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Thursday, 15 September 2022 - Strasbourg
Economic, social and territorial cohesion in the EU: the 8th Cohesion Report

European Parliament resolution of 15 September 2022 on economic, social and territorial cohesion in the EU: the 8th Cohesion Report (2022/2032(INI))

The European Parliament,

–  having regard to Articles 2 and 3 of the Treaty on European Union,

–  having regard to Articles 4, 162, 174 to 178, and 349 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU),

–  having regard to Regulation (EU) 2021/1060 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 24 June 2021 laying down common provisions on the European Regional Development Fund, the European Social Fund Plus, the Cohesion Fund, the Just Transition Fund and the European Maritime, Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund and financial rules for those and for the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund, the Internal Security Fund and the Instrument for Financial Support for Border Management and Visa Policy(1) (Common Provisions Regulation),

–  having regard to Regulation (EU) 2021/1058 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 24 June 2021 on the European Regional Development Fund and on the Cohesion Fund(2),

–  having regard to Regulation (EU) 2021/1056 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 24 June 2021 establishing the Just Transition Fund(3),

–  having regard to Regulation (EU) 2021/1059 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 24 June 2021 on specific provisions for the European territorial cooperation goal (Interreg) supported by the European Regional Development Fund and external financing instruments(4),

–  having regard to Regulation (EU) 2021/1057 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 24 June 2021 establishing the European Social Fund Plus (ESF+) and repealing Regulation (EU) No 1296/2013(5),

–  having regard to Regulation (EU) 2020/460 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 March 2020 amending Regulations (EU) No 1301/2013, (EU) No 1303/2013 and (EU) No 508/2014 as regards specific measures to mobilise investments in the healthcare systems of Member States and in other sectors of their economies in response to the COVID-19 outbreak (Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative)(6),

–  having regard to Regulation (EU) No 1305/2013 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 December 2013 on support for rural development by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD) and repealing Council Regulation (EC) No 1698/2005(7),

–  having regard to the ‘Fit for 55’ package adopted by the Commission on 14 July 2021,

–  having regard to Regulation (EU) 2021/1119 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 June 2021 establishing the framework for achieving climate neutrality and amending Regulations (EC) No 401/2009 and (EU) 2018/1999 (‘European Climate Law’)(8),

–  having regard to Regulation (EU) 2021/2116 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 2 December 2021 on the financing, management and monitoring of the common agricultural policy and repealing Regulation (EU) No 1306/2013(9),

–  having regard to Regulation (EU) 2022/562 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 6 April 2022 amending Regulations (EU) No 1303/2013 and (EU) No 223/2014 as regards Cohesion’s Action for Refugees in Europe (CARE)(10),

–  having regard to Regulation (EU) 2021/1755 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 6 October 2021 establishing the Brexit Adjustment Reserve(11),

–  having regard to Regulation (EU) 2020/461 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 March 2020 amending Council Regulation (EC) No 2012/2002 in order to provide financial assistance to Member States and to countries negotiating their accession to the Union that are seriously affected by a major public health emergency(12) (EU Solidarity Fund – EUSF),

–  having regard to Regulation (EU, Euratom) 2020/2092 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 December 2020 on a general regime of conditionality for the protection of the Union budget(13) (‘Rule of Law Conditionality Regulation’),

–  having regard to the Commission proposal of 29 May 2018 for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on a mechanism to resolve legal and administrative obstacles in a cross-border context (COM(2018)0373),

–  having regard to the Commission communication of 4 February 2022 entitled ‘8th Cohesion Report: Cohesion in Europe towards 2050’ (COM(2022)0034),

–  having regard to the Commission communication of 3 May 2022 entitled ‘Putting people first, securing sustainable and inclusive growth, unlocking the potential of the EU’s outermost regions’ (COM(2022)0198),

–  having regard to the Commission communication of 30 June 2021 entitled ‘A long-term Vision for the EU’s Rural Areas – Towards stronger, connected, resilient and prosperous rural areas by 2040’ (COM(2021)0345),

–  having regard to the Pact of Amsterdam establishing the Urban Agenda for the EU, agreed at the informal meeting of EU ministers responsible for urban matters held on 30 May 2016 in Amsterdam,

–  having regard to the European Pillar of Social Rights, proclaimed on 17 November 2017 in Gothenburg by Parliament, the Council and the Commission,

–  having regard to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report entitled ‘Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change’,

–  having regard to the Committee of the Regions opinion of 10 December 2020 entitled ‘EU strategy for Rural Revival’(14),

–  having regard to the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) opinion of 18 September 2020 on the role of EU structural and cohesion policy in driving forward the transformation of the economy in an innovative and smart manner(15),

–  having regard to the EESC opinion of 25 September 2021 entitled ‘The role of cohesion policy in combating inequalities in the new programming period following the COVID-19 crisis. Complementarities and possible overlaps with the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) and national recovery plans’(16),

–  having regard to the EESC opinion of 27 April 2021 on the role of the social economy in the creation of jobs and in the implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights(17),

–  having regard to Commission Recommendation (EU) 2021/402 of 4 March 2021 on an effective active support to employment following the COVID-19 crisis (EASE)(18),

–  having regard to the Commission’s New European Bauhaus initiative launched on 14 October 2020,

–  having regard to the Commission’s Catching-up Initiative (also known as the Lagging Regions Initiative) launched in 2015,

–  having regard to the UN Sustainable Development Goals established in September 2015 under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,

–  having regard to the agreement adopted at the 21st Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21) in Paris on 12 December 2015 (Paris Agreement),

–  having regard to its resolution of 8 March 2022 on cohesion policy as an instrument to reduce healthcare disparities and enhance cross-border health cooperation(19),

–  having regard to its resolution of 8 March 2022 on the role of cohesion policy in promoting innovative and smart transformation and regional ICT connectivity(20),

–  having regard to its resolution of 15 February 2022 on challenges for urban areas in the post-COVID-19 era(21),

–  having regard to its resolution of 14 September 2021 towards a stronger partnership with the EU outermost regions(22),

–  having regard to its resolution of 9 June 2021 on the gender dimension in cohesion policy(23),

–  having regard to its resolution of 20 May 2021 on reversing demographic trends in EU regions using cohesion policy instruments(24),

–  having regard to its resolution of 25 March 2021 on cohesion policy and regional environment strategies in the fight against climate change(25),

–  having regard to its resolution of 13 March 2018 on lagging regions in the EU(26),

–  having regard to its resolution of 13 June 2018 on cohesion policy and the circular economy(27),

–  having regard to the final report of the Conference on the Future of Europe and its recommendations,

–  having regard to the study entitled ‘EU lagging regions: state of play and future challenges’, published by its Directorate-General for Internal Policies in September 2020(28),

–  having regard to Court of Auditors Review No 01/2020 on tracking climate spending in the EU budget,

–  having regard to Rule 54 of its Rules of Procedure,

–  having regard to the opinions of the Committee on Budgets and the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development,

–  having regard to the report of the Committee on Regional Development (A9-0210/2022),

A.  whereas in the last financial period, between 2014 and 2020, cohesion policy, as the main public investment policy, supported over 1,4 million enterprises, contributed to 1 544 km of railway lines and safer roads, helped 45,5 million people to integrate into the labour market and increased GDP in the least developed regions by up to 5 %;

B.  whereas during the pandemic, the risk of unemployment, increased poverty and the gender gap were particularly pronounced in less developed EU regions; whereas the gender employment gap was almost twice that of more developed regions;

C.  whereas despite not being a crisis instrument, cohesion policy has repeatedly and efficiently helped regions to respond effectively in emergencies and to asymmetric shocks such as the COVID-19 crisis, Brexit and the current refugee crisis caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, including by supporting Member States on the front line when it comes to taking in refugees; whereas this emergency help should, however, not undermine the strategic approach of the funding period as a whole, as cohesion policy per se is a long-term investment policy;

D.  whereas it is of the utmost importance that future cohesion policy be formulated on the basis of a strategy followed during the whole funding period, which could, however, be reassessed and adjusted during the mid-term review;

E.  whereas developed eastern EU regions have been catching up with the rest of the EU, while several middle-income and less developed regions are in economic stagnation or decline, suggesting that they are in a development trap; whereas the distribution of funds should take into account the development of disparities not only between but also within Member States;

F.  whereas convergence has been driven by strong growth in less developed regions, but the benefits that derive from lower costs and the returns on their investments are likely to diminish over time; whereas less developed regions will need to boost education and training, increase investment in research and innovation, and improve the quality of their institutions, while continuing to invest in infrastructure, in order to maintain steady growth, avoid falling into a development trap, close the connectivity gap, and ensure access to quality services and decent living conditions;

G.  whereas while the number of people at risk of poverty and social exclusion fell between 2012 and 2019, 20 % of the total EU population remain at risk of poverty and social exclusion;

H.  whereas infrastructure quality, the provision of services, access to healthcare, and transport and mobility solutions differ vastly between urban and rural regions;

I.  whereas cities and functional urban-rural linkages are important drivers of local and regional development, cohesion and the just transition;

J.  whereas the rising costs of raw and construction materials have a direct negative impact on many EU-funded infrastructure projects and put their implementation at risk;

K.  whereas demographic decline is more pronounced in rural regions, and 50 % of the EU population will be living in a region with a shrinking and ageing population by 2050; whereas these developments are likely to affect growth potential and access to services in rural areas; whereas, considering the ageing population, it is crucial to involve younger generations in the future development of their regions;

L.  whereas brain drain disproportionately affects less developed regions and, if left unaddressed, the phenomenon will have long-term and permanent effects on the Union’s future;

M.  whereas cohesion policy is of paramount importance in government capital investment, providing more than half the total public investment funding in some Member States; whereas the support provided by the European Structural and Investment Funds (ESI Funds) should be additional to, and not replace, public expenditure by Member States;

N.  whereas the goal of a carbon-neutral Europe by 2050 at the latest should be coupled with the goal of a fair and just transition; whereas air and water pollution generally remain too high in many less developed regions; whereas all EU regions have to play a significant role in tackling the challenges of climate change, through measures coordinated with the surrounding regions;

O.  whereas the regional innovation divide has grown, and education, training and skills gaps between more and less developed regions are often wide; whereas skills endowments are concentrated in capital regions in particular, and a large urban-rural divide has emerged;

P.  whereas the New European Bauhaus initiative, through the transformation of the built environment, connects the European Green Deal to living spaces in both urban and rural areas;

Q.  whereas disparities remain in the speed of the digital transition across Europe; whereas very high-speed internet connections are only accessible to two in three city residents and one in six rural residents;

R.  whereas housing and energy prices are rising, demonstrating the need for cheaper social housing and accelerated housing renovation to fight energy poverty;

S.  whereas significant progress has been made in improving employment and social inclusion, but regional disparities remain larger than before the 2008 financial crisis; whereas cohesion policy should provide efficient responses for tackling poverty and social exclusion, creating employment and growth, increasing competitiveness, promoting investment in education, including in digital education, health, research and innovation, fighting climate change and tackling demographic challenges; whereas cohesion policy can only fulfil all these tasks if it is embedded in solid funding;

T.  whereas the regions and areas listed in Article 174 TFEU require particular attention; whereas the specific measures and additional funding should continue for sparsely populated outermost and northernmost areas in order to offset the severe and permanent natural and demographic handicaps of these regions;

U.  whereas cohesion policy should be implemented in line with the principles of good governance and with full respect for the common EU values set out in Article 2 TFEU, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Code of Conduct on Partnership; whereas the rule of law has deteriorated over time in several Member States; whereas cohesion policy should contribute to the strengthening of democracy and the rule of law;

V.  whereas the COVID-19 pandemic and the current geopolitical tensions have confirmed the need to reflect on the economic governance framework, including a temporary suspension (until 2023) and a revision of the Stability and Growth Pact, and to envisage the possibility that public spending under cohesion policy by Member States and regional and local authorities as part of the ESI funds should not be considered national or equivalent structural expenditure as defined in the Stability and Growth Pact;

W.  whereas the budget of the EUSF is nowhere near enough to mount an adequate response to major natural disasters and give expression to European solidarity with disaster-hit regions; whereas this mismatch will grow because of an expected increase in natural disasters stemming from climate change and bringing about more drastic changes in peoples’ lives; whereas contributions from EU funds only cover the restoration of the status quo ante of infrastructure and equipment, while the additional costs of rebuilding more climate-resilient structures have to be (co)financed by the Member States;

1.  Is convinced that cohesion policy can only continue to play its present role as a vector for investment and job creation, an instrument to reduce regional and intraregional disparities, and a solidarity mechanism for all EU regions if it has solid funding based on the principles of partnership and multi-level governance; stresses that this implies providing for at least the same level of funding as in the 2021-2027 financial period, also in the light of the expected recession, topped up with the Just Transition Fund (JTF) II budgetary resources; recalls that new challenges need fresh money and asks for cohesion policy to be topped up with new budgetary resources to enable Member States and regional authorities to address the different challenges and crises affecting the Union;

2.  Notes that Member States may make a duly justified request for further flexibility within the current framework of the Stability and Growth Pact for public or equivalent structural expenditure, supported by the public administration by way of the co-financing of investments activated as part of the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the Cohesion Fund (CF) and the Just Transition Fund (JTF); recalls that when defining the fiscal adjustment under either the preventive or the corrective arm of the Stability and Growth Pact, the Commission must carefully assess this request in a manner reflecting the strategic importance of investments co-financed by the ERDF, the CF and the JTF;

3.  Reaffirms its strong commitment to cohesion policy, which forms part of the acquis communautaire, is therefore inseparable from the European project, and is based on the principle of solidarity between Member States and regions; underlines that cohesion policy has proven itself to be a modern and flexible tool, which can quickly be deployed in emergency situations; stresses that the original aim of cohesion policy – to promote and support the ‘overall harmonious development’ of its Member States and regions – should remain the key role of cohesion policy programmes; highlights, however, that cohesion policy should not become a source of financing to make up for shortcomings in budgetary flexibility, nor face budgetary cuts in response to the crisis, and that as a long-term investment policy, cohesion policy should help to prepare regions for future challenges;

4.  Regrets that delays in the multiannual financial framework (MFF) negotiations led to considerable delays in the programming period, impacting management authorities and beneficiaries; urges the Commission and the Member States to speed up the adoption of partnership agreements and programmes, as the prolonged under-implementation of cohesion policy leads to an abnormal backlog in payments in the second half of the MFF implementation period, putting additional pressure on payments during the negotiations on the post-2027 MFF; calls on the Commission, therefore, to assess the legal possibility of creating two distinct parts within the Common Provisions Regulation (CPR), namely the content-related part (political) and the MFF-related part (financial resources), for the programming period post-2027; believes that the content-related part should be negotiated and concluded before the MFF-related part, to allow for management authorities to start preparing in a timely manner; underlines, within this framework, the need for the swift adoption of the next MFF, so that Member States and regional and local authorities have a clear vision of their financial envelopes and are in a position to make political choices and establish investment priorities;

5.  Welcomes the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) as an important tool to mitigate the economic and social impact of the coronavirus pandemic and make European economies and societies more sustainable, resilient and better prepared for the challenges and opportunities of the green and digital transitions; underlines the importance of ensuring its complementarities and synergies with cohesion policy; criticises the lack of a territorial dimension within the RRF and reiterates the importance of the partnership principle within the territorial policies of the EU; regrets that the deployment of the RRF has been highly centralised and has lacked consultation with regions and municipalities and stresses that the formulation and implementation of the Union’s policies and actions must take into account the objectives set out in Article 174 TFEU and contribute to their achievement; considers, furthermore, that national recovery plans financed by the RRF should not affect the ability to mobilise the ESI Funds;

6.  Emphasises that the European Court of Auditors has criticised the lack of differentiation between climate mitigation and climate adaptation; stresses that future cohesion policy should include such a differentiation in the monitoring of spending and its thematic concentration; stresses that climate change represents the most serious threat to human societies all over the world and affects all regions; therefore highlights the need to step up efforts to fight climate change and enhance climate mitigation; emphasises that cohesion policy needs to support strong climate mainstreaming;

7.  Welcomes the Commission’s introduction of the JTF to support regions facing challenges in the transition towards carbon neutrality; urges reluctant Member States to go ahead with its implementation and calls on the Commission to draw lessons from the implementation of the JTF; asks for a new fund, JTF II, to be established in the post-2027 programming period on NUTS 3 level, with a revised allocation method; believes that the fund should be fully integrated into the CPR, while applying shared management and partnership principles; believes that regions with high CO2 per capita, as well as industries in transition, should have access to this fund, which should be endowed with more financial means than the current JTF and a wider scope; calls for the new JTF II to differentiate between climate mitigation and adaptation, and emphasises the need to design a simple architecture for future cohesion policy;

8.  Welcomes the idea of a ‘do no harm to cohesion’ principle, meaning that no action should hamper the convergence process or contribute to regional disparities; believes that the European Committee of the Regions should be involved in the design of this principle and that it should be set in legislation in order for the scope and modalities of its application to be clearly defined so as to establish it as a cross-cutting principle in EU policies;

9.  Notes that, even though cohesion policy is not a crisis instrument, an unallocated flexibility amount as high as in the current period should be maintained until after the mid-term review to strengthen regions’ resilience and responsiveness, enabling them to address new and upcoming challenges and absorb asymmetric shocks; maintains that a strong cohesion policy with increased funding should be ensured in the post-2027 MFF, but that the policy should not be used to address every new challenge; invites the Commission to propose the mobilisation of unused 2021 cohesion allocations for further flexibility as of 2022 in order to find solutions to the increased costs of EU-financed infrastructure projects (transport, energy, digital etc.); recalls that the price of raw and construction materials puts the implementation of many EU-funded infrastructure projects at risk;

10.  Stresses that, in the decades ahead, climate change represents the most serious threat to human societies all over the world; recalls that the rise in the number and intensity of natural disasters and extreme climate phenomena (floods, storms, cyclones, droughts, heatwaves, forest fires etc.) is already a visible and tangible consequence of climate change; considers that the costs to the Union, for each country and for each region, of not anticipating and not adapting to climate change will be extremely high; calls for a significant increase in the EUSF budget in order to help regions to anticipate and mitigate the effects of climate change and for the scope of the EUSF to be broadened so that it can also support the more climate-resilient restoration or construction of public and private infrastructure; asks the Commission to assess whether the EUSF budget can be increased through a kind of insurance in which Member States pay an annual fee based on their number of inhabitants, to be invested in safe assets and made available if crises occur;

11.  Believes that the co-financing rate for the ‘Investment in jobs and growth’ goal at the level of each priority should, in normal circumstances, not be higher than:

   (a) 85 % for less developed regions and the outermost regions;
   (b) 75 % for transition regions, in the event that they are maintained;
   (c) 70 % for more developed regions;

believes that all three rates should be increased in urgency situations, using the flexibility amount;

12.  Takes the view that the Cohesion Fund should support those Member States whose GNI per capita, measured in purchasing power standards and calculated on the basis of Union figures for the period 2025-2027, is less than 90 % of the average GNI per capita of the EU for the same reference period;

13.  Stresses that GDP as the sole indicator of development fails to take into account environmental sustainability, resource efficiency, integration and social progress; recalls that in addition to economic issues, health, education, sustainability, equity and social inclusion are integral parts of the EU development model; calls for GDP to be complemented with new criteria (e.g. social, environmental, demographic), in order to give a better socioeconomic overview of the regions, address the Union’s current priorities, such as the European Green Deal and the European Pillar of Social Rights, and better reflect the ecological, digital and demographic transitions and the wellbeing of people;

14.  Suggests opening a reflection on the contribution of cohesion policy to the achievement of the long-term EU strategic objectives, especially in the light of the new challenges ahead; believes that the green and digital transitions remain major challenges on which we should focus our investments in order to prevent the development of new disparities; invites the Commission, the Member States and the managing authorities to strengthen dialogue and join forces in the identification of the strategic objectives on which future cohesion is expected to contribute;

15.  Notes that ‘rust belts’ still exist in most Member States; urges support for the industrial, social and environmental transition of these regions and believes that, to address the potentially negative impact of the transition of old industries such as steel and aluminium and to support such industries, JTF II resources should be directed towards modernising them where possible, creating smart specialisation strategies tailored to the needs of each of the regions in industrial transition, fostering innovation-led growth and ensuring the spread of growth benefits;

16.  Believes that, while some regions in industrial transition face specific challenges such as deindustrialisation due to the outsourcing of industrial production to emerging economies, low levels of productivity and a lack of real strategy for future-oriented occupations, other regions have comparatively strong potential, such as a tradition in manufacturing and sophisticated innovation activities in local niche industries; notes that more industrialised regions are more resilient to various economic and social shocks and calls on the Commission to develop an ambitious reindustrialisation policy for EU regions; underlines the importance of local and regional production and consumption; calls, furthermore, for a specific EU initiative to support the Union’s low-growth and poorer regions that are diverging both internally and externally from the EU average, building on the lessons learned from the Catching-up Initiative; reiterates the need for place-based policymaking via an appropriate analysis of low growth patterns and the necessary tools to address them;

17.  Notes that in 2019 more than a quarter of the EU population was living in a region where real GDP had still not returned to its pre-financial crisis level in 2007, in particular in Greece, Cyprus, Italy and Spain; stresses that these same countries have again been more significantly affected by the economic and social crisis caused by COVID-19;

18.  Stresses the importance of supporting rural areas by valuing their diversity and potential, improving transport connectivity, high-speed broadband, the provision of services, economic diversification and job creation, and helping them respond to challenges such as rural desertification, population ageing, depopulation and rural abandonment, the decline of communities in general, including city centres, and insufficient healthcare and education opportunities, while also stressing the importance of urban-rural links within the context of functional urban areas; emphasises the role in rural areas of young women in particular, which tends to be precarious; is of the opinion that the New European Bauhaus initiative would contribute to making rural areas more attractive; notes that all these measures would also help growing cities tackle the challenges they are facing;

19.  Stresses the importance of sustainable mobility solutions throughout the EU; calls on the Commission to promote smart and green mobility and the phasing out of fossil fuels in order to contribute to the EU Green Deal and the ‘Fit for 55’ package; highlights the importance of the Green Deal and the ‘Fit for 55’ package and notes that investments at a regional and local level are essential to their success; urges the Commission to further support climate-related spending and to bolster the ‘do no significant harm’ principle;

20.  Stresses the multi-dimensional nature of rural development, which goes beyond agriculture per se; insists on the need to implement a rural proofing mechanism to assess the impact of EU legislative initiatives on rural areas; notes, however, that only 11,5 % of people living in rural areas work in agriculture, forestry and fisheries; calls, therefore, for the reintegration of the EAFRD under the strategic framework of the CPR as a separate fund; emphasises that being part of the cohesion policy funds strengthens the possibilities and synergies – via an integrated, multi-fund approach – for investments in rural areas beyond agriculture and for regional development; highlights the valuable contribution to rural development made by the LEADER programme, which aims to engage local actors in the design and delivery of strategies, decision-making and resource allocation for their rural areas;

21.  Calls for the strengthening of Articles 174 and 349 TFEU in all Union policies in order to promote the achievement of the objectives set out therein; regrets that the 8th Cohesion Report does not pay particular attention to the progress made in achieving economic, social and territorial cohesion in regions which suffer from severe and permanent natural and demographic handicaps, such as the outermost regions, the northernmost sparsely populated regions, islands, mountainous areas and cross-border regions; recalls the vital role played by cohesion policy in the outermost regions; underlines the importance of designing tailor-made programmes and measures for these regions and stresses the need to maintain all the measures specifically designed for them, as the majority of the outermost regions are still among the less developed regions, making up 6 of the 30 EU regions with the lowest GDP per capita; reaffirms, in this context, the importance of dynamic regional cooperation in order to unleash the potential of the outermost regions;

22.  Is convinced that the role of small cities, towns and villages should be bolstered in order to support local economies and address demographic and climate challenges; reaffirms the importance of urban-rural linkages and of the development of strategies based on functional areas, paying particular attention to small and medium-sized towns, with the aim of preventing rural areas from shrinking; underlines the importance of implementing tailor-made territorial approaches and investing in particular in the smart villages initiative, with the aim of revitalising rural services through digital and social innovation; stresses the importance of synergies between different funding tools, such as the EAFRD, the ERDF, ESF+ and the European Maritime, Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund, to channel an adequate level of funding towards rural areas through a multi-fund approach;

23.  Reiterates the role of cohesion policy in harmonising and improving living conditions for all throughout the Union; notes, however, the increasing emergence of disadvantaged and impoverished areas, including within more developed regions and areas; underlines that, while cities are regional drivers of growth and transition, and living and working in them has many advantages, a high population concentration and above-average population growth in certain urban areas may also have repercussions on housing affordability, pollution levels and quality of life; therefore asks the Commission to present a proposal for the New European Bauhaus initiative to become an EU programme for the MFF post-2027, with a dedicated budget based on new resources which would provide solutions for the development of sustainable and innovative urban areas; believes that urban authorities should have direct access to EU funding in the future; reiterates the importance of safeguards that would prevent the unfair penalisation of regional and local authorities situated in countries that may be subject to the activation of the rule of law mechanism, and asks the Commission to establish avenues through which it can deliver the funds directly to their final beneficiaries;

24.  Highlights the importance of strengthening the bottom-up approach to rural and local development, which is a vehicle for social innovation and capacity-building, thereby empowering citizens to take ownership of the development of their areas; insists, therefore, that local and regional authorities, as well as NGOs and citizens, be fully included in the decision-making and implementation process to ensure that their needs are properly addressed; notes that the potential which exists at local level could be better mobilised by strengthening and facilitating community-led local development (CLLD); takes the view that CLLD should be mandatory for Member States;

25.  Emphasises that societies and economies should unlock their creative potential while addressing the challenges posed by the transition towards carbon neutrality, such as in the case of old industrial regions, which should use creative industry as a multidisciplinary catalyst for transition processes, integrating ideas from the cultural and creative industries into administrative processes; believes that managing authorities can help old industrial regions; stresses the need, therefore, to support multidisciplinary cooperation; highlights, furthermore, the importance of culture in cohesion policy, which helps to ensure lively regions and increase their attractiveness, encourage cultural exchanges, and promote diversity and solidarity;

26.  Notes with concern the demographic challenges faced by the EU, especially in certain regions, such as ageing populations, the depopulation of rural and remote areas, demographic pressure on other areas, such as coastal and urban areas, and migratory flows and the arrival of refugees; insists on the need to prepare an immediate response to the arrival of refugees in order to ensure their quick and easy integration; encourages Member States, furthermore, to design and implement specific measures to promote training and employment, as well as safeguard fundamental rights; stresses that local and regional authorities, professional associations and NGOs are essential to identifying and assessing specific investment needs and basic services for mobility and territorial accessibility in rural and urban areas and that they should play a decisive role as active participants in developing territorial strategies stemming from local communities; highlights the importance of including a specific budgetary response for rural areas, including for reversing negative demographic trends in relevant EU programmes;

27.  Underlines the need to improve the relationship between cohesion policy and EU economic governance, while avoiding a punitive approach; stresses that the European Semester should comply with cohesion policy objectives under Articles 174 and 175 TFEU; calls for the participation of the regions in the fulfilment of these objectives and for a stronger territorial approach; calls for a process of reflection on the concept of macroeconomic conditionality and for the exploration of the possibility of replacing this concept with new forms of conditionality to better reflect the new challenges ahead of us; considers that the socio-economic situation of the EU, aggravated by the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis and of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, calls for the suspension of the Stability Pact until 2023 and for its revision;

28.  Observes that some middle-income regions are facing a ‘middle-income trap’, and that they often suffer from shrinking and ageing populations, weak manufacturing industries, low growth, innovation, competitiveness, productivity, and institutional and government quality, a lack of progress towards a just transition and vulnerability to shocks caused by globalisation; draws attention to the worrying aggravation of this trend and urges the Commission and the Member States to take serious steps to address this challenge and to find solutions for these regions so that they are not left behind in the long term, but instead are supported in developing their specific strengths;

29.  Notes that many drivers of growth remain concentrated in more developed regions and urban areas; is convinced that a major challenge for future cohesion policy will be to provide appropriate support to underdeveloped regions, and that cohesion policy should both reduce disparities and prevent these regions from falling behind, by taking account of the different trends and dynamics and by providing specific budgetary support for rural areas, including for reversing negative demographic trends in relevant EU programmes;

30.  Notes with concern the severe drop in recent years of funding allocated by Member States to their poorer regions; recalls the importance of respecting the EU’s additionality principle; calls on the Commission to ensure that national authorities duly take into account internal cohesion while drafting and implementing ESI Fund projects;

31.  Emphasises that the regions in, or at risk of falling into, the middle-income trap have differing characteristics and need tailor-made solutions to boost investments in high-quality education, human capital, research and development, workforce training, social services and mitigation strategies; urges the Commission to define these regions in order to better understand the structural factors that lead to the middle-income trap, to support them through a differentiated and place-based approach and to allocate higher amounts to them under the ESF+ in the next programming period;

32.  Is of the opinion that simplification should be one of the key drivers of future cohesion policy; asks the Commission and the Member States to avoid putting an additional administrative burden on managing authorities and recalls the need to minimise the administrative burden for regional and local authorities and for beneficiaries; invites the Member States to avoid over-regulation, make programmes strategic and concise and instruments flexible, and make funding agreements between management authorities and the beneficiaries a tool for simplification; encourages the continued use of simplified cost options (SCOs), by possibly raising the thresholds below which the use of such SCOs should be compulsory; calls on the Member States to speed up the implementation of e-cohesion; highlights the potential of digitalisation as regards monitoring and reporting activities; invites the Commission, furthermore, to improve the transparency of its audit rules and expand the usage of the single audit principle to avoid duplication of audits and management verification of the same expenditures; believes that the relationship between the Commission and managing authorities should evolve towards a ‘contract of confidence’ built on the development and establishment of objective criteria, and considers it necessary to introduce a label to reward managing authorities that have demonstrated their ability to comply with the rules and reduce their rate of error;

33.  Takes the view that maintaining a proper and suitable funding allocation under the Cohesion Fund is particularly necessary for Member States with a major deficit in transport and environmental infrastructure, provided that there is shared management of the fund;

34.  Believes that EU, national and regional structural policies should go hand in hand with a place-based approach in order to contribute to territorial cohesion, address different levels of governance, ensure cooperation and coordination, and unleash the unique potential of regions, while recognising the need for tailor-made solutions; believes, furthermore, that cohesion policy should be geared more towards investment in people, as regional economies can be boosted by an effective mix of investments in innovation, human capital, good governance and institutional capacity;

35.  Notes that European territorial cooperation is a key objective of cohesion policy; highlights the added value of territorial cooperation in general and cross-border cooperation in particular; observes that border regions were particularly affected by the pandemic and that their recovery tends to be slower than that of metropolitan regions; stresses the importance, therefore, of removing obstacles to cross-border cooperation and emphasises that the European Cross-Border Mechanism (ECBM) proposed by the Commission would have helped to remove more than 50 % of the existing barriers; deeply regrets the fact that the legislative procedure relating to the ECBM has been blocked by the Council; invites the Commission to take all necessary initiatives, including relaunching the ECBM, to make this cooperation more dynamic and effective for the benefit of the people; highlights the importance of increased funding for Interreg to support the cooperation of regions across borders; therefore emphasises the importance of small-scale and cross-border projects in bringing people together; stresses the importance of cross-border investments in enhancing innovation, technology transfer, common solutions and synergies;

36.  Stresses the crucial role of investments in high-quality public services on building social resilience and coping with economic, health and social crises;

37.  Notes that cohesion policy reform for the financial period 2021-2027 has contributed to the simplified and flexible use of funding for beneficiaries and management authorities; welcomes the flexibility proposed by the Cohesion’s Action for Refugees in Europe (CARE) and Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative Plus (CRII+) proposals, which have proven that cohesion policy is an excellent tool in crisis situations; recalls, however, that cohesion policy is a long-term investment policy and a dedicated crisis response mechanism should therefore be created within the next MFF; calls on the Commission to survey the practical effects of the simplification measures and promote further simplification, including in the form of digitalisation, flexibility and the participation of citizens; therefore asks the Member States to help beneficiaries, especially beneficiaries of small-scale projects, support private initiatives as generators of jobs and research, development and innovation, and bring cohesion policy closer to all EU citizens;

38.  Stresses that the Rule of Law Conditionality Regulation establishes respect for the rule of law as a condition for cohesion policy funding; considers it necessary to reinforce respect for the rule of law and fundamental rights in the implementation of cohesion policy; calls on the Commission to therefore use all the tools at its disposal to establish ways to ensure that citizens of Member States towards which Article 7(1) TFEU has been triggered are not deprived of the benefits of EU funds as a result of the actions of their governments and that regional and local authorities of these Member States are not penalised where the rule of law mechanism has been activated; expects the Commission, therefore, to fully take aspects of the rule of law into consideration throughout the whole preparation and implementation process of the cohesion policy programmes;

39.  Calls on Member States to launch bold strategies to unlock public and private investment in green, digital and demographic transitions in order to restructure their social market economy model in a positive way for society;

40.  Encourages a reduction of the number of intermediate bodies involved in the management and control of cohesion funds by strengthening the coordination and competences of intermediate bodies of a critical size and identifying one-stop shops for beneficiaries, where possible;

41.  Stresses the need to establish a framework which guarantees legal stability through simple, clear and predictable rules, particularly as regards management and auditing; asks for any retrospective application and interpretation of the rules to be avoided as much as possible; suggests launching a process of reflection on the threshold of the total error rate for each year under which the programme’s management and control system is considered to be functioning effectively and the capacity of managing authorities to comply with this provision of the regulation without penalising beneficiaries; takes the view that this threshold should be raised to 5 %;

42.  Regrets that the UN SDGs seem to have progressively lost ground in the EU narrative, particularly as regards crisis mitigation effects, which is jeopardising their chances of implementation by 2030; encourages the continued strong commitment of EU cohesion policy funds to help implement the SDGs at regional and local level, e.g. with regard to the circular economy; stresses, in this context, that aspects of equality and inclusion should be strengthened even further in regional development; recalls the importance of gender mainstreaming in cohesion policy and highlights the specific role of women, in particular in remote rural areas, who play a major role in civil society and sustainable economic growth, but at the same time face difficulties in accessing the labour market, as well as equal pay, and public services, such as healthcare and childcare;

43.  Supports the increase in the budget allocated for the period 2021-2027 to the new cohesion policy which, in line with the strong focus on smart, green and social actions, will provide sufficient confidence for new innovative projects; calls for strong coordination between these funds and New European Bauhaus programmes and actions;

44.  Stresses that investment in people is crucial to helping develop their skills, encouraging their creativity and stimulating innovation, to which volunteering could certainly contribute; believes that quality, well-paid employment, along with support for (re)training should be maintained or created in order to combat poverty and encourage the integration of migrants and refugees, while strengthening social cohesion and ensuring that no one is left behind;

45.  Highlights the importance of upholding the partnership principle in all programming, implementation and monitoring of EU cohesion policy and of establishing strong cooperation between regional and local authorities, NGOs and other stakeholders; stresses that the Commission should be more active in protecting the cohesion policy funds from threats arising from pressure on democracy and its values in certain Member States;

46.  Recalls that the impact of Brexit has contributed to the disruption of the economy, interregional cooperation, research ecosystems, and education and training systems for EU regions; invites all involved to continue supporting regional and local authorities suffering from the withdrawal of the UK from the EU; considers that reflection on the cohesion policy post-2027 requires continued consideration of the lasting economic and social consequences of Brexit on EU regions; furthermore, invites the UK Government to fund the UK’s participation in the Interreg programmes;

47.  Recalls that Article 175 TFEU provides for Commission reporting on the progress made towards achieving economic, social and territorial cohesion every three years; considers that the combined impact of the COVID-19 crisis and the war in Ukraine will need to be assessed in detail in the 9th Cohesion Report by May 2025 at the latest;

48.  Calls for better access to funding to enable investments in the local energy transition, including energy efficiency, the decentralised distribution of energy and a strong focus on renewables; highlights, in this context, the need for cohesion policy to support energy-efficient renovation in order to save resources and ensure housing for all; furthermore, emphasises the need for the preservation and transformation of historically and socio-economically significant buildings;

49.  Calls on the Commission to consider the possibility that public cohesion policy spending by Member States and regional and local authorities under the ESI Funds should not be considered national or equivalent structural expenditure as defined in the Stability and Growth Pact, especially if they do not deviate from the fulfilment of the Paris Agreement objectives;

50.  Underlines that State aid rules should be aligned for EU policies so that cohesion policy programmes which need to follow all State aid rules are not put at a disadvantaged position in comparison with other EU policies that are exempt from it; furthermore, calls for the introduction, where possible, of a presumption of compliance with the State aid regime, in order to place all EU investment policies on an equal footing and avoid competition between them;

51.  Calls on the Commission and the Member States to continue making efforts to enhance communication and visibility by improving information exchange on operations of strategic importance and upcoming calls for proposals; welcomes the launch of the new database Kohesio and asks for the website to be made available in all EU official languages as soon as possible; stresses that Kohesio should provide data on all cohesion and territorial projects, including those related to rural development, co-financed under the EARDF and the Leader programme, and enable users to search for projects related to their thematic areas, with the aim of providing a platform that shares good practices and promotes projects of excellence;

52.  Stresses that other EU policies can undermine cohesion; welcomes the Commission’s view, therefore, that horizontal policies should incorporate regional proofing and invites the Commission to also assess the impact that other policies have on the effectiveness of cohesion policy;

53.  Highlights that cohesion policy spending, as is the case with all other EU spending, may be subject to irregular activities linked to corruption and fraud; calls for adequate financing and staffing of the relevant agencies and bodies, notably the European Public Prosecutor’s Office and the European Anti-Fraud Office, so that they can properly conduct investigations and recover misused funds; calls on the Commission to carry out an in-depth assessment to prevent any abuse of EU funds and breaches of the rule of law, and to ensure compliance with the Charter of Fundamental Rights before approving any partnership agreements and cohesion policy programmes;

54.  Expresses concern that the Commission’s REPowerEU proposal includes increased scope for transferring budgetary allocations to the RRF from cohesion policy; underlines that over EUR 100 billion of cohesion policy resources will be invested in energy transition, decarbonisation and renewables by 2030; calls, therefore, for an accelerated implementation of cohesion policy;

55.  Points to the need for an effective and harmonised EU level implementation of the contingency plan for ensuring food supply and food security in times of crisis, set out in the Commission’s communication on this (COM(2021)0689);

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

(1) OJ L 231, 30.6.2021, p. 159.
(2) OJ L 231, 30.6.2021, p. 60.
(3) OJ L 231, 30.6.2021, p. 1.
(4) OJ L 231, 30.6.2021, p. 94.
(5) OJ L 231, 30.6.2021, p. 21.
(6) OJ L 99, 31.3.2020, p. 5.
(7) OJ L 347, 20.12.2013, p. 487.
(8) OJ L 243, 9.7.2021, p. 1.
(9) OJ L 435, 6.12.2021, p. 187.
(10) OJ L 109, 8.4.2022, p. 1.
(11) OJ L 357, 8.10.2021, p. 1.
(12) OJ L 99, 31.3.2020, p. 9.
(13) OJ L 433 I, 22.12.2020, p. 1.
(14) OJ C 37, 2.2.2021, p. 16.
(15) OJ C 429, 11.12.2020, p. 153.
(16) OJ C 517, 22.12.2021, p. 1.
(17) OJ C 286, 16.7.2021, p. 13.
(18) OJ L 80, 8.3.2021, p. 1.
(19) Texts adopted, P9_TA(2022)0058.
(20) Texts adopted, P9_TA(2022)0059.
(21) Texts adopted, P9_TA(2022)0022.
(22) OJ C 117, 11.3.2022, p. 18.
(23) OJ C 67, 8.2.2022, p. 16.
(24) OJ C 15, 12.1.2022, p. 125.
(25) OJ C 494, 8.12.2021, p. 26.
(26) OJ C 162, 10.5.2019, p. 24.
(27) OJ C 28, 27.1.2020, p. 40.
(28) Study – ‘EU lagging regions: state of play and future challenges’, European Parliament, Directorate-General for Internal Policies, Policy Department for Structural and Cohesion Policies, September 2020.

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