Interreg Post 2027 – Finally in a good place?

It’s 2024 and already debates on Cohesion policy post 2027 are in full swing. The European Commission’s High-Level Group report on Cohesion Policy post 2024 has just been published (20 February 2024). Big questions are posed. Why Cohesion? What should Cohesion Policy do? How should it change?

In previous periods of Cohesion policy reform debate, the coverage of European Territorial Cooperation, Interreg, has been mixed. Big ideas, ambitious principles, but followed by a ‘bit of a battering’ in the budget negotiations. In the past, Member State engagement/knowhow about territorial cooperation at central government levels was not always strong meaning it can lack a strong voice in negotiations. ‘Value’ was widely considered solely in monetary terms and/or in the face of substantial competing interests meaning Interreg’s substantial contribution in areas of qualitative impact lacked weight. The result was a perceived willingness to ‘sacrifice’ territorial cooperation funding in key budget negotiations and agenda setting. Consequently, the financial resources attached to European territorial cooperation initiatives are not large compared to other elements of Cohesion Policy and programmes can feel under pressure to continually justify/defend their existence. However, going into this reform period, the picture could be different.

First, borders are a big issue. The European Commission’s 8th Cohesion report states that addressing today’s challenges requires better governance in border areas, stronger coordination of services, infrastructure and investments and exchanges of experience. Crises including Covid and the war in Ukraine have amplified and added to the specific development challenges faced by border regions, particularly along Eastern external borders. Along with Brexit, they also show that work on cross border links is a dynamic evolving process and should not be taken for granted.

Second, after a period of sustained pressure to deliver ‘hard results and impact’, Interreg programmes can deliver and capitalise on tangible results, disseminate impact, and extend cooperation more widely. At the same time, the ‘soft’ qualitative added value of Interreg is valued to a greater extent and communicated better. Particularly valuable are Interreg’s roles in supporting innovation and collaboration networks, support for building collaboration networks across sectors and levels of government, and strengths in civic ‘people-based’ engagement.

Third, the profile and visibility of territorial cooperation has changed. Many of the EU net payer Member States get a much more substantial amount of their Cohesion policy budget from Interreg which could mean there is more strategic awareness of Interreg and financial interest. Furthermore, in the face of large-scale debates on the role of the European Commission in Cohesion Policy generally, the rationale for shared management in Interreg remains clear for both the European Commission and Member States.

Finally, the new High Level Group Report on the Future of Cohesion Policy notes, for example, the added value of facilitating collaboration in a structured way as a means of territories mobilising internal development potential and participation in broader EU and worldwide networks, cooperation across subnational governments as a means of preventing resource fragmentation and barriers to development. This underlines the value of territorial cooperation in tackling key development concerns such as regions caught in development traps and boosting over all competitiveness. In particular, it emphasises the importance of interregional cooperation to encourage connections between regions to facilitate knowledge transfer, innovation and investment.

Taken together these arguments could put territorial cooperation in a good place within the negotiations if used well. However, major international crises, budget pressures and questions about the role of Cohesion policy generally mean it’s important to reinforce these points and make the combined strengths of programmes clear.

For more information, contact Irene McMaster.

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