Since the draft regulatory package was made available back in 2018, extensive exchanges have taken place not only at the level of the European institutions, but also among Member States and programme representatives. What about CBC Partner Countries though? During the months of May and June, with the support of DG REGIO and the concerned Managing Authorities, TESIM has organised eight info-sessions addressed to the national authorities of twelve non-EU countries involved in neighbourhood cross-border cooperation in order to share with them the main novelties that the new regulatory framework brings and to collect their views on which elements, notably those of change, could pose a bigger challenge to them.
During the last three years, words such as ‘continuity’ and ‘simplification’ have been extensively used to describe some of the underlying principles at the heart of the regulatory package for the new generation of Interreg programmes. Can these words be applied also to neighbourhood cross-border cooperation? And do CBC Partner Countries perceive that ‘continuity’ and ‘simplification’ work the same way for them? Starting in Turkey on 20 May and ending in Israel on 16 June, TESIM’s online trip along the external borders of the EU was quite intense and led to a number of meaningful conclusions.
As a first conclusion we can say that, all in all, the landing of our programmes in the Interreg community will be a soft one. The core aim of the existing neighbourhood cross-border cooperation programmes and that of Interreg programmes are basically interchangeable: it’s all about cooperation across borders to address common challenges and find shared solutions to solve them. And the new period brings no disruption theme-wise with the current one. Sure, while ENI CBC programme representatives and Member States benefit since a while now from many platforms to exchange with their Interreg peers, the situation is not exactly the same for non-EU countries. Many initiatives are trying to gradually fill in this gap, in particular in the Mediterranean area, but – as the saying goes – Rome wasn’t built in a day, and additional efforts should be deployed to foster the sense of belonging to the same community.
Taking a closer look at the regulatory framework, the double dimension of Interreg NEXT as a community belonging to both the Neighbourhood and the Cohesion policies is certainly a particular feature. Due to their involvement in Interreg transnational or IPA CBC programmes, some non-EU countries are well used to a placement of theirs within the Cohesion Policy, but this comes anew to others. Irrespective this, the importance of CBC as a means to reinforce the relations between the EU and its neighbours, in particular the promotion of the people-to-people dimension therein, remains a solid foundation also for the future, and this message was conveyed loud and clear during all the sessions. In more practical terms, the process of approval of all regulatory acts, be them primary or secondary legislation, will trigger a sequence of steps which involves the adoption of the cooperation programmes and, most important for the purpose of the sessions, the signature of the Financing Agreements. While we should not see them as hurdles, each step in the process has a complexity of its own; they cannot be seen as a pro forma either. The most relevant conclusion of the sessions on this topic was the need to see the different deadlines as the latest scenario possible; the reality should be that processes are concluded earlier than that, the main concern being the impact of a late conclusion in the launching of the first calls for the new programmes. We are not yet there, but it is indeed important to keep this non-regulated milestone in the picture.
While up to here the notion of ‘continuity’ held strong, the potential ‘twists’ were at the core of the remaining discussions. And, spoiler alert, it may well be that the foreseen extent of change is to be substantially re-dimensioned when translating the regulatory contents into concrete decisions by the programmes and countries. But let’s not rush to conclusions yet.
If a message has been repeatedly conveyed in the last years, that is the one related to the importance of translating into practice the principle of partnership, more precisely the involvement of different types of institutions in the programming and implementation phases. Whereas their involvement during programming is being actively ensured, many perplexities were put on the table concerning the practicalities related to the involvement in the programme governance of actors from the local and regional level, academia and civil society. Inefficient Monitoring Committees, risk of conflicts of interest, difficult-to-meet balanced representation…quite a range of concerns! But the principle remains, and we will follow with interest how it will be incorporated to the different programme realities.
When it comes to programme bodies, and simplifying things a bit, nothing new under the sun for what concerns the functions of the Managing Authority and the Monitoring Committee. The Joint Secretariat will be a compulsory feature, something which brings a change only to some programmes, and Branch Offices will continue assisting thanks to their proximity to potential beneficiaries and partners. Likewise, the Audit Authority will keep carrying its work, most likely with the support of a Group of auditors. The key potential ‘twist’ relates to the National Authority, whose role in the Interreg Regulation is not presented along the same lines as in the ENI CBC Implementing Rules. Still, nothing prevents that the ‘contact point’ referred to in the Regulation fulfils the tasks being currently carried out by the National Authorities if this is the preferred option. In fact, segregation of duties allowing, it could even absorb the tasks being currently performed by the Control Contact Points, a feature which is not foreseen in future programmes. Name aside, the grounds for a sound dose of continuity are there also in this case.
Last but not least, we are all well aware of the importance of all issues related to financial management. The good news is that the preferential prefinancing mechanisms and co-financing rates, two specificities of our programmes, will be maintained. This comes with a little payback though, which is the need for programmes to ensure a sound financial planning and a good implementation pace in order to avoid losing funds. Putting it quite bluntly: some delays experienced during this period shall be avoided in the future. And if there is a ‘twist’ which really makes a difference, that is the new responsibility of non-EU countries for unsuccessful recoveries from private partners. We will not dwell into the details, but almost all Partner Countries, if not all, see this as a particularly challenging change. Many mitigating measures were identified too, but there is certainly a need to address the topic with particular attention during the negotiation of the Financing Agreements.
Being it the last point in the agenda, the issue of unsuccessful recoveries from private partners brought each time a somehow bittersweet end. This problem cannot overshadow the many positive outcomes of the sessions though. The awareness about the requirements for the new programming period has certainly been increased and clarifications were provided on all topics at stake. Most important, the voice of the CBC Partner Countries has been heard and the dialogue between them, the Commission and the programmes was a frank one. As a support project, TESIM is quite pleased for having contributed to reach such achievements. The exchanges on the many take-home messages for the three sides will now continue within the framework of the Joint Programming Committees, and we will share with you in a late edition of the bulletin the final decisions taken on all these points. Stay tuned!