Cohesion policy: Uphill battle to halt growing regional and social inequalities

The green transition, digitalisation and high-quality healthcare are at the heart of the solution, according to Finnish macroeconomist Anni Marttinen, who is all too familiar with the regional policy of the 1990s that led to great inequalities between Finland's rural and urban regions. [fran_kie/Shutterstock]

The COVID-19 crisis has increased social inequalities across Europe, from access to education, to work, medical treatment, and housing. The widening gap goes hand in hand with regional disparities, and this dangerous downward spiral is something the EU’s cohesion policy aims to put a stop to. EURACTIV Germany reports.

The annual Call-to-Europe event organised by the Foundation for Progressive European Studies (FEPS) on Thursday (27 May) heard concerns from participants about the increase of these inequalities.

According to FEPS’ studies, social disparities mostly go hand in hand with regional inequalities.

The report states that regional inequalities like urbanisation, air pollution, overpriced living conditions, and social ones, such as lack of prospects, the rural exodus, poor education and healthcare, are caught in a vicious cycle.

The “Ring Ring Europe! Mind the Regional Gap” conference, gave speakers the chance to present ways to break from this cycle. However, the answers depended on the region.

Mistrust and scapegoats

In the EU’s eastern member states, for instance, mistrust in politics and the high rate of emigration play a major role in the vicious cycle of inequality.

Croatian citizens, for example, leave their home country because, despite EU aid and cohesion funds, they believe the political system to be unfair, Croatian MEP Biljana Borzan (S&D) explained.

The same problem applies to Poland, according to Bartosz Machalica, co-founder of the Polish think tank Centrum im. Ignacego Daszyńskiego. “Citizens want a welfare state, but they don’t believe that the country’s political elite is capable of providing quality social services,” he said.

Another stumbling block on the way to more social and regional fairness, according to the political scientist, is the politicians’ lack of accountability.

“The populist governments in our region specialise in making the EU the scapegoat for all problems. The local governments follow suit and blame the national government when something goes wrong,” he said.

The best solution is to create more harmony between European, national and local policy-makers, said Machalica, adding that this would be the only way to achieve greater regional cohesion – and thus greater social justice.

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A widening social gap

Western Europe, too, has felt the effects of the crisis, particularly in terms of social justice.

“The social gap is growing,” warned Austrian MEP and co-chairman of the Global Progressive Forum, Andreas Schieder (S&D).

The European Union should thus invest in infrastructure and transport, but also in education, internet and sustainable tourism, he added. It is important to show that the measures to recover from the crisis are not only taken for the benefit of the economy but above all for the benefit of European citizens.

The sentiment is shared by the mayor of the Roeser municipality in Luxembourg, Tom Jungen, who is calling for a more ambitious EU, more investment in public services and a European framework “that guarantees decent and sustainable housing conditions for all citizens”.

According to Jungen, relying more on regional and urban authorities is particularly important in the European social and cohesion policy since local and regional governments play a fundamental role in overcoming the crisis and fighting inequalities.

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Balance between Europe’s ‘forgotten and overrun’ areas

The green transition, digitalisation and high-quality healthcare are at the heart of the solution, according to Finnish macroeconomist Anni Marttinen, who is all too familiar with the regional policy of the 1990s that led to great inequalities between Finland’s rural and urban regions.

The EU recovery plan is now crucial to reverse this trend, which the COVID-19 crisis exacerbated further. However, according to Marttinen, the EU can provide impetus and help instil the need for green and fair change in people’s minds.

The EU also plays an important role in protecting economically weakened regions from the effects of globalisation, said Rocío Martínez-Sampere, director of the Felipe González Foundation in Spain.

The EU’s rapid response to the crisis prevented the scale of inequalities that resulted from the 2008 global economic crisis, but Europe must now act even more ambitiously to “compensate the losers of globalisation”.

At the “Europe Replies!” conference, which gathered regional representatives from the East, West, North and South, EU Cohesion Commissioner Elisa Ferreira said that “the crisis has turned out to be a great accelerator in many respects, but we must prevent it from becoming the originator of great divides.”

The aim of cohesion policy is to identify social and regional inequalities across Europe and find a “balance between the forgotten and the overcrowded places”, Ferreira said, adding that cohesion is also a prerequisite for successful change and more justice in Europe.

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