Lambert van Nistelrooij, Dutch EPP MEP:
Cohesion is not exactly an envelope full of money
Measures can change, instruments can change, but policy rather stays
Maria Koleva, Brussels
24 June, 2017
Close-up: Lambert van Nistelrooij is a Dutch Member of the European Parliament since 2004, from the European People's Party (EPP). He has focused his work in the EP on regional policy, research, innovation, energy and the Digital Agenda. In the current parliamentary term, he is a member of the Committee on Regional Development and is also substitute member of the Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection. He has been working on the European Structural and Investment Funds as main negotiator, on the European Fund for Strategic Investments as rapporteur, and on the Digital Single Market. Lambert van Nistelrooij is Chair of the Governing Board of the Knowledge4Innovation Forum of the European Parliament.
- Mr Van Nistelrooij, last week in Strasbourg you announced the EPP Group’s initiative “Let the stars shine” for a new fundamental debate about how the EU communicates its successes. What is its aim and why just now?
- What we started is a bit broader debate and we are looking for a better way to communicate, not only bringing our successes to people. In the Brexit debate it reveals that there was not invested enough in engaging the citizens. Because our way to communicate is still like from the former century - the big leaders make programmes, take decisions that at the end of the day people follow. It’s probably not the correct way. We say: “Europe is doing a lot and let’s engage our citizens while participating in projects, rural development or things in fishery or whatever, let’s have a more permanent communication on the basis of what Europe is doing.” Our idea is not that we have found the Holly Grail now and we want to sell it. Nine members of the parliament said that from September till the end of the year we are looking in our countries on how to communicate and engage citizens in another way. We are working in the sector of regional policy and cohesion policies. Some colleagues who are responsible for environment, for nature preservation or development, or transport – they could take that one. Our aim is engaging people. The idea of the booklet “Let the stars shine” is to look where the stars are and they are from the bottom, not from the top. The initiative will work till the next summer, and in the beginning of next year we will nominate good proposals and good ideas from Member States, can be from schools, or firms. We are looking to make a change. It’s remarkable that we do a lot and spent some money and then the book is closed. Just now there is a kind of a big legal proposal in Parliament, called “omnibus”, about the simplification. In it there is a proposal that when the project is closed there is European money four years afterwards. The European policy has its results often four, five or six years later when citizens see how it works out. It is as important to build the house as to live in it.
- There are some critical voices in Europe that want to destroy the cohesion policy. Does Europe have another so powerful instrument that enables poorer regions to reduce to some extent their economic and social disparities with the well-off EU members?
- It’s correct that there are critical remarks but at the same time Europe has an enormous need to have recognition by citizens, by villages, by regional farmers. It’s a question of engaging citizens, not just of financial management. Better engagement of citizens won’t be by centrally driven projects. Because if a lot of people are running to a queue in Brussels or to the EIB, this is something about specialists and at the end of the day it is taking away responsibilities from decentralised levels. It’s better to stand by subsidiarity and to be close to people and it can be very diverse how we do it but it’s better, because a very profound centrally driven European approach won’t fly.
- At its last session, the EP adopted a resolution on the future of the cohesion policy and a month before on the right funding mix for Europe’s regions. With a challenge as Brexit, can the EU still afford to spend 30% of its total budget to the regions and cities in the years after 2020?
- It is quite sure that Europe will go on with its main goals, and cohesion is one of the goals in the Treaty. A lot of factors and of course Brexit will lead to a deficit if there is no money put by the Member States in the pocket. It’s more fundamental this type of policy to be there after 2020 because we cannot have Europe of the winners, Europe of the followers and the rest for the Chinese. It won’t be a Silken Road or buying a lot of harbours in the Mediterranean. There are so much values and awareness in the Union that we are willing to have an update – Cohesion 2.0, after 2020 with probably less money but with the same aims. I think that measures can change and instruments can change, but policy stays. It is a question to look carefully to the experiences we have had and to decide the right mix between grants, loans or guarantees, also in EFSI that is now one and a half year old.
- How does EFSI need to be changed EFSI so that the funding becomes more accessible for the less developed and rural areas?
- The Parliament voted on a resolution saying that it is geographically biased, and is lending mainly in the old Member States. ‘Winners take it all’ and this is not correct. This is also a question of how we spend the money and question of do we have a horizontal planning in terms of cohesion in regions to help refugees to come in and be sheltered. It helps to have energy transition; it helps to have impulses in the social funds under the cohesion funds. We go in the direction of more thematic budgets. The question is do we have an integrated policy with the big role of the regions or we have centrally Brussels driven and managed agenda with specific fields. This is the debate of the EU budget. My experience for the last 20 years is that Member States after all they don’t like to go to specific funds in Brussels, but like much better to assign themselves to a partnership agreement to the aims they are willing to reach together and to say they want this money in the envelope within cohesion policy, so we in shared management can progamme things for refugees like refugees want it, or for prevention of the natural disasters we have now. It is a question of philosophy and this debate started again and there will be a proposal by the Commission at the end of June by commissioners Oettinger and Cretu. We have as well a cohesion forum where these things are debated. I attended the informal ministers conference in Malta recently and there Member States stressed they want integrated policy, upholding shared management and keeping integrated budget. I think that synergy between structural funds and the EFSI should be better used. This is now possible even better in the Omnibus, simplification adjustment of the different financial regulations, on which will be for negotiations in the Council very soon. You can put money and have it as contribution to the EFSI and the fund takes the risk for good projects for a longer run and structural funds for some part are effective guarantee behind this EFSI extra work. I said at the plenary that we can even make more power outcome of the EFSI if we have this synergy between funds. Also geographical balance should be done better and EFSI is intended to the higher risk and what we see now it often takes projects that may be run without its support, like roads in the Netherlands. Who can tell that roads have high risk in the Netherlands, or in Germany, or in France? So, it’s a bit “do what you promised to do.”
- How can multi-speed Europe affect the process of cohesion?
- There are already different speeds in economic development of the countries. There are enormous differences. Bulgaria is not Germany, will not be in 10 years, neither in 20 years. It’s really important how to transform this situation into policy. There are now calls to make separate budget for the Eurozone. We have euro countries and non-euro countries. These things are rather new for Parliament. As a MEP, I’m not waiting for a situation that you have two classes of MEPs – to have ones in the Eurozone and others not in the Eurozone, and compensate probably by cohesion policy. This might be an old-fashioned method. The other way of thinking is that the new cohesion is not a question of envelops and money. The new cohesion and a knowledge driven Europe is the dissemination, rolling out and sharing practical knowledge – fundamental, applied science, innovation to services and products and then producing them, selling and exporting them and then we can have more wealth in countries. This whole story is unchanged for countries as Poland and others that are not in the Eurozone. I think that the thematic concentration under this programme period, knowledge economy and the uptake of that about €60 billion are spent from sectoral funds, looking deeper into this approach, we have the method of smart specialisation. The solidarity in Europe is not just solidarity of money but also solidarity in know-how and connecting each other. In our regulations, even in the Lisbon Treaty has been added territorial cohesion, it’s cooperation between parts of Europe and not exactly one envelope full of money. Even if Europe wants to support Baden-Wurttemberg, a rich region in Germany, with 2% unemployment, they have to take regions in Bulgaria that are looking to speed up, for example in energy transition they have to share knowledge with them. It means that in Baden-Wurttemberg, the universities, or tech parks take with them students or managers from that part of Bulgaria that are in cooperation and share knowledge. The Cohesion 2.0. is knowledge driven. Cohesion has been totally revised for 2014-2020 and I think that will roll on maybe with less money and maybe at different speeds. If Europe doesn’t do that, the winners will take it all. We see in the newspapers in connection to Brexit that parts of financial business are going to Frankfurt and we see the winner is growing. This is not Europe as I want to see it.
- Still, is it not worrying that two and a half years before the end of this programming period, the parliamentary committees haven’t received any draft budget for the next seven years after 2020?
- It was promised for the end of 2017. Because of Brexit, there will be one year further. But I don’t like this situation at all. The Parliament will be under heavy pressure if you want to adjust something in the cohesion or to change something in the EU regulation post 2020. We need time and if this MFF is coming just before summer next year, we will have only a year to get through. But I can still see that if there will be a general commitment that we don’t change much in our regulations, we can move fast. And we, EPP, are prepared, Parliament has its point of view.
- What will be the reflection of Trump's decision to pull the US, the world's second-largest producer of carbon dioxide, out of the international Paris climate agreement?
- A lot of actors and companies in the United States go on with their policy. In political terms, the Parliament and Juncker said last week that Europe will stick to its Paris climate agreement commitments and not step back, and it will go on with this innovation driven approach to save the world. And a lot of things can be done as capture and storage of CO2 and so on.
- As chair of the Governing Board of the Knowledge4Innovation Forum, you were one of the engines for boosting smart specialisation in the regions. How has this worked on the ground so far?
- We are taking stock on that. It was a concept and from the concept to reality we have had European research debate in Sofia to follow these things from theory to until now. I think it is so convincing that it might be a very strong bottom in our political debate about the future of cohesion. Connecting Europe, high speed and low speed area via the smart specialisation is really important. This is something that might be flying. As EPP said in our position paper on the future of cohesion policy, smart specialisation should be the leading mechanism in the cohesion process by facilitating cooperation between more-developed and less developed regions, urban and rural areas and facilitating EU integration.