The long term effects of the Covid19 pandemic on cities are still being documented, but it is clear that for many, access to the EU’s cohesion funds have been an invaluable lifeline in times of need. The 8th Cohesion Report, the European Commission’s self-assessment of how its main investment tool is meeting its objectives – namely to set a balanced territorial development across the EU – has revealed that investments made through cohesion policy have risen sharply as a percentage of total public investment in recent years.
“Cohesion policy remains the most important tool the EU has for investing in people and places,” commented Dario Nardella, President of Eurocities and Mayor of Florence. “This report proves its effectiveness in bringing balance across Europe, with Eastern regions catching up. We must reinforce cities’ and metropolitan regions’ possibilities to tap into this resource. They are the innovation hubs that help boost regional development. This is especially important now as we look to recover from the Covid pandemic by driving public investments into a just, green and digital transformation of our cities and beyond.”
As highlighted by Nardella, the report shows strong evidence that, thanks to the allocation of European funds, Eastern European regions have been catching up. However, with municipal budgets currently stretched as a result of two years of crisis, this trend will only continue if there is significant continued investment into Research and development (R&D) in these regions so that they can continue on a path of sustainable growth.
Cities are centres for innovation, and can be significant multipliers for the potential of an entire region, as was evidenced by the strong performance of many large metropolitan areas.
One way that city authorities are able to do this is by promoting their local innovation ecosystems to work with their surrounding areas and communities. This can be especially useful to revive hard hit sectors, such as tourism, but also to develop more integrated food systems, and drive investments into environmental protection and energy solutions.
More broadly speaking, the report provides us with an “opportunity to appreciate cohesion policy for its crucial long term support to local public investment” according to Pietro Reviglio, Policy Advisor on Governance at Eurocities. The report provides evidence of how these investments have been a driver for not only innovation, but also environmental action, and social cohesion in cities all over Europe.
The local level is the essential place where broader goals to do with the green, digital and fair transitions are made possible. With regards to investments into the energy transition and adaptation to climate change, for example, the local and regional levels carry out the majority of public investments across Europe, and for many, especially at metropolitan level, access to the cohesion funds has helped develop their capacity to do so. However, while local and regional autonomy has grown slowly in cohesion countries during recent decades, it remains lower than in the rest of the EU.
With this in mind, Reviglio hopes that the debates that follow the report will be an opportunity to reinforce partnerships across all levels of government. “More than ever, we need to work together for a strong cohesion policy that drives an equal recovery across territories and contributes to pressing EU priorities, including climate neutrality, digitalisation and social cohesion,” he notes.
Local and regional authorities have a strong role to play in Europe’s future. In the previous programming period of the cohesion policy, from 2014-2020 it was estimated that around 50% of the European Regional Development Fund resources were spent in cities. This central role has contributed to building trust in the capacity of city authorities to manage these funds, leading to an increase in their direct responsibility over funds for sustainable urban development, which rose from 5% to 8% in the 2021-2027 period. Despite this huge contribution and understanding of how cities can play a wider role, especially as accelerators of wider EU ambitions, not all cities are well recognised when it comes to the preparation and implementation of the wider programmes for cohesion policy. That’s why continued efforts need to be made to elevate the importance of the local level as the best place to make investments.
Many of the topics covered in the cohesion report will be taken up at the Cohesion Forum next month, where Eurocities will take an active part in looking at the lessons to be learned from the recent crisis and the future challenges for cohesion policy.