"In Portugal, there is no evidence that EU funds were used to replace national money", says Crețu, EU Commissioner for Regional Policy, explaining that the reprogramming exercise was far more complex.
For the EU Commissioner on Regional Policy, the Portuguese reprogramming exercise was definitely one of the most complex ones she had to deal with during her mandate. This was mostly due to the scope of the programme Portugal 2020 and also given the fact that “a lot of key and detailed elements in all Cohesion Policy programmes under Portugal 2020” had to be “fully understood, discussed and justified”.
Interviewed by our editor, Mónica Silvares, the commissioner refused the criticism from city councils, which alleged that the cohesion funds were being embezzled, failing to be allocated to the poorer regions and instead diverted to the most developed areas in the country.
The reprogramming exercise changes the fate of €2.7bn in cohesion funds, and it is trying to answer the priorities identified by the current government, given the new economic conditions in the country. “The discussions on the current investment priorities and programmes took place between 2011 and 2014, when the economic context was not as favourable as now”, the Commissioner recalls.
Was the reprogramming exercise difficult?
The reprogramming exercise has indeed been complex, in the sense that it has concerned a lot of key and detailed elements in all Cohesion Policy programmes under Portugal 2020, whose modification needed to be fully understood, discussed and justified.
In this context, I am glad to say that the excellent cooperation we had with Portugal throughout all this process was instrumental to the success of the reprogramming.
What were the major changes achieved?
Let me first recall that the aim of this reprogramming exercise was to align Cohesion Policy programmes under Portugal 2020 to the new political and strategic priorities of the Portuguese government, in the light of the new economic situation. The discussions on the current investment priorities and programmes took place between 2011 and 2014, when the economic context was not as favourable as now.
In this context, €2.7 billion of Cohesion Policy funds will be redirected towards priorities defined by the Portuguese government. The revised programmes will allow Portugal to focus further on key areas for the future of its economy and for a better quality of life in the country, that is to say, innovation in small and medium businesses, skills and training, support to employment and entrepreneurship, clean urban mobility and social infrastructure. The reprogramming exercise will also enable the implementation of new large infrastructure projects of strategic importance, such as the extension of the metros in Lisbon and Porto, the modernisation of the Cascais urban railway line and a new mobility system for the Mondego area, near the city of Coimbra. Finally, it will also enable the implementation of a new scheme, blending grants and financial instruments, which will be set up to help innovative small and medium businesses get better access to finance.
No funds have been taken away from less developed regions to go to more developed regions.
What were the main conflictual issues between the Portuguese Government and the Commission?
There were no major conflictual issues. My services and the Portuguese authorities had long, thorough exchanges on the best way to shift resources where they are now most needed and I am very glad of what we achieved.
Are there any areas where the Commission would have liked the Portuguese authorities to be bolder?
Let’s recall that it is up to national authorities to assess the extent to which they would like to modify their Cohesion Policy programmes. Once the requests are on the table, the Commission analyses their justification and exchanges views with the Member State. In this particular case, I think that the Portuguese government made an adequate and justified request taking account of new priorities in light of the new economic situation.
In your view, is the criticism put forward by some regions justified? Is ERDF money going to be diverted to the more developed regions (subway projects)?
The funds used to co-finance the metros under the “Sustainability and Resource Use Efficiency” programme were mainly transferred from two investment priorities which do not particularly concern the poorer areas in Portugal but rather more developed ones. Therefore no funds have been taken away from less developed regions to go to more developed regions.
In addition, the extension of the metros will also lead to better connectivity in the region, benefitting citizens living in the surroundings of Lisbon and Porto.
In terms of scope, indeed this has definitely been of one of the biggest reprogramming exercises I had to handle during my mandate.
Are you aware of the fact that European structural funds are often used to replace budget money in areas like education?
The Cohesion Policy rules clearly stipulate that EU funds support should not replace public or equivalent structural expenditure by a Member State, but should be additional. This is what we call the ‘additionality’ principle. The basic logic behind this is that Member States should not replace their own public investments efforts with EU funds support. In Portugal, there is no evidence that EU funds might have been used to replace national money, rather on the contrary, as data shows that expenditure to support in the country is above the OECD average.
Is the Portuguese reprograming exercise the biggest one among Member States?
Programmes supported with Cohesion Policy Funds are usually amended in order to maximise their impact on growth and competitiveness, and other Member States have also requested to do so for some of their programmes. In terms of scope, indeed this has definitely been of one of the biggest reprogramming exercises I had to handle during my mandate.