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EU: Union Unveils Drive To Bolster Border Regions Against Enlargement

Brussels, 25 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The European Commission today unveiled an action plan to prepare the border regions of the European Union for enlargement.

The EU's regional policy commissioner, Michel Barnier, said the EU had allocated 16 billion euros for border regions in 2000-2006 -- four times more than it spent on border regions preparing for the accession of Spain and Portugal in 1986. Most of the 16 billion euros earmarked for border regions will go to Germany (11 billion); Austria will receive 1 billion.

The Commission says the money will be used for social and economic restructuring in border regions. Funding will be available for a wide range of projects -- from upgrading infrastructure and energy networks to retraining workers or creating business consultation bureaus.

Not all of the EU's border regions will qualify for support. According to Barnier, regions will be "means tested," meaning the distribution of aid will in part depend on the financial state of the region involved. Thus, southern Finland, which is situated close to Estonia and is one of the richest areas of the EU -- with average income levels at 141 percent of the community average -- will receive relatively little assistance. Northern Greece, which borders on Bulgaria and whose average income levels are only 50 percent of the EU average, can expect substantial funds.

The EU's enlargement commissioner, Guenter Verheugen, said one of the main purposes of the expenditure was to convince border regions like Bavaria to support enlargement. He said that especially in richer border regions, people were ill-prepared for the "opportunities and challenges" of enlargement.

"One has to take special care [to explain] what enlargement entails. I agree that it should be a measure that serves to reduce inhibitions, to make the psychology of enlargement more understandable and to widen political support for those processes."

The Commission says in its action plan that the 16 billion-euro ceiling will not be exceeded. According to Verheugen, net contributors to the EU's budget, like Germany and Austria, have refused to increase their payments to the plan, although most of the aid would go to their own border regions. Any additional programs would, however, have to embrace all the EU's border regions. This would place extra costs on all net contributors regardless of whether their own border regions would benefit from such payouts.

While remaining within the budgetary constraints for the period between 2000-2006 -- as agreed by EU member states at their Berlin summit in 1999 -- the Commission has reallocated 195 million euros for specific projects. The money is intended to promote infrastructure and transport projects, support small and medium-size companies, and develop youth exchange programs with candidate countries.

It will also be used to allow the European Investment Bank to make an additional credit line for candidate countries available for investment in environmental protection and infrastructure programs. Of the 195 million euros, 50 million will be given directly to candidate countries' border regions.

According to commissioners Barnier and Verheugen, existing border region funds -- which are but a small part of the more than 30 billion euros the EU allocates annually to structural funds from its budget for 2000-2006 -- could be used more efficiently by member states. They also indicated the EU would be prepared to loosen its regulations on aid that individual member states can grant to their own border regions. Verheugen said many states had yet to reach the maximum state aid levels allowed by the EU, before they could take advantage of any prospective relaxation of rules.

Commissioner Barnier called today's action plan "the first focused approach" to the issue. He said that within the next two to three years the Commission would start determining priorities in the EU's program for regional cohesion policy after 2006 -- when the current seven-year budgetary period ends and the first new members should already have joined.