European Territorial Co-operation and the Role of Third Country Participation

EØS- og EU-minister Elisabeth Vik Aspakers innlegg på 'European Week of Regions and Cities' i Brussel 11. oktober 2016.

It is a pleasure to be here and to have the opportunity to talk to you about the role of Interreg in Norwegian regional policy. My most important message today is that European co-operation and Interreg is and still shall be an important tool for Norwegian regional development.

Norwegian foreign affairs start in Europe. Also Norwegian local and regional policy is to a large extent European. Up to 70 per cent of all political decisions in counties and municipalities have emerged from decisions made in the EU.

Therefore, this Government has put European co-operation high on the political agenda. We co-operate with the EU and its member states because we share a common set of values, and because we need joint solutions to shared challenges.

In the Government's work plan [for 2016] for our co-operation with the EU, we have outlined five priority areas. There is a large degree of convergence between the Norwegian priorities and the ten priorities that of the European Commission.

The Government's overarching regional policy goal, is to promote sustainable and balanced regional development in Norway. We aim at facilitating increased economic growth and competitiveness in all regions. To achieve this, we need to create favourable conditions for businesses and to increase innovation.

Instead of selective measures, such as investment aid to individual businesses or participation in various programmes, my Government give priority to horisontal measures. We believe in growth-enhancing tax cuts and investments in general infrastructure. Norway has a scheme where companies in weak regions pay less employer's tax.

Furthermore, innovative initiatives for entrepreneurship, research and innovation are prioritised. A consequence is a reduction in funding of selective measures for regional development, such as general community development initiatives, physical business infrastructure and Interreg. This is a result of political choices. And exactly that is our job.

Interreg is an integrated part of Norwegian regional policy. It is a tool to promote a sustainable and balanced regional development in Norway and at the same time contribute to territorial cohesion in Europe.

We participate in eleven Interreg programmes and Kolarctic. There is a significant local and regional interest for participating. From 2007 to 2013, Norwegian partners were involved in over 600 Interreg projects. In this period (2014-2020), my assumption is that we will be close to 100 projects with Norwegian partners by the end of this year.

Interreg adds a European dimension to regional development. It facilitates a coordinated, strategic and common response to European challenges that could not have been solved by one region or one country alone. Like investments in transport corridors, reducing sea pollution or technology transfer to achieve access to scientific knowledge.

In this context, the Norwegian county councils play an important role. They mobilise and advice private sector, NGOs and local municipalities to participate in European co-operation programmes. And they participate in important European organisations, like the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions of Europe (CPMR), Assembly of European Regions (AER) and Euromontana.

Allow me to mention two Interreg projects supporting innovation and competitiveness. Companies in the local food sector are often micro SMEs that have low involvement in clustering, co-operation and innovation. And they have a great potential in creating jobs in rural areas. Locfood [Interreg IVC] has worked on how to improve competitiveness and contribute to sustainability through encouraging local food production and consumption. Knowledge developed in the project has been important input in regional strategies on local food production and the tourism industry in Nordland county in Norway.

In Interreg Nord, the project Visit Arctic Europe aims at developing new and innovative cross boarder tourism concepts. Tourism is one of the most important businesses in the Northern part of Scandinavia. Traditionally, the regions have been competing separately and against each other, but through joint efforts, their goal is to strengthen their competitiveness in a global market.

As you can hear, we do think there are many aspects of Interreg that are good. We are pleased with the Norwegian model for participation following the same regulations and principles as for EU Member states. We appreciate that the European Commission and the Member States accepted the Lead Partner principle also for EEA Efta countries like Norway.

This being said, there is room for improvement. As an input to future European territorial co-operation, I would like to highlight three aspects:

First, we need more concrete and tangible results from the programmes.

Second, the regulations are too complex and need to be simplified.

Third, we need more involvement of private companies, especially SMEs, in projects. The acceptance of certain kind of state aid (GBER) in Interreg is highly appreciated and important for the private sector. There still is a need for promoting and mobilising the private sector to increase their participation.

We know that these are views we share with the European Commission and many Member States, and we appreciate the efforts done, but we have not yet crossed the finish line.

I would also like to mention a few other issues that are important for the Norwegian government.

There must be consistency between regional plans and projects initiated. Experience shows that projects well connected to local and regional plans often achieve the best results.

Evaluations must be used actively in the implementation of programmes and projects. This is the only way to secure learning and best practises.

The project outcomes and the use of the results must be made known and communicated to a greater extent than today. In my opinion, there is a need for improvement both at regional and the national level, and also at the level of programmes and projects.

And finally, coordination between different national programmes, Interreg programmes and other programmes, must be improved.

Allow me elaborate on this last point with an example. Arctic development concerns not only the Arctic states and the people of the North. It is also of great importance to all European states and citizens. I therefore appreciate the special attention given to Arctic issues through the new integrated EU policy for the Arctic.

In an Arctic regional context, I especially welcome the initiative and commitment from the EU, to strengthen collaboration, synergies and complementarity between the EU regional co-operation programs and other funding sources in the High North.

I strongly support the need for national, regional and local authorities to work more closely together in the European Arctic, enhancing collaboration and coordination between different EU programmes, aiming to identify key investments and research priorities for EU funds in the Arctic region.

It is important to underline however, that collaboration, including the proposed Stakeholder Forum and the activity assigned to the Northern Periphery and Arctic Program, needs to include all types of regional, national and international programmes in the High North. In addition to the EU-programs, networks and programmes as the Barents Euro Arctic, Northern Dimension and Nordic, national and regional programmes in Norway and Russia are of high value and importance.

As responsible Minister for the EEA and Norway Grants, I have to mention that these instruments play a unique role in Norway's co-operation with many EU countries. The grants are designed to reduce economic and social disparities in Europe. The Government will ensure that the EEA and Norway Grants lay the foundation for closer co-operation with the recipient countries and with EU institutions. In my opinion there lies a potential in linking stakeholders in Interreg to new types of co-operation with the EEA and Norway Grants and the recipient countries.

The Norwegian contribution to the EEA and Norway Grants is more than two times the budget for domestic regional policy measures. This illustrates the significance of the Grants.

Regional and local development in Norway does not stop at the Norwegian border. European territorial co-operation adds value to Norwegian regional development. We want this co-operation to continue also in the future.

We need a close co-operation with our neighbouring regions and countries in Europe in order to secure the social and economic development for the future generations. To overcome future challenges, we need to work together. The regions must be our key partners.

Thank you for your attention.