The 6th meeting of the ENI CBC Consultation and Coordination Group (CCG) took place on 18 February 2021, gathering over 70 representatives of the 15 running ENI CBC programmes, as well as officials from the European Commission and the European External Action Service. The meeting aimed at taking stock of the one year passed since ENI CBC programmes were transferred to DG REGIO, and – spoiler! – the conclusion is that there are way more lights than shadows to signal, both when looking at the present of the community and when analysing how the future is being built.
Now that this first year has elapsed, the first consideration shared was that we would all have wished to have a smooth transition time. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic we had to adjust primarily to this new reality and, as acknowledged by Director Normunds Popens, the outbreak put a lot of strain on programmes last year. DG REGIO is therefore impressed about how ENI CBC programmes have adapted and progressed despite the difficult circumstances, gradually speeding up and gaining momentum. The progress in implementation from the previous CCG meeting held in Rome in April 2019 can be seen simply by analysing some basic figures: from 39 to 48 calls for proposals launched, from 23 to 47 selection processes finalised and from 401 to 884 projects selected for funding. From a financial perspective, contracted amounts have increased to 83% in 2020, similar to that of other Interreg programmes, and even if the amounts spent by projects still stand at 8%, payments by programmes represent 39% of the overall EU financing. While challenges are many, when asked to assess themselves the state of play, all programmes shared the opinion that they are well positioned to meet all the set targets by the time of closure. All in all, an extremely positive balance for such a difficult year, an opinion shared by many representatives of the ENI CBC community, as you can see in the hereunder video:
In our working context, it is essential to consider how COVID-19 did not only affect the European Union, but also our neighbours. During the meeting, key information was shared on the EU’s response to the pandemic in the Eastern Partnership, through which almost 1 billion euro has been provided as support to the health sector, support to SMEs and to the most vulnerable groups, as well as State budgetary support. In terms of response to the Covid crisis for the South, the EU’s response has been very quick also, mobilising over 2,3 billion euro already in the first months of the pandemic.
Looking ahead, we have said it several times already: 2021 will be a key year in many aspects. Let’s take a look at how the forecast for the present year was analysed during the meeting by means of questions…
Which recovery are we looking for?
According to Normunds Popens, the Cohesion Policy should be the forefront in the recovery efforts, ensuring that all available funds are focused on fighting the pandemic and its economic impact, also in neighbouring countries. This includes REACT-EU, an important element of the recovery plan, which will strengthen the healthcare systems and preserve and create employment, support SMEs and lay down foundations for the twin digital and green transitions and a sustainable socio-economic development. Building on the European Green Deal, the Transition Fund will cover also neighbouring countries in reducing their dependency from carbon and heavy industry.
How are the relations with our neighbours expected to evolve with the new financial perspective?
Vassilis Maragos, Head of Unit NEAR C2, explained how the Joint Communication from 2020 provides the framework for the Eastern Partnership policy. In the summit that should take place this year, it is expected that the new agenda of key political priorities post-2020 will be endorsed. Vassilis stressed the fact that the work on the ground by cross-border cooperation programmes is seen as an essential contribution to what the Eastern Partnership aims to achieve in terms of relations with the Neighbourhood: prosperity, stability and cooperation for the benefits of citizens from both sides. This has led to an improvement of the image of the EU in the region, making it the most trusted international partner. Anna Strzaska, Head of Division EEAS MENA.5, echoed the acknowledgment of the importance of cross-border cooperation in the relations of the EU with its neighbouring countries. Cross-border cooperation is in fact a unique feature in the EU’s toolbox, particularly as a confidence-building tool. Concerning the Southern dimension of the Neighbourhood Policy, Anna explained how only a week ago the Commission and EEAS have put together an ambitious new Agenda for the Mediterranean, which will be discussed further at the European Council in March. The Agenda comes 25 years after the Barcelona Declaration, aimed at transforming the Mediterranean into an area of dialogue, cooperation, peace and shared prosperity. Many challenges remain, and new challenges have emerged. The Covid pandemic added a new layer to all these challenges, showing at the same time how interdependent we are with our neighbours. Also here, the cross-border dimension shows its essential nature.
How do we approach the programming of Interreg NEXT in this context?
From a broader perspective, Anna Strzaska stressed the fact that, with funding coming from two different sources, Interreg NEXT programmes should consider their two dimensions, internal and external, as equally important. The partnership principle and the resulting ownership from all actors remains a key factor; Partner Countries should participate on equal footing and be involved in all stages of the programming process and during implementation. Comparing the process with the one seven years ago, Jean Pierre Halkin – Head of Unit REGIO D1 – noted that several changes can be identified, from the single Interreg Regulation to the easier access to external funds. He also highlighted the ambition to give the lead to the Managing Authorities and the participating countries in shaping their new programmes, maximising the ownership. The importance of the single Interreg Regulation was further stressed by Moray Gilland, Head of Unit REGIO B1. It is a regulation that is going to apply for an entire decade, establishing basic fundamental rules, but how they are translated to each border is very much left to the programme partnership to decide. Concerning the specific rules for external borders, some of these exist because of the institutional setting, in particular the need to sign a Financing Agreement with non-EU countries. Other rules provide continuity, such as higher levels of EU co-financing, a much more flexible approach to programme prefinancing, the continuation of the concept of large infrastructure projects, the need for a national contact point and the possibility of setting branch offices. All these measures help to protect the specificities of external cooperation. Looking at the results achieved so far, Simona Pohlová – ENI Team leader in REGIO D1 – congratulated all programmes on the progress made. The overall situation is very encouraging so far, with nearly all programmes having set up their Joint Programming Committees and having approved a programming work plan. In fact, Interreg NEXT programmes are in average at the same programming stage than internal cooperation programmes. The expectations about Interreg NEXT programmes are high in terms of contribution on many fronts: the recovery in Europe and the Neighbourhood after the Covid-19 crisis, the green and digital twin transition, the Eastern Partnership beyond 2020, the renewed partnership with the Southern Neighbourhood and the cooperation specific targets.
It was a long meeting, particular for nowadays standards. Yet, at the end of the day, the spirits were high, as reflected by the closing remarks of Jean Pierre Halkin. The meeting allowed to exchange directly with the programme practitioners about their reality on the ground. The engagement is proven, and we all trust that programmes, both present and future, will deliver what is expected from them this year.