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The Role of the European Parliament in the Reform of EU Cohesion Policy

2 Comments 🕔12.Dec 2014

This article is part of our EU Cohesion Policy 2014-2020 feature.

European Parliament. Credit: David Iliff

European Parliament. Credit: David Iliff

by Simone Reinhart

 

I. Introduction

With the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, the European Parliament (EP) was, for the first time ever, put on an equal footing with the Council of the European Union – which represents the EU Member States – in shaping and deciding on the new generation of regulations for EU Cohesion Policy.

The Lisbon Treaty gave additional powers to the EP in order to increase the legitimacy of EU policies and democratic accountability, as well as to better balance out the two co-legislators of the EU. Whereas the Council maintains that for certain essential elements of EU legislation (e.g., the multi-annual budget) the positions of the EU Member States have priority and are not negotiable, the EP jumps into its new competences with the intention to further restrain the Council’s supremacy. Apart from the power game, the institutions claim to defend different interests, with the EP representing the European citizens and the Council acting on behalf of national governments.

In the context of Cohesion Policy, these circumstances provide for a completely new situation, with both challenges and opportunities for a reform. Therefore, the analysis of the performance of the EP is not only important from an institutional point of view, but also for assessing its consequences for the policy as such.

This article looks into the new role of the EP for the adoption of the new legislation on Cohesion Policy 2014–2020, in particular the Common Provisions Regulation (CPR) on European Funds.[1] It aims to identify the elements that were most affected by the inter-institutional negotiations, and whether the outcome of the negotiations led to substantial modifications of the proposals from the EU Commission as well as considerable deviations from the previously established positions. The article shall draw conclusions about whether the extended decision-making competence of the EP did make a difference for the final result and whether those elements concerned are meaningful for pursuing the objective of economic, social, and territorial cohesion.

 

II. Setting the scene

The Ordinary Legislative Procedure consists in the joint adoption by the EP and the Council of a regulation on a proposal from the Commission. For Cohesion Policy, the positions of the three institutions involved were as follows:

European Commission: The Commission proposal is based on lessons learned from the past that require modifications for the sake of effectiveness, on evidence gained from a series of evaluations and studies, and on needs for adapting to the current political agenda while maintaining those key elements that have proven efficient. The result is an ambitious reform that puts European added-value at the heart of the proposal.

European Parliament: The mandate of the EP shows openness toward new elements and readiness to support the Commission’s ambitions. However, the EP reacts with reluctance on performance elements and prefers to stress the solidarity character of the policy. It claims to defend the interests of the European citizens and is committed to the Treaty objective of reducing regional disparities.

Council of the European Union: The Partial General Approach (PGA) by the Council reveals a tendency toward “business as usual” while seeking to close legal gaps that have been detected from the experience in implementation of the policy in the Member States. On the other hand, the Council defends an approach that leaves sufficient flexibility to accommodate Member States’ particularities by introducing a series of derogations and specificities, not least in the system of allocation of moneys.

Several dynamics marked the negotiations and had implicit impact on the outcome: As the representatives of the Council are more used to that kind of negotiations, they also appear more resilient toward external pressure – e.g., on timing. Furthermore, the position finding procedures in the EP are more transparent than in the Council, so the level of information is not equal. And lastly, both the motivation (e.g., personal commitment vs. professional duty) and the status (e.g., elected representative vs. civil servant) of the actors involved are very different.

 

III. Did the European Parliament make a difference?

The negotiations resulted in a series of compromises (including across the negotiation blocks) which – inherently – require moving away from adopted positions.[2] All institutions involved registered wins and losses.

In purely quantitative terms, the EP accepted more text or redrafting proposed by the Council. A large number of EP moves toward the Council, however, should not be regarded as substantial concessions, but rather as agreements on better legal drafting and more precise formulations. Many of such cases, nevertheless, are already at the border of political fine-tuning. The following register does not deal with these cases, but focuses on the clearly substantial moves.


TABLE 1: Register of wins and losses

Negotiation Chapter European Parliament European Council
a. Strategic approach and programming + 0
b. Thematic concentration + 0
c. Common Strategic Framework +
d. Territorial Development 0 +
e. Ex-ante conditionalities +
f. Performance framework +
g. Monitoring and evaluation 0 +
h. Technical assistance + +
i. Management and control, financial management 0 +
j. Eligibility + +
k. Financial instruments 0 +
l. Information and communication + +
m. Major projects 0 +
n. Revenue-generating operations and public-private partnership 0 +
o. Financial issues +
p. Macroeconomic conditionality 0
q. Transitional and final provisions 0 +

Key: “+” = win; “-ˮ = loss; “0” = concessions, partly win or partly loss
Source: Author’s own compilation.


The full involvement of the EP in the drafting and adoption of the legislation led to substantial modifications of the proposed texts, in particular in the following negotiation chapters (letters correspond to table above):

a. Strategic approach and programming

A stronger partnership principle and the introduction of a code of conduct have been one of the top priorities of the EP and could be defended despite strong objection from the Council for the price of accepting a split in the partnership agreement that provides for more flexibility for the Member States. Still, the EP claimed victory.

b. Thematic concentration

A minimum share for the European Social Fund (ESF) was set at 23.1 percent of total Cohesion Policy allocation. The EP and the Commission fought for a higher percentage, whereas the Council defended a completely different approach. The final agreement represents a classical compromise with moves toward both directions. In view of the political fine-tuning of investment priorities in the field of ESF spending, the EP might consider itself as winner of this battle.

c. Common Strategic Framework

Although sharp formulations have been softened, the real innovation is the legally binding character of the Common Strategic Framework (CSF) that was the intention of both the Commission and the EP. The EP will also play a role in amending the CSF, if applicable. Together with the guide to beneficiaries, this negotiation block is a success for the EP.

e. Ex-ante conditionalities

This new element was proposed to prevent bad spending by reinforcing the transposition and implementation of applicable Union law. The Council was reluctant on the mechanism of ex-ante conditionalities (EAC), which will require additional efforts in preparation of the programmes. Despite long discussions about details, the big fight was about the EAC, which are not exclusively linked to a specific investment priority, but which are of general nature, such as anti-discrimination, gender equality, disability, state aid, public procurement, environmental impact assessments, and statistics. It is a success for the EP that these general EAC could be defended.

h. Technical assistance

Both sides defended their specific wishes: the Council got more flexibility between categories of regions, and the EP got capacity-building of partners – a win-win situation.

j. Eligibility

The Council achieved the broadening of the concept of flat rates, whereas the EP could only react to these amendments and managed to limit the grey zone by further clarifying calculation methods. The question of sanctioning relocation outside the Union when ESI-Funds are involved responds to a long-standing request from the EP.

Although both sides defended their different interests in this chapter, the wins of the Council might weigh a bit heavier.

l. Information and communication

The Council tried to reduce requirements in relation to information and communication, as they are regarded as burdensome for both managing authorities and beneficiaries. The EP, however, took the approach that the visibility of the policy is important, but needs to be proportionate. Balanced compromises were found that satisfied all institutions involved.

 

IV. Impacts on the policy

Those options in favor of a cohesion-oriented policy have mainly been chosen by the EP. The commitment of the EP to the Treaty objective of reducing regional disparities is well reflected in the mandate of the EP and could be partly defended in the inter-institutional negotiations.

Those elements, on which the EP made a difference, can rather be associated with factors in support of cohesion, whereas the Council wins often are more competitiveness-oriented.[3] The full involvement of the EP in the legislative procedure has contributed to pursuing economic, social, and territorial cohesion in the EU.

 

V. Conclusions and recommendations

The legislative proposal from the European Commission was very ambitious and put forward a series of innovations. Not all of these elements could be maintained in full, but still, in the funding period 2014–2020, the Commission will have a stronger role to play and will have the rules in its hand to do so. Only a limited number of derogations were accepted, so an overall European approach could be protected.

The European Parliament had to learn its lessons, as it was the first time that the EP could exercise co-decision powers on this complex piece of legislation. However, the EP achieved that key elements of the reform proposal could be defended.

The European Parliament has become an important actor in cohesion policy and distinguished itself as a strong supporter of cohesion and convergence in the Union.

Despite the considerable register of successes, the application of the ordinary legislative procedure on the legislative package also unmasked a series of deficiencies on the side of the EP performance, and further efforts are necessary to enable the EP to fully play its role as co-legislator; e.g., in the field of human resources and technical capacities.

Overall, more transparency in decision-taking procedures is required in order to allow tracing the evolution of final agreements and compromises. Transparency is a key element for ambitious democratic legitimacy, which is certainly also important for cohesion policy.

 

Simone Reinhart is a geographer and holds a masters degree in urban planning. She did research and consultancy on regional development in the private sector before she joined the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament as advisor for Regional Policy. The European Parliament is now supervising the implementation of the new regulations for the funding period 2014-2020.

The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament. 

This article is part of our EU Cohesion Policy 2014-2020 feature. 


[1] 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 covered by the Common Strategic Framework, and laying down general provisions on the European Regional Development Fund, the European Social Fund and the Cohesion Fund and repealing Council Regulation (EC) No 1083/2006, OJ 2013 L 347.

[2] The author of the article participated in all inter-institutional negotiations (so-called “trilogues”) between the EP, Council, and Commission, and all meetings of the Parliament’s negotiation team.

[3] IGEAT at Université Libre de Bruxelles, European Spatial Planning Observatory Network (ESPON) project 3.2 on Spatial scenarios in relation to the ESDP and EU cohesion policy, 2006, ESPON 2006 Programme, <www.espon.eu/main/Menu_Projects/Menu_ESPON2006Projects/Menu_CoordinatingCrossThematicProjects/scenarios.html>, accessed May 15, 2014, p. 117ff of Final Report.

2 Comments

  1. 🕔 20:52, 24.Jan 2015

    Svetoslava Topouzova

    I will be interested to join online public discussions on the topics above. Can you, please send me information if any online forums are currently available on the reform of the EU Cohesion Policy?
    With best regards, Svetoslava Topouzova

    reply comment
    • 🕔 9:24, 20.Apr 2015

      Nicola Dotti

      Dear Svetoslava Topouzova
      this is a special feature to contribute to the discussion on the Cohesion Policy. We do not have an online forum to publicly discuss it, but we welcome your contribution to be considered for future articles.

      Kind regards,
      Nicola Dotti

      reply comment

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