P8_TA(2017)0053.
(6) Texts adopted, P8_TA(2017)0245.
(7) Texts adopted, P8_TA(2017)0254.
(8) Texts adopted, P8_TA(2017)0401.
(9) Commission communication of 24 October 2017 (COM(2017)0623).

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