“Check against delivery”
Dear distinguished guests,
Millions of Ukrainians are seeking shelter in the European Union – torn from their families and country by Putin’s bombs. The scenes of war are devastating.
But the images of European citizens welcoming refugees show another picture – they show hope.
Ukraine and the European Union have never been closer.
Until Ukrainians can safely return home, and rebuild their independent and democratic country in peace, we will welcome and support them. Because they are part of our European family.
That is why, last week, the European Commission put forward CARE. This package of Cohesion Action for Refugees makes cohesion funds available for Member States. This will help them to build reception centres, mobile hospitals and schooling for children. It can provide employment support, for example training and language courses, or childcare facilities. CARE will help Member States to welcome Ukrainian refugees quickly and humanely.
For me, this is a truly inspiring example. Because it shows what a difference cohesion policy can make. Both as a short term response to crisis and a long term investment in democratic resilience. And the good thing is, there are so many examples like these, everywhere in our Union. From our pandemic response, where cohesion funds supplied ventilators, hospital beds and medical equipment. To the green transition. They all demonstrate the impact of cohesion policy in the everyday lives of Europeans.
We all know the great strengths of cohesion.
First: It is pure power, because cohesion comes with impressive financial backing.
We are talking about nearly 400 billion euros from 2021 to 2027. With an estimated 100 billion on top from Member States. But this is not all. Cohesion policy is so powerful, first and foremost, because it delivers on a core promise of our Union – that all regions are equal, that European citizens, no matter where, can live safe and prosperous lives. This promise brings us here today. I am grateful to be able to address this Cohesion Forum. Because today we need cohesion policy more than ever.
That brings me to the second strength: Cohesion is a driver of change.
As you know, Europe stands at the beginning of a new transformation. We want to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. And all across Europe, citizens have started on their way to a net-zero future. They want to live in greener cities and breathe fresh air. And they want to have a real choice: between working in the city or the countryside.
Cohesion policy will help to make this transformation happen. Just remember the 1970s. Back then, money from cohesion funds supported European coal and industrial regions in their necessary transformation. Where coal was once mined, we built universities and science centres. This attracted talent. And with talent came innovation. New roads and airports connected towns and businesses across the Single Market. Many of these regions became globally competitive. Cohesion policy has done it before, and we will do it again.
This time cohesion policy supports regions in another transformation. On their way to a greener and more sustainable future. This transformation starts in every village, every town, every region. Together we will invest in renewables like never before. We will increase connectivity, be it with railways or be it digital. We will help SMEs to develop cutting edge technology. And we will make Europe’s regions more resilient – and revive their natural beauty.
Third strength: Cohesion is a safeguard of social balance.
Both the green and digital transition will only work for people and businesses, when it is just. I cannot stress this point enough. Everybody must be able to benefit from this transformation. Here, cohesion policy will do what it does best. Because we know that some regions have a longer way to a net-zero future than others.
This is why with the Just Transition Fund, we are helping those regions shift away from carbon heavy industries. You have all heard about our European Green Deal.
Behind all of its proposals there is an opportunity for local entrepreneurs. Local businesses have already started to create the new clean economy that will make Europe the innovation continent and the best place to live and work. And with the support of the Regional Development and Social Plus Funds we will make sure that our citizens have the skills to benefit from this. Cohesion makes education and life-long training possible for all European citizens.
And finally, the fourth strength: Cohesion is a true multiplier.
Studies demonstrate this time and again. Two-thirds of cohesion funds go to the least developed regions in Europe. And returns are nearly three times the initial investments. This is a rate of return no bank and no equity portfolio can offer!
This demonstrates the simple, timeless truth behind cohesion policy. When the less developed regions are doing better, we will all do better.
And this is why cohesion policy is such a vital ingredient of our unique Single Market. It empowers regions, the silent engines of Europe’s growth. Cohesion is a true European success story.
But there is still work to do. And we all know this.
Let me make two short proposals.
First: Go local! Local stakeholders, mayors and regional administrators, they know best what citizens need on the ground. So we should put them even more into the centre of our decision making and involve them at every step, from drafting regional and national plans, to their implementation on the ground. Local stakeholders must think where they want their region to be in ten years. And build their own plan towards that future.
This links to my second message: Speed up! Because at the moment, there is a significant delay in cohesion programming. Money from the new European budget should already be paid to projects, but regional plans are still missing. This is due to the pandemic, of course. But nevertheless: we have to catch up.
This is why I call on all governments to speed up their programming to accelerate the take up of the new cohesion funds.
I call on them to devote all their efforts and resources to getting the projects going. And my Commission will help with technical assistance where needed.
Because we want every region in Europe to emerge stronger from the pandemic, greener, more digital and more resilient. And we want this to happen as soon as possible.
This is where NextGenerationEU comes into play, our 800 billion euro recovery programme. Cohesion policy and NextGenerationEU can complement each other. Like in Valencia, in Spain, where there is a biomedical research institute that has the capability to do gene sequencing. This helps us to control the emergence of new variants and be one step ahead of the virus.
Cohesion funds helped the lab increase its testing capacity seven fold. And NextGenerationEU helps Spain to digitalise its entire health sector. Both reforms fit together seamlessly. And we need more of this.
Ladies and gentlemen,
cohesion policy rarely creates big headlines. But there is simply no better example for what I call “the silent strength of our Union”. The promise that we all enjoy the fruits that come from peace and progress. That no region or community is left behind. Because we invest in our future together. This makes our towns and regions prosper.
Cohesion policy is the instrument of choice for all regions to reap the benefits of our new European growth model. Because in Europe we pull each other up. This is our strength. This is the European way. And I cannot end here without thanking those who make this all possible, local and regional authorities – city associations and mayors, small enterprises and NGOs – from across our Union. Your work has a direct positive impact on the everyday lives of European citizens!
You make European funds count in cities and villages, everywhere in our Union!