Europe’s poor regions fear cuts in budget battle

OSTRAVA, Czech Republic — With debate raging over the next EU budget, the Continent’s poorer regions are bracing for the possibility of big cuts in funding from Brussels.

Eastern European member countries are in the crosshairs because they have sucked up billions of euros in investment as part of cohesion policies meant to help weaker economies. Cohesion programs worth €351.8 billion accounted for nearly a third of the EU’s budget for 2014-2020.

The future of such funding is up for discussion as part of the big debate around the EU’s next long-term budget, the Multiannual Financial Framework, which will run from 2021 to 2027.

The combination of Britain’s departure from the EU, which will leave a black hole of €12 billion to €13 billion per year, and the approach of a new budget cycle means the EU is confronting fundamental questions about how it spends its cash. But part of the discussion also focuses on whether cohesion funding should be linked to countries upholding the rule of law — which would be a way for Western European capitals to withhold cash from governments they see as democratic backsliders, such as Poland and Hungary.

Central and Eastern European governments have been lobbying hard for the EU to safeguard cohesion spending.

The European Commission will present its proposal for the new budget in May, but the dilemma for member countries is already clear: Are they ready to pay more to keep the budget at its current level or increase it — or should they decide it’s time to cut EU spending?

The near constant flow of EU funds has become a given for locals in places like the eastern Czech city of Ostrava, a former industrial center whose mayor, Tomáš Macura, said at his office on the banks of the River Ostravice: “We are definitely trying to be prepared for the period when the EU and other funds will be lower, or maybe zero.”

“We try to collect money from other players,” said Macura, who represents the ANO party of Prime Minister Andrej Babiš. He said his office has reached out to the private sector and other cities to cooperate on projects, adding that the city has also used favorable economic conditions to reduce its debts and increase its financial reserves.

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