An emerging paradox may be clouding the future of EU cohesion policy. The four funds (European Regional Development Fund; European Social Fund Plus; Cohesion Fund; and Just Transition Fund) under its remit have been given an increasingly important role in delivering the main political priorities of the EU, whether structural ones such as the Green New Deal and the Pillar of Social Rights or more short-term such as the first response to the COVID-19 crisis. However, discussions about cohesion policy rationale and logic, let alone its mechanisms have remained confined to a relatively tiny community of decision-makers, stakeholders and academics. This discrepancy is further deepening.
Debate among Policy Makers
Historically, EU policy makers and governments have taken interest in cohesion policy only in the context of the negotiations on the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), the long-term budget of the EU. Apart from that, the debate at both EU and domestic level has centered essentially on financial absorption and irregularities and neglected pretty every other aspect of cohesion policy. In 2009 the Barca Report cautioned that this is a major cause for “lack of progress [..] in focusing the objectives of the policy and in providing [it] with more advanced conceptual foundations.”
Twelve years on, cohesion policy looks even more marginal in the EU political debate despite accounting for just under a third of the overall budget and having been massively deployed to tackle the crisis and stir the recovery. This is illustrated by the waning prominence of the cohesion portfolio within the Commission vis-à-vis other political areas. It is striking that this occurs at a time when regional disparities have been back on an alarming trajectory for many years now. While the convergence process has been reversed since the crisis of 2008, territorial inequalities are now projected to further accelerate in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.
Regional disparities, the future of Cohesion Policy, and governance approaches
The nature of regional divides is also evolving, with many relatively well-off regions facing development traps (middle-income trap) or whose economic development could be affected by the green transition or climate change. Another reason why regional disparities should feature prominently on the EU agenda is their potential impact on support for democratic systems as well as the EU as shown by studies on the geography of discontent.
Under the current circumstances, Barca’s warning over the risks arising from the lack of a high strategic debate on cohesion appears to have much more sinister implications. In fact, it could even pose a life-threatening menace to cohesion policy fundamental values, if not to the policy altogether. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the establishment of a temporary EU instrument for recovery, the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF), designed to support investment and reforms in the EU.
The scope and priorities of the RRF overlap to a significant extent with cohesion policy despite fundamental differences in the delivery mode of the two: the RRF is in essence a spatially blind and top-down instrument.
Unlike cohesion policy, the RRF has triggered since its inception an extensive debate over its rationale and logic and, more recently, its future. As a result, momentum is building up behind the idea of making the instrument permanent . If that is the case, cohesion policy will find itself in an uncomfortable spot. It would be difficult to justify the co-existence of two separate investment programmes of this size with similar priorities, especially given the relatively modest size of the MFF.
The extension of the RRF into the post-27 MFF might therefore come at the expense of cohesion policy MFF and lead to dilute its main features. One possibility is that the EU will opt for a more centralized governance approach within Member States and a weakened territorial dimension. These scenarios can be avoided only if a high level and widespread debate about cohesion policy identity, and ultimately about its added value as opposed to other spending programmes such as the RRF, takes place in the following years. Cohesion policy needs to carve its way back into the EU mainstream politics.
Francesco Molica (Twitter: @fmolica) is Director for Regional Policy at the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions (CPMR).
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