On 8 November, the first Liberal Regional Ministers Summit – organised by the Renew Europe Group in the European Committee of the Regions (Renew Europe CoR) and chaired by Renew Europe CoR President François Decoster – brought together ministers from five different countries to discuss the post-COVID-19 recovery together with Werner Hoyer, President of the European Investment Bank (EIB). The best ways to access EIB funds as well as lessons that liberals can draw from the pandemic were also discussed.
In a sign of the growing role of regional government in helping the EU achieve its goals, EIB President Hoyer helped launch Renew Europe CoR’s first summit of Liberal Regional Ministers debating the post-COVID-19 recovery and regional investments.
The EIB President recalled how the bank had funded some of the fundamental medical research which has led to the mRNA technology used in the COVID-19 vaccines, and that this early research and further EIB funding has drastically cut the vaccine development time. He also described how the EIB is helping the equitable distribution of vaccines through COVAX to other parts of the world, and he added that although we are at the beginning of the post-COVID-19 recovery, imbalances in the economy have been exacerbated and structural changes will need to be accelerated.
Manuel Alejandro Cardenete, Deputy Minister for Tourism, Regeneration and Local Administration in Andalusia, raised the issue of the current crisis in the supply of raw materials and asked President Hoyer how he thought this might evolve.
“While some are calling for greater protectionism and closure of markets, the answer is instead to quickly define the concept of European strategic autonomy, namely allowing the EU to play an active role for the development of its logistical assets,” Hoyer said.
Building on the issue of protectionism, several regional leaders, including Vice-Presidents Bart Somers of Flanders, Francisco Igea of Castilla y León, and Renew Europe CoR President François Decoster of Hauts-de-France argued against closing borders as ineffective and counterproductive measures in a pandemic and a globalised world.
President Decoster said: “We think the European project sits deep in the spirit and mind of the national governments, but this pandemic has shown that this is not true. We saw how closing the borders damages lots of existing cross-border cooperation, whether it is in health, the economy,…”
Best way for funding: bundling
During the Summit, Werner Hoyer also advised on the best way for regions to access EIB funding.
“The best way for regions to apply for EIB funding is by putting together ‘bundles’ of the same type of action to be carried out, as the EIB needs a critical mass before it can release funds,” he said.
Hoyer cited the example of the schools initiative in Ireland where the EIB was able to intervene to fund energy efficiency of the buildings, because the Irish state put together a bundle of many schools.
He also added that “regions should not feel they have to choose between European Commission grants or EIB loans, but rather try to combine both, because evidence shows the best results are obtained when both are used in conjunction”.
Michiel Rijsberman, of the Dutch Province of Flevoland, wondered about how the EIB can assist the agricultural industry in finding new ways to feed the world. President Hoyer noted that this is a field of utmost importance, and pleaded to use Europe’s advantage in linking green and digital technologies.
Finally, he advised regions to avoid becoming heavily indebted in a scenario of rising inflation: it would be best for regions to become more cautious about their deficit and debt metrics, favouring quality, productive, growth-enhancing investment over current expenditure.
Lessons for liberals
During the first part of the summit, ministers had an exchange between themselves about the pandemic and lessons that can be learnt.
President François Decoster pointed out that many regions were more active and reactive than the central government: “We were able to put aside lengthy procedures, selection committees, paperwork,… to implement a recovery plan allowing us to spend in my city of Saint-Omer in a few months what would otherwise take years. So, if we are able to get bureaucracy out of the way in times of crisis so that we can be quicker and more efficient, that in itself is a message for our larger liberal family going forward.”
Bart Somers said that the different levels of government should consider themselves as partners rather than competitors or in a hierarchy. They each have their commitments and competences, and complementing each other’s actions, the citizens are served better. He also added that the pandemic has shown that many cities don’t have enough green spaces, and that many schools and office buildings need to be designed differently for the future.
Finally, Andrea Klambauer of Salzburg pointed out that some regions are still in the middle of the pandemic, because vaccination rates have not been high enough and that much work remains to be done to overcome scepticism towards vaccines.
Renew Europe CoR’s successful Liberal Mayors network, which is now in its 8th year, led to the idea of launching a Regional Ministers Network. This new initiative creates a new connection within the European liberal family, as the interaction between local and regional level, and in turn between them and the EU level, is only getting more important.