Funding from EU regional support makes citizens vote more in a more pro-European way, a new study has shown. However, the structural funds actually create more jobs in only a few regions. EURACTIV Germany reports.
About a third of the EU budget goes into its structural funds, which – as part of the bloc’s cohesion policy – have the objective of aligning living standards across various European regions.
This includes projects such as constructing research institutions, social inclusion and building roads. More than €53 billion was spent on thousands of these projects in the EU in the last year alone.
However, whereas the common agricultural policy is much criticised – but is at least well-known – EU regional support has an image problem. Only a few citizens, particularly in Western Europe, are aware of the projects in their region that are co-funded by the EU.
A recent study has now shown for the first time that the Cohesion policy certainly affects citizens’ attitudes towards the EU, including in France, where the economy is relatively strong.
Harald Oberhofer, a member of the Austrian Institute of Economic Research, and researcher Julia Bachtrögler investigated the extent to which people from regions that strongly benefit from EU support are more pro-Europe in their voting behaviour.
For this purpose, they analysed the result of the 2017 French presidential election, in which the pro-European Emmanuel Macron faced the nationalist Marine Le Pen. They found that in regions where jobs had been created by the EU structural funds, there were significantly more votes for Macron.
In order to come to this conclusion, the researchers compared other demographic and social factors which have proven to influence citizens’ attitudes towards Europe, such as age, level of education and social status.
Using data from the European Commission and regional businesses, the researchers then examined the extent to which EU funding had actually strengthened regional economies. In those regions where there had in fact been employment growth, voting clearly favoured the “European candidate” Macron.
However, the economic data also showed for the first time that the funds’ impact often comes to nothing. It has been proven that EU-funded measures created more jobs in only eight out 21 regions.
Cohesion policy largely unknown
Much like the German solidarity surcharge, EU regional support struggles to sustainably support employment. Oberhofer, the head of the study, believed it was the preconditions of each region – for example, infrastructure or the level of qualifications – that influenced the effectiveness of the support.
“We see that such measures often have hardly any economic effects. Therefore, there has to be much greater evaluation to understand how projects have to be developed in order to have the greatest possible effect in the region,” Oberhofer said.
The fact that the structural funds have less clear economic success in prosperous regions, in particular, is also due to the nature of the support.
Rather than being invested in clearly visible infrastructure projects, as is often the case in Eastern Europe, the funds mostly go into social or innovative programmes in countries such as France. In the public eye, an integration project receiving EU funds is less prominent than a motorway.
Even in major construction projects, the EU’s participation is rarely mentioned in the media. A typical example was the construction of a flood defence wall in Dresden last year. The European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) covered around three-quarters of the €40 million cost. However, only one newspaper report mentioned the EU funding.
Also advantageous for investing countries
It is interesting to note that, despite the rising nationalism, the EU’s approval ratings have been relatively stable in many member states over decades. The latest Eurobarometer survey in the spring showed that currently more than two-thirds of EU citizens and 75% of Germans still consider that their countries benefit from European Union membership.
In order to better utilise cohesion policy’s “pro-European” effect, including with a view to May’s European elections, communication has to be worked on, Oberhofer believes.
This is because the argument that “investing countries” pay billions of euros mostly to poor regions of Eastern Europe through the structural funds is gladly adopted by populist parties, such as the then “Front National” during the French election campaign, and also during the Brexit campaign.
“It has to be made clear to voters that it is a levelling instrument which everyone benefits from in the long term,” Oberhofer said.
Dr Heinz Brandenburg from the University of Strathclyde explained why the argument made by nationalist politicians such as Marine Le Pen that, for prosperous states, Cohesion policy means nothing more than making payments is not logical. He completed a Europe-wide survey on the EU’s regional policy this year.
“You then have to tell people: if you don’t want people from Eastern Europe coming to Germany to work in large numbers, you should be pleased that Germany is making investments there,” he said. “Bulgarian workers also don’t want to have to move 1,000 kilometres away in order to find work.”