Talks are well underway in the European Parliament and European Council about the EU budget. Since the Commission released its proposals for the next Multiannual Financial Framework spanning 2014-2020, both institutions have been discussing – and criticising – elements of the budget. It is hoped that an agreement among the two groups will be reached by the end of this year to allow enough time for the plans to be put in place by 2014. If the discussions last time around are anything to go by, these meetings will continue right up to the deadline and agreement will be hard to come by.
Most recently, a divide has opened up in the Parliament over the proposed greening of the Cohesion Policy – the largest area of spending in the EU budget. The Cohesion Policy combines five funds covering rural development, fisheries, employment initiatives, and regional development. The Policy is intended to balance the economies of Europe by supporting development in the poorest regions. The Commission is proposing that, from 2014 onwards, Cohesion Policy should help to deliver the Europe 2020 goals of reducing unemployment and poverty, increasing investment in education and research, and tackling climate change.
The European Parliament strongly supports attempts to strengthen economic and social cohesion in Europe and the Commission’s attempts to meet the Europe 20-20-20 targets – reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent, sourcing 20 percent of energy from renewables, and reducing our energy consumption by 20 percent. However, talk of combining these two aims has opened up a divide among MEPs. Many argue that adding further conditions to funding through Cohesion Policy will simply make it harder for regions to access much needed support. Others claim that this is unfairly placing the burden of meeting 20-20-20 targets on the poorest parts of the EU.
Both arguments have some truth in them. Surely, the regions themselves are best placed to decide how the funds can best be spent to promote regional development? Also, when the richer areas of the EU were developing their transport routes and fisheries, there was little consideration of the environmental impact. Why should it be different now?
Two points need to be considered here in defence of the Commission’s proposals. First it is not just the Cohesion Policy which is becoming greener. The other big budget area – agriculture – also has a planned 30 percent of its funds dependent on sustainable practices. There is also a recently renamed and revamped budget area, Horizon 2020, for research, innovation and technological development which includes a focus on tackling climate change and environmental issues.
Secondly, the Cohesion Policy offers the perfect opportunity to tackle climate change at the best time: before environmental harm has been done. By starting new projects sustainably, we avoid the need for costly measures in the future. As many EU countries feel the pressure of continued lack of economic growth, it is easy to sideline environmental issues traditionally seen as less important than other issues. However, the economic crisis makes tackling these issues more, not less, important. By addressing climate change now, we avoid more costly changes further down the line.
The concern of these MEPs is legitimate and understandable. Growth in the poorer regions of the EU is important and should be supported in the budget. A consideration of the different needs in each region is also key to encouraging development. However, the proposals for Cohesion Policy do not sacrifice growth for the environment. They combine these two important areas. We need to understand that green money does not mean less development or growth. It means more sustainable development, ensuring lasting growth in those areas that need it most without sacrificing our environment.