The European Commission is seeking ways to deal with the refugee crisis with regional development funds and it generally expects Croatia over the next five years to intensify work on preparing quality projects that could be financed with EU money, European Commissioner for Regional Development Corina Cretu told Hina in an interview.

The aim of the European Union's cohesion policy is to reduce economic and social differences between European regions, and the commissioner believes that money from EU development funds can be used to alleviate the current refugee and migrant crisis.

As I announced at the end of September, we are looking at how EU funds could contribute to the response to the challenge relating to migrants as part of cross-border cooperation programmes and macroregional strategies, Cretu said, adding that it is up to each EU member to request reprogramming, if necessary, to better respond to the refugee crisis.

Th European Commission is consistently and continuously working on a coordinated European response to the refugee and migrant problem and is laying down specific operational measures. We have adopted a firm agenda that emphasises a quick response to the situation in the Mediterranean and in the long run it has taken steps to manage all aspects of the migrant crisis, she noted.

Cretu, a former adviser to Romanian President Ion Iliescu and member of the European Parliament, became Commissioner for Regional Development last November, replacing Johannes Hahn of Austria. She visited Croatia in January.

On that occasion I congratulated the Croatian authorities on the great efforts made in implementing the transition from pre-accession funds to the preparation of regional policy programmes, she said.

Croatia used the IPA pre-accession programme for the EU budget period from 2007 to 2013, and since joining the EU in July 2013 it has been given access to cohesion policy funds like the other member states.

There are still challenges relating to the tangible delivery of programmes and projects, but I am confident that open dialogue between the Commission and the national authorities, the commitment of project participants and our assistance within the action plan for better implementation can help Croatia make the most of EU funds, the commissioner said.

Having been a member of the EU for more than two years now, Croatia has achieved many positive results. EU funds have helped create at least 500 jobs, provided support to over 80 small enterprises and invested money in many successful projects such as the Biocentre, the biotechnological incubator, or the upgrade of Zagreb's main railway station, Cretu said.

A significant portion of the structural funds of the cohesion policy -- the European Regional Development Fund and the European Social Fund -- for the 2007-2013 period is still unused. Since Croatia joined the European Union in mid-2013, unlike other countries it can work on absorbing the allocated funds by the end of 2016.

The operational programme Competitiveness and Cohesion for the 2014-2020 period was adopted in December, and Croatia has 6.8 billion euros at its disposal from this programme. The largest project, Peljesac Bridge, could be financed from this amount. The cost of construction of the bridge is estimated at 2 billion euros and the outgoing Croatian government believes that the European Commission could participate in it with about 85 per cent of the funds.

When asked if she could confirm that the Peljesac Bridge project would be financially supported by the EU, Cretu said that the Commission had received an unofficial copy of the feasibility study on September 29 and was analysing it. At this level no decision has been made yet on potential co-financing of the project because the Croatian authorities should first notify the project.

The Croatian government plans to do this early next year, but in the meantime Croatian parliamentary elections will be held on November 8. Cretu is confident that the elections would not slow or change the programmes and projects agreed.

The operational programmes for both financial periods have been set and their implementation is under way. We do not expect a significant impact of the election results on the pace of their implementation, Cretu said.

When asked if the governments in Croatia, as well as those in her native Romania, had created unrealistic expectations from the EU by promising to their voters large amounts of EU money, while at the same time lacking the capacity for their absorption, Cretu said that her office was closely cooperating with the authorities in Croatia and Romania regarding the action plan. There is no doubt that with effort and commitment Romania, Croatia and other countries included in the action plan will build experience in implementing the programmes from the 2007-2013 period and will be able to absorb most of the EU funding in the new period, she added.

In the new period, a large portion of the money would end up in Dubrovnik-Neretva County for the construction of the Peljesac bridge and the upgrade of Dubrovnik's airport, which might further increase the difference between rich and poor counties in Croatia. The EU's cohesion policy is aimed at reducing inequalities between European regions, and the Commission has divided Croatia into the Continental region and the Adriatic region. Brussels does not deal with inequalities within them.

Both Continental and Adriatic Croatia are less developed regions and our investments have a clear purpose to help them in capitalising on their own resources and increasing their competitiveness, the commissioner said.

In order for the EU funds to have a maximum effect in the field it is necessary to further simplify our procedures. I know that this is a great challenge, but I don't want to hear again about a small company or a mayor giving up on our support because it all seemed too slow or too bureaucratic to them.  Simplification does not mean giving up on rules, but I want the member states to use the simplified measures included in the new regulation. They include simpler rules on costs, new ideas like joint action plans, and better use of on-line application tools, she said.

The High-Level Group on Simplification, formed in June and chaired by Commission Vice-President Siim Kallas, will explore specific ways to reduce the administrative burden on beneficiaries of EU funds. It will monitor the member states, identify good practice and share it among the member states. It held its first meeting last Tuesday and will put forward specific proposals by the end of the year.

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