The report, written by Dr Fabrizio Barca, director-general of the Italian finance ministry, argues that while current cohesion policy structures "provide the appropriate basis," a number of reforms are required for the Union's long-term goals to succeed in the post-2013 era. The report was developed after consultation with academic experts and member-state officials throughout 2008.
Barca's main criticism of the current policy is its lack of quantifiable targets. In particular, little is known of the policy's impact on people's well-being in European regions.
The risk, he told journalists in Brussels, is that making "the wrong changes or no changes at all" might damage the policy's long-term viability.
Criticism is also directed towards the EU mantra of economic "convergence", which aims to equalise the GDP of Europe's poorest regions. Barca argues that placing too much emphasis on convergence could lead to "a race to the bottom," where everywhere becomes worse-off in the name of harmonising economic output.
Ten pillars for change
The goal, said Barca, should be a "place-based policy", with greater local involvement in policy and funding decisions. Indeed, mobilising local knowledge could be key to making the policies work, ensuring that they are not "hijacked" by interest groups, the report argues. This should free up new thinkers and innovators to take the initiative in increasing economic and social progress in the regions.
If existing EU money is to be spent more effectively, the focus should be on the quality of outcomes, not merely the quantity of the budget, which currently absorbs a whopping one third of combined EU spending, Barca said.
The report recommends ten core guidelines or "pillars" for achieving these goals. Prominent among these is entrusting the European Commission with the power not only to assess targets, but to redirect priorities where necessary to ensure value for money. This recommendation may prove unpopular with national authorities, which currently have the final say on these matters.
Barca also envisages a stronger role for the European Parliament in a so-called 'Council for Cohesion Policy', which would serve as a "checks and balances" system in monitoring the spending of regional funds.
A high-profile political launch
Barca would like to see prominent EU leaders coming together to present a "high-level compromise on the future of cohesion policy," similar to the one achieved by EU bigwigs Gonzalez, Kohl, Mitterand and Thatcher in 1988.
This level of profile would be an important first step in the right direction, he argues. By spring 2012, Barca says a draft framework should be in place for the post-2013 era.