EU Open Days blog: ‘largest event in Europe devoted to regional and urban development’

A week ago I was in Brussels, attending the tenth EU Open Days event.  It proved to be a thoroughly interesting visit.

A “bright {day} in a bright city gathering together bright people in a bright event”- that is what the European Commission’s DG for Regional Policy tweeted about the EU’s Open Days. Whether you agree with the many statements of that sentence or not, it is a week-long event in Brussels designed to encourage open debate for key stakeholders on EU regional policy. With over 100 seminars taking place, some 6000 participants from 271 regions and 600 speakers, it’s no wonder that the President of the Council, Herman Van Rompuy described it as the “largest event in Europe devoted to regional and urban development”.

The title of the event was ‘Europe’s regions and cities: Making a difference’, echoing the message of the importance of regional policy in today’s adverse economic climate. It was an opportunity to debate the future of Cohesion policy for the years 2014-2020 (PDF, 4.9MB) with key stakeholders – many from local and regional authorities, but there was also a strong presence from national organisations, and civil society organisations like NCVO.

The week began with an opening session at the European Parliament. They had intended for this to take place at the chamber but the EU Parliament structural problems (not suggesting a metaphor!) meant that we all had to be fragmented into smaller rooms. Not the big launch they had wished for for sure, but the EU’s big players all took part- President of Commission (albeit via videolink!), President of the European Parliament, President of the Council and Regional Committee chair and ex-Commissioner for Regional Development Danuta Hubner.

The main message of their speeches was the importance of the Open Days in sending out a strong regional voice on the future Cohesion policy and budget (Multiannual Financial Framework – MFF) and the critical timing of the event. The EU institutions are yet to decide on the budget for the period 2014-2020 and a special EU summit has been arranged in November with the hope of reaching agreement.  Martin Schulz MEP, the Parliament President used his opening speech to make clear that the Parliament position is against cuts to the future budget, and like EFN, they support the 25% allocation of the funds for the European Social Fund.  MEP Hubner also reiterated the Parliament’s position to back a decent budget for investment for a smart, sustainable and inclusive economy.

The real debate of course took place in the individual workshops which were structured around the following themes

  1. Smart and green growth for all
  2. Territorial cooperation: an asset for Europe
  3. Delivering results

Community-led local development

There was also a special focus on ‘community-led local development (PDF, 83.2KB)‘ (CLLD) – a new feature in the 2014-2020 Cohesion policy.

Community-led-local development enables communities to use different funds to deliver projects that are responsive to the area’s needs and to improve strategic local development. We are excited by the opportunities this tool presents to civil society organisations – our evidence demonstrates that the impact of CLLD is high on those groups furthers away from the labour market by increasing employment and skills, social enterprise, and social inclusion which leads to less poverty and better regeneration of deprived areas.

I bumped into our colleague from our European Funding Network (EFN) member in the North West of England, Network for Europe, Andy Churchill who was speaking at a workshop on CLLD. Unfortunately that particular workshop clashed with another I had registered for – a reoccurring problem of the Open Days! However, you can read his presentation here.

The new tool and how it would work is explained in this factsheet (PDF, 83.2KB) by the European Commission.


The first event I attended was organised by ECAS, the European Citizen Action Service, where John Hacking, also from Network for Europe, was speaking about “Strengthening partnership: involvement of civil society in the EU Cohesion Policy 2014-2020”. It was great to spot also another colleague from our EFN – Phil Lakin representing the National Trust at the event. It felt like England was well represented!

The involvement of civil society in cohesion policy is referred to in the Commission’s proposed cohesion package. Article 5 makes partnership more of an obligation on member states, so that civil society is involved in the preparation, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the programme. There is therefore real structural involvement by civil society in the EU funds for 2014-2020. I’ve listed some key messages we picked up from the workshop and Network for Europe’s presentation which I hope you will find useful

  • Embed partnership as a working principle always
  • Partnership is crucial to deliver EU2020 strategy, social inclusion and key to achieve the poverty reduction target
  • Seize every opportunity to create partnerships
  • Be innovative. Develop new ideas and spread them through partnership
  • Be prepared to be challenged –  partnership is two way
  • Create and develop capacity (technical assistance)

Social Enterprises

Another workshop I attended was on social enterprises. Being a hot topic whenever the future of EU funding comes up, I was looking forward to learning how social entrepreneurship could be a way to implement the EU2020 strategy, with support from the ESF and ERDF.  I am instinctively nervous of using the term social investment in the context of the European Social Fund as it was set up to help people furthest away from the labour market get into employment and not designed to fund social businesses. In spite of this, I was happy to learn more about how this could be a part of the new programme from 2014 onwards.

It became evident talking to the participants that there are different interpretations of social business depending on where you live in the EU. We all seemed relieved when they first gave us the following ‘EU definition’ of social enterprises:

  • It needs to have a social impact as main mission
  • It reinvests its surpluses to achieve a wider social or community objective either in their members’ or a wider interest.
  • It works in an innovative, entrepreneurial and transparent way

There is a lot of moving and shaking in terms of the future role of social enterprises in the EU. Foras are being set up, reforms are underway for public procurement rules, State aid, and EU foundations and we are currently celebrating 20 years since the establishment of the Single Market which allows people and businesses to move and trade freely across borders within the EU.

The workshop also briefly discussed

  • how social enterprises can be financed – through structural funds and other innovative tools such as the Social Entrepreneurship Funds,
  • the need to raise awareness and visibility through creating a one-stop shop for information,
  • the need for a regulatory environment

Social enterprises are clearly going to play a part in the future structure of EU funding from 2014-2020 and have been mentioned in the plan for the future of the Structural Funds, specifically within the 20% of ESF earmarked for social inclusion.

NCVO has been heavily involved at the UK level in coordinating a roundtable on the Social Business Initiative. You can read more about NCVO’s work on social business here.

It seems that there is a push for the ESF to become more entrepreneurial, innovative and flexible. However it is important that we don’t lose sight of what the ESF is intended for – helping those who need support in acquiring skills, training and better job prospects.

Integrated Territorial Investment

Another possible instrument of the future programmes is Integrated Territorial Investment (ITI). As well as CLLD there will be the possibility to use the ITI as a tool where ESF and ERDF can be used together as a ‘bundle’ to ensure an integrated strategy for a specific territory (this is not possible under the current programme).

Member States will need to start planning for these new arrangements and we welcome any comments on delivery mechanisms that allow us to work on the more local level. There is a useful factsheet published by the Commission and discussions will continue on these tools during our regional events on the future of EU funding.

State aid

My last meeting was on State Aid and the new set of rules currently being drawn up. European commissioners were in agreement that regional and competition policies must complement each other under the umbrella of the EU2020 strategy. You can read Hahn’s speech and Almunia’s speech. Read more about our work on State aid.

So what did I think?

The Open Days certainly provided a platform to continue and ignite further discussion on certain Cohesion policy issues. The financial crisis was mentioned as often as you would expect, however the general feeling was positive. Everyone seemed eager to learn how the changes to the future of EU funds will present real opportunities for our sector in these difficult economic times.  We were reminded that there is still time to influence and shape the future programmes  – it is now up to us to ensure that civil society organisations are included in these future initiatives.

If you would like to get involved in shaping the future of European funding, please get in touch with us, or follow us on Twitter EUfundingNCVO .

Get all the presentations from the Open Days event on the EU Open Days website.


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Sara was the European Social Fund (ESF) officer, responsible for supporting the delivery of 'Civil Society Active for ESF'.

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