Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a pleasure for me to return to your General Assembly once again. When we met two years ago, the political and financial framework was still evolving. Now our cohesion policy has been mapped out for the period 2007-2013. So let me look at the role European regional policy reserves for the regions, and the part that governance plays at various levels in tackling the great challenges that confront Europe's regions.
The European Union is a union of Member States. This is the form in which it was conceived. But there has been a growing recognition of the part played by the regional and local authorities in European integration. The most obvious example is the creation of the Committee of the Regions. But it is also apparent from the extension of the areas of consultation and the different forms of dialogue and partnership that have been created for certain policies - particularly, of course, cohesion policy.
The position of regional and local government was also an issue in the debates on the new Lisbon Treaty. I'm thinking here of the discussions on recognising the role of the regions, the right of appeal for the Committee of the Regions, the creation of an early warning system for national parliaments to reinforce the principle of subsidiarity and, above all, the idea of economic and social cohesion being extended to territorial cohesion.
This enhanced role for the regions is first and foremost a matter of political and democratic necessity: modern democracies can no longer satisfy the expectations of their citizens with a purely national response, which is bound to be more rigid.
It represents a response to two underlying trends:
- first, it is harder for states to take isolated decisions in a globalised environment where macroeconomic responses are necessarily collective;
- second, more and more powers have been devolved to the local and regional levels because of the need to bring policy-making closer to the people, and for policy to accommodate diverse needs.
If Europe's citizens are to mobilise and rally behind a united Europe, local and regional authorities must all have a place in this venture.
This is an important way of strengthening the link between the EU and its citizens. It is an important way of demonstrating that it is possible to advance together, while respecting the diversity of our regions.
As far as the institutional form adopted by the individual Member States is concerned, the Commission's position is quite clear: this is entirely up to them. The whole point of cohesion policy is to provide all the regions with the same instruments, whatever their institutional status.
What's more, the institutional system is evolving: in some new Member States, for example, there is a clear link between the process of regionalisation or decentralisation and the existence of regional development programmes
Another reason why the regions and local authorities are playing a bigger part is that they are recognised as being both initiators and beneficiaries of socio-economic development.
Through its programming, integrated approach and partnership principle, regional policy has clearly made the region an active level of economic development, and hence a political player.
Regional policy has also nurtured the system of multi-level governance, associating a large number of partners like the European Commission, Member States, regions and cities and the socio-economic partners. The main difference for 2007-2013 is that civil society in its fullest sense is now a stakeholder too. All the analyses demonstrate the same thing: the involvement of regional and local authorities in the programming, management, evaluation and monitoring of operations is essential for the success of our policy.
All levels of action are also involved in the Union's general strategy via our system of programming for the period 2007-2013. We know exactly what we are aiming for: the success of the renewed Lisbon strategy for growth and jobs, the Union's top priority.
By giving the regional authorities a greater say in public investment, cohesion policy also fosters the participation of regional and local players in the Lisbon strategy by means of a better partnership between the Commission, the Member States and the regions.
The fourth report on cohesion published last May listed the major challenges facing the Union's regions.
All towns, cities and regions of Europe will have to rise to the external challenges of globalisation, climate change, energy supply and demographic trends.
But they will also have to find a response to the issues of territorial disparities, the accumulation of natural and geographical handicaps, the negative impact of urban concentration and the polarisation of wealth and population. What makes these trends all the more disturbing is that they are the result of our very model of territorial development.
These are challenges for all regional and local authorities, although they will be affected to different degrees. Effective responses are needed and these responses cannot be the same for all. They must make allowance for local resources and skills. They must also be based on territorial cooperation – transnational, cross-border or interregional – and on the sharing of experience.
These challenges, as we well know, justify the importance placed on the notion of territory, which lies at the heart of European regional policy.
To succeed in a global context, each region must be able to make the most of its unique potential in terms of resources in order to play its part in promoting the competitiveness of the European Union as a whole.
A new paradigm is emerging in public policy:
a sectoral approach which is shifting towards an integrated approach;
a system of grants intended solely to reduce regional imbalances, which is shifting towards investments in regional potential.
Only targeted and integrated measures, coordinated as close as possible to grass-roots level, can both mitigate the adverse effects of these challenges and give a boost to the natural advantages of individual territories.
This the whole point of the approach based on territorial cohesion embodied in the new Lisbon Treaty. It should be welcomed as a major step forward.
These questions will be central to the Green Paper on territorial cohesion which the Commission is planning to publish in 2008.
The territorial agenda adopted by Ministers responsible for Regional Planning at their meeting in Leipzig in May is an excellent roadmap. I am pleased to report that the Portuguese Presidency has taken it up with enthusiasm. It is also up to local and regional authorities to put this agenda into practice in the areas for which they are responsible.
In conclusion, let me repeat: cohesion policy provides the essential framework and instruments that allow the regions to fulfil their role in economic development. By anchoring political action firmly within the territories, the multi-level system of governance on which our European regional policy is based provides a key boost to the Union’s competitive edge.
Our policy mobilises resources for those sectors where expenditure can have the maximum possible impact and bring the greatest added value. It promotes growth and jobs. It encourages an integrated approach and exchanges of experience between the regions in order to develop solutions that work. Its principal objective is to boost the long-term growth potential of all the regions, and to enable them to achieve and sustain a higher level of development.
In my view, the question of performance is primarily one for the regions. Against the current background of the review of the Community budget, it is for the managing authorities and the regions to give greater visibility to the results of cohesion policy on the ground. And it is proof of the effectiveness of this policy which will provide the best argument for pursuing a genuine policy of European cohesion.
I therefore call on all regional and local players to take part not only in the public consultation on the future of the cohesion policy, but also in the consultation process on the 2008-2009 budget review. Cohesion policy is and must remain everybody's business.