Cohesion Policy must work on a people-based approach, stakeholders say

Clémence du Tertre, Interreg Volunteer, Michael O'Brien, member of the Northern and Western Regional Assembly of Ireland, Ilona Raugze, ESPO Director, Monica Barni, Vice-President and Regional Minister for Research of Tuscany Region and Beatriz Ríos, EURACTIV reporter during the forum. [Raluca Ciocian/EURACTIV]

Cohesion Policy is one the most important but still insufficiently known tools for EU integration, stakeholders highlighted during a EURACTIV and CPMR (Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions) forum in Brussels on Wednesday (10 October), where they called for a better communication to counter Euroscepticism.

Communicating Cohesion Policy’s tangible results still remains an obscure angle for European institutions, while anti-EU narratives are on the rise even in the countries that benefit the most from structural funds.

While the policy has big potential, its actual visibility still remains low, making it difficult for citizens to identify with the policy and their actual benefits from it.  Stakeholder proposed personalising the policy by telling human stories or highlighting remarkable examples to improve the result.

Redeveloping the Urban coastal area of Palma de Mallorca, boosting innovation and helping businesses cope with Brexit in Ireland or promoting a better and safer use of bikes in Italy are some of the projects presented during the forum.

Most of them might have not even been possible without EU funds.

“Cohesion Policy delivers very tangible results but there is a problem, people just don’t know it,” Dana Spinant, director for budget, communication and general affairs at DG REGIO explained during the debate.

“When (people) think about the European Union, they see booklets of complicated rules. In their minds, the EU is about obscure committees, long texts with complicated annexes, which have nothing to do with their lives”, Spinant insisted. Communication, Spinant underlined, “helps people to identify themselves with the EU.”

Citizens’ dialogues, the project ‘EU in my region’ or promoting good practices are some of the Commission attempts to showcase the benefits of Cohesion Policy, however, it does not always work.

The complexity of the functioning does not help either. While the policy is co-funded by the EU, money is redistributed by member states and the managing authorities are often regional or local. This leads to different political institutions involved both in managing and taking credit for the projects.

And while strategies to address those issues are needed, sometimes beneficiaries are the best ambassador of the policy.

Clémence du Tertre and Cristina Nazzari, two young professionals who took part in the Interreg Volunteer Youth initiative, shared their experience with the audience. They underlined the need to advertise the initiative in schools and universities and said that sometimes “there is no better publicity than just talking about what you have learned with those around you”.

Investing in a territorial approach of solidarity

Mass population movements towards Northern Europe, especially because of youth unemployment or for educational motives, prove further that the policy has not yet reached its ultimate goal of socio-economic cohesion and growth, participants said.

The same goes for the millions of euros of European funds invested in building schools, hospitals, WiFi, roads and transport facilities, which still remain obscure.

To create a European Union of solidarity, the focus should be shifted to the actual evidence of Cohesion’s benefits, hence the projects with an actual territorial and socioeconomic impact, Monica Barni from the Region of Tuscany stressed during the debate.

“Cohesion is a goal; Cohesion is not a program that you can switch a little bit. It is the main commitment to European treaties… At the end of the day it is the glue to tip Europe together politically,” Lambert van Nistelrooij, member of the European Parliament (EPP), stressed.

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