New COR President: Baltics is bellwether for others aspiring to EU membership
Karl-heinz Lambertz, a Belgian politician holding a Master's Degree in Law, with an additional specialization in German Law and a member of the Committee of the Regions (COR) of the European Union since 1999, where he became the first vice-president of the institution in 2015, has taken over the Presidency of the Committee from Markku Markkula. After the first sitting he chaired in the new capacity in the European Parliament, Lambertz was kind to answer a couple questions from The Baltic Times.
Are you going to continue the policies of your predecessor, Markku Markkula, or are you intending to bring some changes?
Fundamentally, the Committee of Regions has set its programme for five years. It started in 2015, and now, we are in the midst of the implementation, so I will continue it and the policies along with Mr Markkula, who, from now on, will be Vice-president of the Committee. The programme has been already adapted to the challenges that the European Union faces. In fact, the challenges are ongoing and new ones emerge – no one can tell what the political discussions will be in Europe in a half year from now. However, we are well aware of two things: first, we need to prepare for the next European Parliament election whilst making the functioning of the European Union better. Better were we well prepared for it, having delivered on the promises for our citizens.
What do you believe are the biggest challenges for the European Union, the Committee of Regions and your presidency, too?
We have some permanent challenges arising from our responsibility of being a strong voice of the European Union for local authorities across the bloc. This is a continuous process and our performance is judged by them on a daily basis.
Secondly, we have big obligations stemming from our commitments to green policies. I find them being of utmost importance, thence my satisfaction with the Committee’s new policies in making local transportation cleaner (The EC and Cor-approved in early July Clean Bus Deployment initiative is based on the following three pillars: a public declaration endorsing a common ambition of cities and manufacturers to accelerate roll-out of clean buses; creating a deployment platform where public authorities, public transport operators, manufacturers and financial organisations can come together with the aim to better exchange information; creating an expert group bringing together actors from the demand and supply side).
If we want to be successful with a low-carbon economy, we have to change our minds and prioritise clean energy endeavors locally.
Thirdly, there’s the complexity of immigration issues at which cusp is the ability of local authorities to carry out integration of the new settlers. This is an issue of immense importance. Last but not least is the acuteness of social problems in many parts of the bloc – the disparity of the region’s development, social exclusion, etc.
Can you weigh in on the EU’S Cohesion Policy? Does it work well? What do you believe needs to be fixed or adjusted in it?
I am deeply convinced from my personal experiences that the Cohesion Policy is working well, yet nothing in the world is change-proof – there’s always something that can or should be done better. And the Cohesion Policy – I mean the economic cohesion, the territorial and regional cohesion and many other dimensions of it – is not an exception from the rule. We do need to have a better integration of all the EU policies – we need to ensure synergy among them, but synergy does not mean that one policy can be replaced with the other and vice versa. We have to make sure that EU cohesion policies are implemented by efficient, locally trusted authorities.
Do you have an idea how to improve the use of EU funds- and the Cohesion Policy money – enhancing the transparency and accountability? The reality is the money is not occasionally misused or embezzled.
I think we have proper mechanisms to see what is being done or what has been done, and how, I mean with European money. In fact, the problem I reckon partly lies in the complexity of some of the audits. I sometimes think the administrative burden for sides is just too big – we must simplify some of the overseeing procedures, streamlining them, so that they are understood by all the parties involved.
How will your agenda as the President of the Committee of Regions tap into the agenda of Estonia as the presidency of the EU’S European Council?
I am definitely looking forward to having synergy with the commitment that Estonia has assumed for a half year. In fact, we have so far very good and intense relations with Estonia – we’ve planned a set of high-profile meetings of our Committee in September and we are definitely looking forward to them.
Let me end this short interview with this question: where do you believe the Baltics are the champions of the EU regions and where could they do better?
I rather not speak of the details, however, I’d like to accentuate a couple of things. First, the three small Baltic nations’ EU accession has played out to be a big success story for them. Especially considering the geopolitical and geographical location they are in. Secondly, the Baltics set out an example for the other states aspiring to become an EU member some day.
Karl-heinz Lambertz is the new president of the Committee of Regions in the European Parliament