Reporter: How to breathe new life into Europe's regions?
Has EU regional policy funding boosted development projects for the 2004 enlargement countries, or has administrative red tape snagged progress? EPTV went to Poland to investigate.
Nearly 10 years after joining the European Union, it's time for Poland and nine other countries from that big enlargement to take stock. So has the EU regional policy really been beneficial? We have our first motorways finally. We have a lot of infrastructure improvements. But the same is true for the research infrastructure and for the social infrastructure. It's mostly thanks to European support, so, yes, I think Poland benefited enormously.
We focus on the West Pomeranian region in the north west of Poland. From 2007 to 2013, the regional policy awarded this region over 3 billion euros. The first stop is Szczecin, the region's capital. Some lucky passengers take these modern trains co-financed by EU regional aid. We are very pleased that Poland joined the EU, as we are catching up with Europe, and with some products, like this product that we will present: internal combustion engine vehicle, it has even surpassed its European counterparts. 12 trains like this have been criss-crossing the region since 2010, combining the latest in technology and comfort.
The cost of investment: 37.5 million euros, including over 30 million from the EU. The train is much less noisy now, it doesn't rattle, the seats are more comfortable, it's warmer and there's better lighting. Everything is much improved. I've done this journey since the 1980s, then it took 4 hours and a half, now it takes around 2 hours ten. It's a big difference. Road infrastructure has been a priority from the start for the European regional policy. The first round of funding went towards construction of the basic infrastructure necessary for the next stages of development in each region.
This infrastructure included roads, modernising the railways, developing public transport and also investing in environmental protection. That's the case for this new waterside promenade which meets targets for the environment and tourism. But a few kilometres away the cycle route looks somewhat different. Here we're meeting the president of the city's liberal conservatives, a critic of the regional policy. In theory cities should be using EU funding, but they often lack funding of their own to publish these projects.
Therefore they go into debt, having to take out loans to cover their share of the costs, which is often 30 to 50%. But he doesn't deny certain benefits. In Stargard, a small town about 40 kilometres from Szczecin, unemployment has fallen from 20% in 2002 to 8% today. This is due to the town's two industrial centres, also co-financed by the EU, with an infrastructure that is attracting investors. For investors, the most important thing is that - when choosing the location - they can rely on good road access for transportation, access to water, pipelines, energy infrastructure, gas etc.
There's also new infrastructure in villages to prevent a rural exodus by making life in the country pleasant. We go to Suchań. The mayor is proud to show us two new socio-cultural centres for the villagers. Here a traditional music group is rehearsing, while here children are keeping busy after school. Various games and a computer are available to them. Nobody expected such a high degree of renovation works, a new road, there's a new playground and also a church.
For the few residents that live here, around 200 of us, it has really brought us up to speed with civilisation! Tourism is also an important economic element, even for this small village. To encourage holiday-makers to swim in the three large local lakes, the town asked for funding to install a waste-water treatment system. It's not the easiest process, but it's manageable. It requires preparing the right people for the job and planning ahead carefully. For 10 years, I have had an excellent team skilled in writing funding requests. We do it ourselves rather than consulting specialist companies.
EU funding is certainly accessible, but a lot of work goes into obtaining it. For the MEP and former Commissioner in charge of regional policy, administrative management of European funds is still very difficult for many regions. The challenge, especially in new Member States, is that it's too politicised. When you have a new government and elections, a lot of people from the public administration leave. It takes years to learn how to be really good at respecting the rules of the structural funds and also investing them wisely. Poland has acquired this knowledge in less than a decade.
Today the absorption rate for European Structural Funds is over 65%, while some countries in 'old' Europe still struggle to invest half the aid intended for them.