The EU swiftly adapted its rules to provide greater flexibility to member states in using cohesion policy funds in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It also brought in significant new resources to fund additional investments. But these measures also added to the pressure to spend EU funds quickly and well, according to a new report by the European Court of Auditors. Repeatedly using cohesion policy to address crises may also divert it from its primary strategic goal of reducing disparities in development between regions, the auditors note.
From early 2020, the EU took a wide range of actions to address the challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. Cohesion policy played its part, with a quick three-stage response amending the rules of the 2014-2020 programme period. In less than two months after the outbreak of the pandemic in Europe, the EU adopted legislative measures to mobilise unspent funds through the Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative (CRII) and the Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative Plus (CRII+). In less than a year, it adopted the Recovery Assistance for Cohesion and the Territories of Europe (REACT-EU), to serve as a short- and medium-term instrument for crisis repair and recovery action.
“The EU’s reaction facilitated the use of Cohesion funds to help member states face the COVID-19-related economic distress, even though some existing challenges might consequently be exacerbated,” said Iliana Ivanova, the ECA member who led the audit. “In any case, we still need to assess very carefully whether EU cohesion policy is the right budgetary tool for crisis response”.