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Vasco Cordeiro, 29 June 2022, 150th Plenary Session of the European Committee of the Regions, Source: © European Union / Laurie D.

Vasco Cordeiro: The European project is at stake when solidarity is at stake

Vasco Cordeiro: The European project is at stake when solidarity is at stake

A conversation with the President of the European Committee of the Regions, about energy, climate change and the underrated importance of cohesion policy

Vasco Alves Cordeiro became the President of the European Committee of the Regions in June 2022, taking over from Apostolos Tzitzikostas. He was born in the Azores, an outermost region of Portugal, and started off his career in local politics back in 1996 when he was elected as a member of the Legislative Assembly of the Autonomous Region of the Azores.

Since then, he has held many official positions until he was elected as President of the Regional Government of the Azores in 2012 and re-elected in 2016.

Mr Cordeiro, you are taking the reins of the European Committee of the Regions (CoR) at a very trying time. Although your predecessor still has a prominent role in the CoR, how will your agenda differ from what the Committee has been prioritising in the last two years?

I am a member of the regional Parliament of the Azores, one of the 9 EU outermost regions, halfway between Europe and America. My election as President of the European Committee of the Regions bears witness to the mission of this institution to represent all local and regional authorities and the idea of a Europe that is created by everyone, for everyone, for every town, city or region, no matter its size or location.

My Presidency will focus on three key priorities. The first one is a stronger and fairer Europe for all. This means a fairer and more inclusive society for all people, which considers citizens' anxieties and fears about their future, jobs, education and care, health and the support for the elders.

I also think that a stronger and fairer Europe for all means tackling the great challenges we are facing today, like the climate crisis, because if we don't act now there won't be a fair future for younger generations.

Gender equality is also important, since without empowering women in our societies and within our political bodies we will not manage to build a stronger Europe.

A stronger and fairer Europe is also one based on promoting greater and systematic citizen participation in the decision-making processes, particularly in the EU, with stronger internal democracy resulting from greater proximity and better information.

The second priority is the battle to strengthen cohesion policy ahead of the upcoming debate on the future of the EU budget. Cohesion policy is at the centre of EU action when it comes to delivering the European Green Deal in all corners of Europe, supporting recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, or more recently helping regions and cities in their solidarity efforts towards Ukrainian refugees.

Although present in the everyday life of many of our communities, such achievements are – to a large extent – unnoticed. When the European Commission prepares its proposal for the post-2027 EU budget, everybody will look for cohesion policy as the money pot. This is a risk that should not and cannot be overlooked.

We know that cohesion policy needs an "aggiornamento" (update), because we need to make it work better and work for everyone. But we cannot reduce it to an instrument for short-term emergencies like the pandemic or the war in Ukraine. It must remain a long-term investment policy to support the European model of society based on social and territorial cohesion and the reduction of inequalities.

The Committee of the Regions must therefore hold its ground in the defence of a policy which has still much to give for achieving the idea of leaving no one behind, that is, the (European) Union's own ideal.

The third priority I will focus on is the Committee of the Regions itself. Everyone today praises the local and regional dimension of the European Union and European democracy, but few seem available and committed to recognising this institution as the true Political Assembly it is, the Assembly of Local and Regional Authorities of the European Union.

We are the Assembly where the voice of thousands of local and regional authorities resonates, we are the Assembly which carries the voice of more than a million elected politicians, but we need to change the way we see ourselves and how we are viewed, stressing the political profile of this institution and its relevance in delivering transformation from the ground up.

This winter is promising to bring a lot of challenges for ordinary Europeans, with many countries struggling with their energy supplies. What does this mean for the CoR and the regions it represents? Is that a threat to European regional cohesion?

Regions and cities across Europe continue to act in solidarity and contribute their part in reducing high-energy consumption, changing to renewable sources and making sure no one is left behind. This is something we already did and will continue to do.

Our solidarity with Ukraine and opposition to Russian blackmail needs to be accompanied by investments and concrete measures to boost renewable energies and energy efficiency and support the most vulnerable.

Let's be clear: the European Commission’s plan to accelerate the energy transition and reduce the EU’s dependence on imports of energy (REPowerEU) is absolutely the right one. But such ambition needs to be matched with the right level of financial resources. And I do not think that proposing to transfer Cohesion policy funds – which already focus on the EU energy transition to a very large extent – towards the Recovery and Resilience Facility to support the REPowerEU objectives is a good idea.

The European project is at stake when solidarity is at stake. Regions and cities want their concerns to be heard and need to be supported to achieve the goals of the energy transition. Alone, we will not succeed.

The EU Green Deal tops the agenda and many claim that the current crisis is an opportunity to strengthen renewable energy production. Yet, many Member States have started reopening coal plants. What is the future of Europe’s green transition? Does it seem like reaching climate neutrality is slipping away, instead of shining on the horizon?

There would not be a bigger mistake than this. The climate crisis is here. We are witnessing this summer immense tragedies all across our continent, with territories facing wildfires, droughts and heatwaves.

This not only shows the need for us to act and act now but also reminds us of the important role local and regional authorities play when it comes to prevention and restoration, to the protection of human lives and the environment.

The climate agenda, with the EU Green Deal, must remain at the top of our priorities. We can win this fight if we work together, at all levels.

Naming nuclear power and natural gas ‘sustainable’ energies has been criticised by many. Natural gas is, after all, a fossil fuel. Additionally, the EU’s overreliance on energy imports from Russia is somewhat to blame for our current predicament. What can regions do to continue their fight against climate change in the face of these challenges?

The consequences of the war in Ukraine are currently being felt throughout the European Union. Families and businesses are bearing the brunt of Russia's aggression, not least with rising energy prices.

Our position as an institution on this topic is clear. We want a phase-out from all fossil fuels, but we also think this should be accompanied by support to regions and cities to deliver the objectives of the Green Deal. The war and the climate crisis force us to rethink our future now.

But wavering on our efforts and commitments will not help us win either the battle for democracy in Europe, against Russian aggression, not the climate battle. Local and regional authorities play a central role in the energy transition and we call for the new European REPowerEU strategy to support local planning for energy security and investments in renewable energy sources.

Regions and regional authorities are usually the first to face the consequences of crises and we have witnessed this with the wave of Ukrainian refugees. When looking at policies and reactions, many cannot help but think of the 2015 refugee crisis. How will the regional and European responses differ now and what are the lessons learned? 

The response is different both at the local and the European level. First of all this time is different because of the proportions: we are talking about more than five million refugees who fled to neighbouring countries, of which more than a million are already in Poland, more than 80,000 in Romania and almost 80,000 in Slovakia, just to name the first three EU countries.

This time is also different because there has been a greater show of solidarity and also of a united front at the European level with the decision to introduce Temporary Protection for those fleeing Ukraine, which gives them access to medical care, social welfare, housing and schools.

It is also different because we are talking mainly about women, children and elderly people and this requires an attentive response by the authorities at all levels.

However, what has not changed is the fact that cities and regions find themselves on the frontline of these efforts. This is why the Committee of the Regions called for a Local Facility to simplify rules and grant local and regional authorities direct and timely access to EU funds.

What also has not changed is our resolve to welcome and support all refugees, independently of where they come from, because this is the only way European solidarity can really exist.

Finally, the role of cohesion policy is central to your agenda, ensuring that there are no regions and people left behind. How would that happen during your mandate?

We have crucial years ahead to defend the role of cohesion policy as a pillar of the European Union. My goal is to mobilise local, regional and national authorities across Europe to show how beneficial cohesion policy is for the development of their communities, for long-term investment, for reducing inequalities both within and among Member States and also how crucial it is for a post-pandemic recovery.

Today, cohesion policy underpins all the major challenges Europe is facing. It is the real glue of the European project, we just don't say it enough. Through our political and legislative work at the European Committee of the Regions, through platforms such as the CohesionAlliance, and also through the great capacity of cities and regions across Europe, we will ensure that cohesion policy works for all people and all territories, leaving no one behind.

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