The regional policy of the EU provides a set of projects and investments aimed at reducing economic and social disparities between the regions and at encouraging economic growth and social cohesion in the EU member states and its regions. This policy has the goals to promote economic and social prosperity throughout the entire EU, its 28 MS and to improve the competitive position of the EU in general, and of the weakest regions in particular. Regional policy also plays a key role in achieving the objectives of Europe 2020 and aims at promoting sustainable growth and territorial, rural and urban development which represents the engine of economy, manufacturing and employment in the EU.
Regional policy is operating through Structural Funds that include the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the European Social Fund (ESF) and the Cohesion Fund. Through these funds regional policy invests in growth and jobs designed to boost economic growth, to strengthen the economic competitiveness and to enable all regions to compete efficiently in the internal market of the EU. The Structural Fund ensures that the gap between the development level of the poor regions and the more developed regions does not increase.
Regional policy covers many fields of regional development such as the promotion of innovation and business entrepreneurship of regions, environment protection and the improvement of transport infrastructure and energy efficiency and the enhancement of research, administrative and development capacities of regions. A strong and well-developed EU regional policy is very important for the development of regions and necessary for achieving social and economic cohesion throughout all MS, which is one of the main objectives of the EU according to the Lisbon Treaty.
This policy is crucial for the EU and the MS like Lithuania. Regional policy contributes to a region’s capacity to promote economic growth and encourages regions and cities to share common experiences and to work together on a number of policy fields, such as transport infrastructure, information and communication technologies services, energy efficiency, climate change, transitional and international cooperation programs and others.
One of the strategic objectives of Lithuania with regard to the cohesion policy is to reduce the growing disparities between Lithuania’s regions and to achieve economic and social cohesion between them. Due to the still existing substantial economic disparities between Lithuania’s regions stemming from diverse sources, a well-implemented cohesion policy in Lithuania can have an enormous potential for the country and can contribute to the reduction of economic differences between Lithuania’s regions. As Lithuania is a country where the majority of the population lives in urban areas, regional policy also contributes to the reduction of economic and social disparities between its urban and rural areas and reinforces its institutional capacities. Lithuania itself within the cohesion policy takes actions in order to prevent rural decline and to promote urban and rural regeneration and support actions to reinforce socio-economic cohesion in its urban and rural areas. All these measures are vital for sustainable growth in Lithuania and are useful for developing the potential of Lithuania’s regions.
Another challenge that Lithuania is facing is its low resource-efficiency and energy intensity. A well-applied regional policy can strengthen the resource efficiency of Lithuania and can promote investments in renewable energy and increase energy efficiency. Moreover, this policy can contribute to economic growth, provide valuable assistance to the implementation of sustainable regional, territorial and urban development and, by consequence, can modernize Lithuania’s economy.
All these regional priorities are reflected in my MEP’s REGI (Regional Development Committee in the European Parliament) activities that target the policy objectives of regional policy for Lithuania. As a member of the REGI, I undertake many activities that target the key areas of regional policy of the EU. With regard to my recent activities in the REGI, I welcomed the importance of Riikka Manner’s opinion “Current Challenges and Opportunities for Renewable Energy in the European Internal Energy market.” This opinion included many valid points and was quite comprehensive. It touched upon the importance of renewable energy for regional development and emphasized the role of the MS in promoting those energy sources which are compatible with the goals of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. The opinion also highlighted the importance of integrating the renewable and energy efficiency dimensions into cross-border energy projects.
Taking into consideration the strategic value of this opinion in the development of cohesion policy and meeting the EU 2020 targets, my amendments tabled to the opinion aimed at strengthening energy efficiency and sustainability and underlined the continuing need for reducing the EU’s dependence on conventional energy, while creating new jobs and increasing competitiveness and territorial cohesion. In my amendments I stressed the need to exploit the energy efficiency potential of the renewable energy sources so that renewable energy can fully contribute to energy policy goals. I also highlighted the necessity to take into consideration local and regional conditions in the development of renewable energy potential.
The impact of this opinion is rather significant, as the majority of issues raised there is relevant to the long-term priorities of Lithuanian energy policy that are in line with the priorities of Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth and the targets of the Energy Roadmap 2050.
With regard to the REGI activities in the youth policy, I did not shy away from the question of youth unemployment. Unemployment amongst young people is hitting peaks not seen for almost 20 years and the risk of poverty and social exclusion amongst this population group is constantly growing. The situation is worrying in Lithuania. Lithuania is heavily affected by the economic crisis; youth unemployment in Lithuania has risen from 13 percent to 27.5 percent - that’s more than double the country’s unemployment rate for its total workforce. That is why I supported Luis Paulo Alves’ opinion “Tackling youth unemployment: possible ways out.” My amendments were aimed at advancing possible solutions, from the level of education and teaching to the cooperation between Member States in the context of regional policy instruments. I consider that a Youth Guarantee Initiative can provide Lithuania with the tools to overcome this trend and reform education and training standards for young people. Introducing a Youth Guarantee in the EU and Lithuania can help to remedy the situation of youth unemployment and can become a strong instrument for tackling it. I believe that Lithuania will take a proactive approach in this regard and will make employment of young people a top priority in its policies.
I also wanted to face the question of cultural policy in the regional dimension of the EU. As a shadow rapporteur on Oldrick Vlasak’s opinion “Promoting the European cultural and creative sectors as sources of economic growth and jobs,” I underlined the necessity of the inclusion of the cultural and creative industries in the EU and in national socio-economic strategies. I consider the cultural and creative industries to play an enormous role in the regional and urban development of the EU. They contribute to the social and territorial integration of the EU and they promote innovation and entrepreneurship. The cultural and creative industries also play a significant role in the improvement of communication and dialogue between ethnic and social communities. And what is more important, they represent big potential for growth for entrepreneurs and contribute to cultural employment. That is why I consider that Lithuania needs to support entrepreneurs in developing new business models for the cultural and creative industries and in stimulating and diffusing their creativity in different sectors of the economy.
All these questions are relevant for Lithuania and its regions. Regional policy helps to explore the potential of each region of the MS and of Lithuania in order to foster economic and social growth and employment.
I recognize the importance of a well-coordinated regional policy in Lithuania that can lead to a better interaction of EU stakeholders with the Lithuanian citizens, citizens who should benefit from real and tangible positive results and outcomes of a successfully implemented regional policy in Lithuania.
Justina Vitkauskaite Bernard, a Lithuanian member of the European Parliament (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe – ALDE Group)