The roles of companies in European funds

ANDREU MAS-COLELL Economista. Catedratic emèrit de la UPF i de la Barcelona GSE. President del BIST.

It is already clear that European funds will be allocated by public calls within the framework of programmes defined by the central administration. In fact, by a Government that wants to earn its legislature with the success of the reconstruction that the EU makes possible. It is in our interest, for economic and political reasons, that everything goes well. It would help if the central government had learnt the lesson - from the management of the pandemic - that building complicity with the autonomous communities would strengthen implementation. The first part of 2021 will be occupied by negotiations with Brussels. It is unlikely that most of the calls will arrive before the summer. The big expenditure will be in 2022.

About ten days ago, a draft royal decree was released, which is very technical and aims to simplify the administrative processes of decision and execution. It also wants to prevent our very heavy administrative procedures from preventing us from fully executing the expenditure of available resources, as it has repeatedly happened in the past. The draft has also revealed, although not specifically, that there will be a category of large projects which will receive special treatment and which we must assume will begin with a call for those who express interest, a type of announcement. The new term, do note, is PERTE, which stands for strategic projects for economic recovery and transformation.

In the deployment of these projects, what will be the role of companies? We distinguish between conception and execution. In terms of project conception, the role of the administration will be very large. On the one hand, it will define large programmes and allocate resources to them. On the other hand, there will be a continuum: from top-down projects fully designed by the administration - with the usual advisory mechanisms, which include consulting firms - to bottom-up projects generated from fairly open calls. Surely, PERTEs will be of the second type, but ideally they should also be for SMEs. As for the execution, it is another story: it is done by companies and through the usual way of public procurement. It is worth bearing this in mind, because companies are usually naturally interested in both aspects: obtaining contracts and designing projects with a high level of creativity.

I have to say that I am curious to see, when everything is implemented, what the presence and participation of Catalan companies will be. In both aspects: the executing, and the creative. It will partly depend on the relative role that one can give to large companies versus small and medium sized ones. I have no doubts, however, that the big ones will have a lot of weight. Surely, and this is logical, the PERTE will be for large companies. And with this I am concerned, because I fear that we are short of large companies.

The reasons are of all kinds and this is not the place to discuss them. I warn you that I am not a catastrophist. I believe that a possible future for Catalonia is that of a prosperity based on medium-sized companies with a high content of knowledge, companies that export, are creative and, above all, have a lot of qualified personnel and good salaries at all levels. The innovative ecosystem that we are developing could be part of the basis of an economy such as this one. Nevertheless, who could deny that we would benefit from having a more consistent body of large companies with decision-making centres in Catalonia? There are many big-sized projects that only a large company can lead, and therefore the lack of these limits our country's leadership capacity. And it can prevent the country from shining on a national and international level. 

Now, if we broaden the focus of what entities with the capacity to lead ambitious projects are, we can see that we have many public institutions, foundations, and even associations that provide services and act in the markets, which are large and could have this capacity. From the perspective that I now propose, they have an advantage in relation to regular companies: we have the decision-making centre here, and it is immovable. With few exceptions, these institutions are not companies. But nothing should prevent them from being generators, possibly in association with private capital. It is clear that a positive attitude is needed from the public authorities, and not just a permissive one - a promotional one. I would recommend them to have this attitude, since maintaining and promoting decision-making centres in Catalonia provides an important positive externality to business initiative in general, and consequently to the country's economy. And it is therefore a legitimate sphere of action for the public sector.