Regional spending makes up the EU's second largest budget item after agriculture and has the prime objectives of helping poorer regions or those in decline. The funds are being reformed under the Agenda 2000 proposals to ready the EU for enlargement, and the Commission proposed last year to include a clause requiring structural fund spending to promote sustainable development.
The draft guidelines published this week put flesh on the bones of this commitment, covering the period 2000-2006. They suggest, for example, that a larger proportion of spending on transport infrastructure should go to intermodal and rail rather than just road schemes, as well as to smaller, local projects. They also state that EU spending should be consistent with the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, meaning priority should be given to "more sustainable forms of transport".
Energy spending, the Commission says, should "focus on the demand side". This would mean using aid to promote the production of energy efficient equipment and their use by industry and consumers. Priority should also be given to cogeneration of heat and power and renewable energies.
The Commission also says that it will bring the "polluter pays" principle to bear when allocating the structural funds. This could mean more money going to projects where the principle is in action. According to a Commission official, an example of this would be giving more money to a water infrastructure project in a region that charges its water users (the polluters), and less to a region where water use is free. The Commission will publish more details on this in about a month's time.
The guidelines are likely to be non-binding, raising fears amongst environmental groups campaigning for a thorough greening of the structural funds that their impact will be limited. According to Tony Long of the World Wide Fund for Nature, another problem is that the guidelines might have no effect until the current budget period is assessed in 2003, since negotiations for the period 2000-2003 have already begun.
However, a Commission official maintained that the guidelines would have immediate effect, since specific funding proposals could not be discussed until the new structural funds regulation was finalised.
European Commission, tel: +32 2 295 1111. References: "The structural funds and their coordination with the cohesion fund: draft guidance for programmes in the period 2000-2006."
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