A recently published report sheds light on whether the Commission and the Member States replied quickly and appropriately to the urgent needs that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic posed unprecedented challenges to the social systems in Europe. The Commission’s response was channelled through the Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative (CRII) and the Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative Plus (CRII+), which were adopted in March and April 2020. These initiatives allowed Member States to utilise unspent resources from the 2014-2020 European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) and the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD), offering a crucial lifeline during these challenging times.

CRII and CRII+ implemented a set of changes in the rules establishing the use of ESF and FEAD operational programmes and were not accompanied by any additional budget. The list of flexibilities within ESF included: (i) the reallocation of funds within or between operational programmes, (ii) the reallocation of money between different funds (e.g. from ERDF to ESF), (iii) a 100% co-financing rate for the 2020-2021 accounting period, (iv) retroactive eligibility (enabling Member States to incur expenses and reimburse them at a later stage through the ESF), (v) reallocations of funds between different categories of regions, (vi) the flexibility to programme actions under the thematic objective where the needs were the most acute, (vii) postponement of the submission of the Annual Implementation Report for 2019, (viii) not issuing recovery orders for 2020.

Flexibilities within the implementation of FEAD included: (i) a simplified procedure for amendments to operational programmes to streamline the support offered by the fund for the needs on the ground, (ii) the reallocation of funds within the FEAD operational programmes, (iii) the postponement of the deadline to submit annual implementation reports, (iv) a 100% co-financing rate for the 2020-2021 accounting year, (vi) the use of electronic vouchers and cards, (vii) the use of FEAD to purchase personal protective equipment and materials for partner organisations, (viii) the non-reduction of eligible costs due to delays in the delivery of food and/or basic material aid.

In terms of operations, ESF and FEAD continued with their objectives (access  to employment, social and health services, education, food and material assistance), but with a stronger emphasis on maintaining the continuity of services and enabling access to them in the new reality shaped by the pandemic. The new and adjusted operations resulting from CRII and CRII+ constitute the main change in the ESF and FEAD intervention logics.

Report Findings

The CRII and CRII+ initiatives reached their objectives and proved to be instrumental in the fight against the pandemic. They enabled Member States to swiftly develop and implement national responses and integrating ESF and FEAD funds into their recovery strategies. Some of the key findings from the report include:

  • ESF Support for Vulnerable Groups: ESF funds extended critical support to Europe’s most vulnerable groups, including women, people with disabilities, and individuals from migrant backgrounds. These funds were crucial in addressing the immediate needs of these groups during the pandemic. A total of 155 ESF operational programmes in 24 countries were subject to amendments, i.e. 82% of all of ESF’s operational programmes. Amendments to operational programmes were relatively common in the pre-pandemic period, but the volume of amendments increased following the introduction of the CRII and CRII+. The possibility to reallocate resources between funds was used more often. Member States also took advantage of the option to reallocate funding within the ESF to target specific needs arising from the pandemic.
  • FEAD Assistance Continuation: Flexibilities were used slightly less often for FEAD programming and reprogramming (15 members in total used the flexibilities). This is explained by the relative flexibility already possessed by the operational programmes of FEAD regarding the use of funding and that the overall broad scope of FEAD (in terms of programming operations and supporting a wide range of target groups) meant that reallocations of funds or other changes were less needed compared to ESF.
  • Efficiency and Integration: One of the standout achievements of CRII and CRII+ was their ability to allow Member States to redirect and reallocate resources. This approach not only enabled the maintenance and improvement of contracting and expenditure processes but also simplified and expedited the programming process. Additionally, the report highlighted that ESF and FEAD operations under CRII and CRII+ integrated well with other EU instruments supporting the crisis response, creating comprehensive packages of crisis measures at the national level.
  • Innovative Solutions and Flexibility: The new flexibilities provided by CRII and CRII+ empowered Member States to experiment with innovative solutions, address new target groups, and adapt existing operations. The report noted that these initiatives were most effective in situations where responsible authorities made additional efforts to assist beneficiaries in fulfilling their obligations. The most important changes in the use of ESF under CRII and CRII+ included: the broadening of target groups to the general population rather than targeting specific groups, the prioritisation of health and healthcare focused actions, and an increased focus on passive support measures ( e.g. measures not aimed at activation, mostly short-term work schemes). The main changes in terms of FEAD operations were as regards to how end recipients were reached (e.g. the introduction of e-vouchers for the first time or the use of other digital methods to distribute food and other essential items) and in the operational processes of the implementing organisations

Further information can be found on the Commission’s website.

To learn more about current calls for proposals or Eurodiaconia’s funding events, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with our Projects and EU Funding Officer Giorgia Signoretto at giorgia.signoretto@eurodiaconia.org.