Since taking office, I have had the opportunity to visit regions in several EU countries that fall into the "less developed" category, which receive around two thirds of Cohesion Policy funding. These regions have all benefited from significant investments from the EU, some over a period of several decades, but I have been struck by the very different economic outcomes.
"Lagging regions" have been particularly hard hit by the crisis. In the south of Europe, they have borne the brunt of rising unemployment, particularly among young people. In the east, the process of catching up with EU living standards has slowed down, and disparities within countries have increased. Investment also declined in lagging regions due to the crisis, by as much as 40% in southern regions.
The seminar looked at ways of attracting investment to these regions, but also the conditions that need to be in place in order to make sure that investments achieve results. These conditions include good governance, fiscal responsibility and structural reform.
We have invested a lot in transport infrastructure in the past but, in some places, too little emphasis was put on competitiveness and innovation, which may have acted as a drag on export opportunities. That is why we have insisted that major investments in transport in 2014-2020 be linked to a coherent transport strategy, and form part of a comprehensive package of support for the real economy.
And we have invested a lot in SME competitiveness in the past, but SMEs in many lagging regions experience difficulties in accessing finance due to the debt burden and pressures on public finances. This is why we are working hard with national and regional authorities to increase the use of financial instruments, and to ensure that the European Structural and Investment Funds make a strong contribution to President Juncker's ambitious Investment Plan for Europe.
I was pleased to have an opportunity to speak with the experts at the event on 22-23 June and to listen to their ideas. I requested their continued support and input, both with regard to the implementation of Cohesion Policy funding during the 2014-2020 and to preparations for the future of the policy after 2020.