Around a third of the European Union's budget is spent on regional policy.It aims to even out disparities in income, wealth and opportunity across the bloc. Much of the cash goes on projects in Europe's poorest regions.
Euronews' Sandor Zsiros sat down with Corina Cretu, the EU's Commissioner for regional policy, to talk about the current challenges faced by her department and more broadly Europe.
Sandor Zsiros, Euronews: Commissioner, you have been in Brussels for more than 4 years. Did you manage to close the gaps between East and West, the poor and rich regions?
Corina Creţu, EU commissioner for regional policy: We are after a crisis, we have a study that shows that we have many regions coping very well to come back to growth and employment and other countries are still in the stage before the crisis. We are now in the 9th year in a row of economic growth in Europe, which helped a lot, but at the same time, we are not there yet, because of new challenges. We also have a migration crisis, terrorism... We have to accommodate all these things and do what we can to fill the gaps.
Sandor Zsiros, Euronews: After Brexit, we will have less money to distribute, for example for Cohesion Funds. What would you advise the regional leaders, local decision makers? What kind of projects should they propose to get money?
Corina Creţu, EU commissioner for regional policy: Overall in the EU budget, the average cut will be 10 per cent. We regret very much the departure of the UK, but we have to respect the willingness of the people of this country. Despite this challenge, we have succeeded in putting on the table the biggest envelope for Cohesion Policy, 373 billion euros. We propose to the member states, to the regions, to focus on key elements regarding innovation, regarding small and medium-sized enterprises, energy efficiency. What is now the key driving force for the whole European economy. We think we have to put a lot of attention on the social side. Clearly, I think we have to do big effort so that people feel that Europe is doing. Because this game, that everything that is bad is coming from Brussels, and everything that is good is coming from the mayors and presidents of the regional government, I think it should stop. Because we are losers, all of us, if we continue to do so and not to recognise what the European Union is doing for its citizens.
Sandor Zsiros, Euronews: The European Parliament has approved a proposal to link the European payouts with rule of law standards. How could it work in the future and is there a risk that at the end, people will be deprived of European funds because of the mistakes of politicians?
Corina Creţu, EU commissioner for regional policy: I don’t really understand why some of the member states consider that this proposal is against themselves. Because we all pretend at least that we have zero tolerance for fraud and for corruption. And this is to protect EU taxpayers' money. For instance when OLAF has a case we suspend immediately the funds until the case is solved. When I put myself in the shoes of the net contributors I understand that you can not see the European Union just as a bancomat (cash mashine). It is a shared solidarity and in good times we have to be together and during the shaking times, we also have to be together.
Sandor Zsiros, euronews: So OLAF (The European Anti-Fraud Office) can make only recommendations but do you think there should be an organisation above the member states, like for example the European Public Prosecutors Office to control this issues.
Corina Creţu, EU commissioner for regional policy: I really think that it’s a step forward, you know that the Commission has its effort for a long time to protect the EU budget, and as you said, the creation of the public prosecutors office which should be up and running by 2020, marks the beginning of a new phase in the fight against fraud. Because OLAF, as you said, the European Anti Fraud Office, and EPPO, (European Public Prosecutors Office) we have another agency taking care of how the money is spent. We are working in close partnership with the member states and the commission’s auditors. So I really think that this new institution will enhance the capacity to tackle fraud with EU funds and to protect taxpayers money.
Sandor Zsiros, euronews: We have less than a hundred days until the European elections. What’s your prediction, will there be a more fragmented European Union? Or will it be easier to govern? Or the populist will come up? What’s your prediction?
Corina Creţu, EU commissioner for regional policy: It is obvious that we are in a phase when anti-European and populist waves are rising. And we also made a study about that. My services, DG REGIO, recently published this paper, ‘The geography of EU discontent' and this shows that the anti-EU vote is mainly driven by a combination of long term economic and industrial decline, low level of education, which is essential, and a lack of employment opportunities. In my view, the elections will be the biggest test after many years. It’s not about political ideologies, it’s about pro Europeans and anti Europeans. And we both, you, as a very known journalist and me as commissioner, we are coming from countries which thirty years ago were on the other side (of the iron curtain) and we had never dreamed to be here. So I really think it’s our duty to defend this European project which is unique on our planet and we have to explain that it was not always the same. Especially to the young generation. Because it’s about their future. What I would like is to see much more young people defending our European project. Solidarity appears in all our European papers. But in practice, I am sorry to say, that the European Union and member states became more egoistic than ever, so I really think we have to come back to our solidarity and to understand that only together we can succeed, or together we can go down and fail.