“Everything everywhere all at once”: Challenging times in Cohesion Policy

Cite as: Michie R and Van der Valk O (2023) “Everything everywhere all at once”: Challenging times in Cohesion Policy, IQ-Net Review Paper 54(1), European Policies Research Centre Delft

Report to the 54th IQ-Net Conference, 15-17 May 2023, Olsztyn, Warmińsko  Mazurskie, Poland

The last six months have been a challenging period for those planning, negotiating, implementing and closing Cohesion Policy programmes, against a background of successive global crises, including the lingering impact of the Covid19 pandemic, the refugee and energy crises and the war in Ukraine. At the same time, new flexibility packages have been introduced by the Commission intended to help with programme implementation if difficult times, along with additional funding under REACT-EU.

The 2014-20 programmes have now entered their final year of implementation, and preparations for closure of projects and programmes are underway. Even though MAs and projects are dealing with major geopolitical and social issues, IQ-Net programme authorities continue to make good progress and are in general positive about finalising the programmes. Financial implementation of the 2014-20 period has progressed over the last six months. An estimated 76 percent (€405 billion) of the total planned €532 billion of EU and national budget for Cohesion Policy has been spent. To improve spending at the final part of the period and to move towards closure, programmes have taken several new initiatives to increase the rate of programme spending and deal with bottlenecks. The additional REACT-EU resources that were added to the 2014-20 programme have now been fully programmed.

Having entered the third year of the new programme period, the Partnership Agreements for 2021-27 have now been adopted, along with the new national thematic and regional programmes. The adoption programme in IQ-Net countries and regions has been somewhat behind schedule, delayed by the sometimes protracted negotiation and approval processes. Prioritisation of REACT-EU implementation is also reported to have had an impact, along with rising project costs. Nevertheless, implementation has proceeded apace, with some calls for projects being launched prior to formal programme approval. In recent months, more programmes have become operational and support is already reaching final recipients, with many more calls being launched to an enthusiastic response. Many issues which stood in the way of finalising the PAs and programmes have now been resolved. At the same time, there are still some outstanding issues, generally related to the new regulatory requirements (most notably related to the enabling conditions and thematic concentration requirements) and programme management issues. More detail is emerging on planned implementation of territorial instruments, and programme modifications are already on the agenda in several countries.

In the previous Overview Paper, most IQNet partners were still waiting for approval of the JTF programme and TJTPs. At the time of writing, all IQ-Net programmes now have approved programmes and plans and started to implement the JTF by launching calls.

Financial instruments look set to continue to be a popular delivery tool for some managing authorities (but not all). The Commission is aiming for a faster and smoother implementation of FIs in 2021-27, based on new regulatory provisions which introduce simplifications and additional flexibilities. The Commission has also launched several new model FIs intended to make implementation easier and quicker. ESIF FIs are currently being planned within eight IQ-Net countries/regions, although are mostly at an early stage, with a mix of continuity and new approaches planned. Depending on the results of the ex ante assessments, several countries/regions are planning on using the new flexibilities to introduce greater use of combined loan/grant instruments.

Looking at how the 2021-27 programmes are addressing climate change, among the eight Specific Objectives (SOs) covered by PO2 (A greener, low-carbon transitioning towards a net zero carbon economy and resilient Europe), SO 2.4 specifically addresses climate change adaptation and disaster risk prevention and resilience. There is a wide variation in planned activity among IQ-Net programmes under SO 2.4, depending on regional specificities, geographic attributes and programme size. Most of the programmes plan to use project calls to deliver actions under this SO. A range of national and regional level approaches is being introduced to address the practical application of two new climate change related requirements – the Do No Significant Harm (DNSH) principle and climate proofing.

Looking ahead, the remainder of 2023 looks set to be extremely demanding, highlighting the needs of programme authorities related to their administrative and institutional capacities.

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