Between October 10 and 13 2022, around 20,000 politicians, policy experts, businesses, civil society organisations and academia gathered in Brussels and in the online attendance of the various sessions in this yearly event. Organised by the European Commission and the European Committee of the Regions, this year the Week ran under the motto “New Challenges for Europe’s Cohesion”.
Aptly titled to reflect these times of overlapping and interconnected crises the Week retains its added value as a forum for cohesion policy beneficiaries and experts to reflect on the future, exchange information and discuss best practices.
At the Week – once again held in person after the two previous on-line editions – this crucial interdependence was reiterated and reflected by the 500 partners gathered for the occasion and the 1283 speakers and moderators converging around the 300 sessions. The emphasis on inclusion, exchange of best practices and solidarity between regions across Europe was conveyed by the Commissioner for Cohesion and Reforms Elisa Ferreira herself, who met with people from different countries to discuss how Cohesion policy and EU funds can affect people’s lives and the places where they live. It was also the purpose of the Citizens’ dialogue, which took place on the 11 October and allowed for a frank conversation between the Commissioner and EU citizens about the priorities of Cohesion policy.
In the past three years, Cohesion policy stood as a rampart during the Covid-19 emergency, and is currently mobilized to contain the social and economic consequences of the war in Ukraine. With a looming energy crisis, Cohesion policy will step up again to minimize its fallout on vulnerable households and SMEs.
However, challenges are not limited to present circumstances. Cohesion policy’s long-term commitment of reducing inequalities between regions will be once again put to the test in the near future.
Over the next 30 years, the green and digital transitions will drive the EU’s growth. While spawning new opportunities, these transitions will require significant structural changes that may create new regional disparities. Cohesion Policy represent the main tool to ensure that these necessary strides forward leave no person or place behind and that these transitions are just. This is why in 2022, the European Year of Youth and of the COP27 meeting, the Week focused on the twin climate and digital transition, youth empowerment and territorial cohesion.
With the ravages of climate change increasingly visible in the rising temperatures, extreme weather wildfires and floods, the necessity for a truly green transition never felt as urgent as now. However, this is not exactly new for Cohesion policy, which has been supporting for more than 15 years projects aimed at saving energy, shifting towards renewables and improving energy infrastructure. More recently Cohesion policy contributed to the EU energy security with the completion of the LNG terminal of Alexandroupolis in Greece, and the investment in the Bulgaria-Greece gas interconnector. Supported by the European funds regions are already implementing projects to counter climate change, improve energy efficiency and access to renewable sources of energy.
Meeting future challenges for Europe means staying at the forefront of technological development, bringing communities together and making the benefits of technology and connectivity available to everyone throughout Europe. Past efforts, supported by the Cohesion policy have allowed Europe to be fit for the digital age, including during the pandemic, when many activities had to move on-line. But the digital transition to come means bringing these advancements even to remote, isolated and rural areas, helping them express their untapped potential. Cohesion policy intervenes in fostering projects that correct market failures in supplying broadband to everyone, as exemplified recently by the European Broadband Awards where many finalist projects were EU-funded.
The European Week of Regions and Cities serves also to reinforce the crucial role that regions and cities play in bottom-up decision-making. Their proximity to EU citizens is key for the inclusion of all stake-holders in place-based solutions to local issues. The diversity of actors participating in decision-making at local level represents the basis for locally-tailored interventions from the EU. Inclusion of local communities and grassroots organisations has emerged as a cornerstone of the EU’s action to win back the trust of those citizens who increasingly feel their regions have been left behind or “do not matter”. A sentiment that in recent years drove the success of populist forces and fostered distrust towards institutions. Better concertation with communities at local level allows for better allocation of EU resources and for initiatives that truly citizens.
Finding solutions for local problems should take into account local specificities as well as the communities different needs. One-size-fit-all approaches that overlook the local element risk missing the priorities for recovery and widening inequalities between regions. That’s why, in addition to the traditional Cohesion Policy instruments, the EU will also invest €19 billion in a Just Transition Fund. It will support people and communities that are hit hardest by the switch to climate neutrality, by means of plans developed and rolled out through local partnerships.
In its showcasing of challenges and priorities for European Cohesion, the Week is a window on the future of the Union itselfAt 20 and in the European Year of Youth, the 2022 edition was an illustration of the ways the youth can make their voices heard in decision-making at local and EU level. A way to participate and create the Europe they need to thrive. It was only appropriate that the perspective of youth would be engaged on the challenges and goals ahead, as the next generations will reap the benefits of present action. Cohesion policy, with its budget of €392 billion for the programming period 2021-2027 is primarily an instrument to plan for a better future. A green, digital, social and better-connected Europe is what young Europeans can contribute to build. Their ideas emerged in the Citizen Dialogue with Commissioner Ferreira, when young citizens could voice their doubts, concerns and hopes.
At the same time, Cohesion Policy puts forward education, training and social inclusion. In recent years, one in 10 Europeans have participated in education and training programs guaranteed by the European Social Fund. In total, 17.9 million pupils will have now access to improved childcare or education infrastructure, meaning that one in four schools or childcare facilities in the EU were renovated thanks to EU funding.
But the European Week of Regions and Cities was also an opportunity to take stock on the citizens’ perception of Cohesion policy and how much of an opportunity it can represent. For this reason and to train a new generation of expert journalists in EU affairs, the Week ran in parallel to the Youth4Regions programme and included the Megalizzi-Niedzielski award ceremony. Young and aspiring journalists from all of Europe were selected for a week of technical and theoretical trainings on reporting on the EU affairs and institutions. The programme, along with their participation in many of the Week’s sessions, aims at drawing a new generation of journalists to cover European stories. Accurate reporting, even when critical, will likely help the EU institutions in better reaching the citizens, engaging them in the crucial transformations the continent is undergoing and increasing the level of awareness and belonging to the European project.
Instrument of Solidarity
Ultimately, the European Week of Regions and Cities, for its 20th year anniversary was a privileged standpoint to observe, assess, exchange on the many ways in which Cohesion policy helps the EU weather both structural challenges and extreme circumstances. It was a window on its adaptability and its role as an instrument of solidarity between the people of Europe, the quiet force behind European integration and the resilience of the European project. In a watershed moment of global challenges and unprecedented crises, the European Week of Regions and Cities proved to be the hearth around which European communities come together to make the Union.
#EURegionsWeek: Facing New Challenges Together – Regional Policy – European Commission – European Commission