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Interview : Michel Barnier

Michel Barnier

As a Member of the Commission since September 1999, what do you plan to do during your time in office? What are your priorities?

Regional policy is one of the most visible and concrete of all the Community policies. It serves the citizens directly and helps to improve their standard of living. I intend to use my local and national experience to set in motion an effective European regional policy in the Community's general interest.

This is a serious undertaking. Between 2000 and 2006, almost EUR 213 billion will be allocated by the Structural Funds and the Cohesion Fund.

The Structural Funds will grant almost EUR 25 billion a year to the regions of the Union which have been identified as lagging behind economically (Objective 1) or undergoing conversion (Objective 2) and the Cohesion Fund will distribute a further EUR 2.5 billion per year.

My role is to ensure the success of this new generation of regional programmes and Cohesion Fund projects. I will also ensure that the structural policies are extended in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe under the best possible conditions, so that they can prepare for accession to the Union.

Upon being nominated to the job, and again before the European Parliament, you said that there was a need to enter into a dialogue with people on the issue of Europe. How do you plan to do this?

To dialogue with people you must first of all find out how they live their day-to-day lives. This is why I attach great importance to regular field trips to each Member State. Not just to explain the regional policy, but also to get other Europeans' views on the future of the Union and its institutions.

Such fieldwork is not a new thing for me, any more than European Union involvement at local level is. As President of the Department of Savoy, I had many opportunities to encourage development projects partly funded through Community policies. That experience has convinced me that assistance from the Structural Funds does more than encourage investment. The way the funding is organised and the conditions for getting it very often encourage those on the spot to come up with new ideas and to work together.

Although contributions from the Structural Funds to local projects must be publicised under the terms of the regulations, this is not done in some Member States. How can this be remedied?

Getting public recognition of the Union's contribution at local level is a real problem. The Member States sometimes balk at meeting their obligations in terms of publicity of information.

So, at the end of May this year we adopted a new regulation. The regulation requires the national or regional authorities responsible for managing programmes financed by the Structural Funds to draw up and implement communication plans.

In a spirit of cooperation, the Commission will monitor compliance with the new rules and will offer support by sharing its expertise and by giving the Member States and regions access to its own communication tools.

But that is not all. For information and publicity to have maximum effect, I think we need to improve our media strategies so that the arrangements for implementing regional policy in 2000-06 are made clear and the impact of the Structural Funds is brought home to their beneficiaries and to the greater Union public.

The Edinburgh agreement (1992) envisaged a gradual increase in Structural and Cohesion funding. Yet the Heads of State and government have since decided to reduce the budget for the Structural Funds. Is that not likely to slow down the development of certain regions?

It is true that the annual budgets of the Structural Funds and of the Cohesion Fund have increased gradually in recent years and the results in many less-favoured regions have been encouraging. You may perhaps remember that in its communication on Agenda 2000 in July 1997 the Commission proposed that the cap decided at the European Council in Edinburgh should be maintained by allocating to the Structural Funds a budget of EUR 218 billion for the 2000-06 period. However, I do not believe that the slight reduction decided by the European Council in Berlin is likely to slow down current progress. Indeed, in addition to the EUR 195 billion for the Structural Funds, EUR 30 billion has been earmarked for rural development policy, which carries forward the Objective 5(a) measures of the 1994-99 period (compensatory allowances, improvements to production structures and measures relating to the processing and marketing of agricultural products). Furthermore, the reform of the Structural Funds focuses assistance even more now on the regions whose development is lagging behind (Objective 1), so the aid rates per head in these regions will now be higher than in the past. Lastly, many of the measures included in the reform, such as the complete decentralisation of programme management and better monitoring and control measures, should also make the assistance more effective.

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