Cohesion is more than a policy, it’s the guiding principle to strengthen and unite

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[Elisa Ferreira (left) and Nicolas Schmit speaking Brussels, Belgium. Image: European Union, 2022 Source: EC - Audiovisual Service]

Thirty years after the creation of the Single Market, Europe’s strongest antidote to discontent and rising nationalism remains Cohesion Policy. To secure the Union, this basic principle so essential in the progressive agenda must be the central focus of the next mandate say Nicolas Schmit, PES Common Candidate and Elisa Ferreira, member of the PES political family.

Cohesion Policy is the fuel for European integration

Cohesion Policy and the Single Market are two sides of the same European integration coin. Indeed, Cohesion Policy was substantially reinforced with the Single Market in 1993 to prevent disparities from exploding between and within countries. Back then, it was obvious: Europe meant solidarity and shared prosperity. And it worked. As it has worked in making successive EU enlargements a success. In the past three decades, EU Member States have achieved unrivaled upwards economic convergence thanks to Cohesion Policy. Citizens of member states who joined the EU since 2004 have seen their GDP per capita increase from 52% of the EU average (2004) to almost 80% (2021).

Cohesion Policy has been a driver of productivity, economic and social resilience. It is a key tool for harnessing the potential of all our different regions, promoting territorial convergence, boosting competitiveness and security for all of Europe. Cohesion Policy is the glue that holds our societies together.

But it would be a mistake to measure the achievements of Cohesion Policy in “monetised” gains alone. Cohesion Policy embodies the subsidiarity principle, empowering local communities.  It ensures the perspective of local and regional authorities is at the heart of EU politics.  At a time when populists accuse the EU of being distant from citizens, Cohesion Policy brings the EU closer, providing a governance model and investments, facilitating exchanges between regions, advancing social innovation and offering citizens tangible examples of what Europe really means for their lives.

Cohesion Policy goes further than empowering communities, it empowers people. The European Social Fund + invests in people, nurturing jobs, creating affordable housing and offering quality education and training. When we invest in people, in workers’ skills, in critical infrastructure, in overcoming bottlenecks to growth, we trigger positive change and turn the hope of a better future for all into reality.

Cohesion Policy is the best way to bring the EU closer to citizens

Cohesion Policy is a success story. In the next mandate we need to go further, based on its well-approved principles: regional upwards convergence, proportionally higher levels of support to regions with a lower level of development, subsidiarity, partnership and multilevel governance.

Many programs are set up at local and regional level. As such, EU policy is effectively adapted to local and regional realities, and in this way successfully tailors the development strategies to the characteristics of each region, strengthening economic and social cohesion at local level. Cohesion Policy requires simplification, but this should not lead to centralisation at the national level of its programs. Quite the contrary, the regional and local dimension has defined its success and must continue.

In contrast to the time-limited Recovery and Resilience Fund, Cohesion Policy is a permanent instrument that steadily delivers long-term regional upwards convergence. This must be strengthened in the next mandate. We must preserve cohesion’s role as a permanent foundation that brings more equality, more development, more shared prosperity in good and challenging times.

Similarly, some forms of conditionality in cohesion funding, namely those with a positive impact on the quality of regional development could be envisaged. But social and environmental objectives must always take precedence over fiscal criteria. Non-compliance with the rule of law resulted in blocked funds for Hungary, for example. As that shows, Cohesion Policy successfully promotes reforms too, and we should consider how to reinforce that in full respect of the goal of regional upwards convergence. In this respect, a minimum level of decentralisation, improving the quality of institutions and strengthening the capacity of public administrations deserve a stronger focus.

Cohesion policy is needed more than ever

Now and in the next mandate, we must ensure citizens understand the concrete benefits of Cohesion Policy: sustained support for all regions with a strong emphasis on less developed ones. Or, in simple terms: new schools, hospitals, waste treatment systems, road and rail infrastructure. More support for SMEs and investment in people’s skills, training and universities.

Cohesion Policy therefore remains key in ensuring territorial and social cohesion in times of change and transitions. We cannot deliver on the triple climate, digital and social transition at the expense of our main investment policy. On the contrary, we need to reinforce it, to expand its scope to face the opportunities and challenges that come from the greening of the economy, new technologies, demographic change, the gradual integration of candidate countries as the combined effect of these trends impacts citizens, territories and public services.

The alternative to a reinforced Cohesion is a fragmented EU, with a malfunctioning Single Market, incapable of offering all citizens and enterprises a fair chance to compete, strive and develop. This would inevitably fuel tensions and undermine trust in the European project, and our economic and social model.

Jacques Delors, one of the architects of Cohesion Policy famously said that Europe needs “the competition that stimulates, the cooperation that strengthens and the solidarity that unites”. Indeed, Cohesion is more than a policy. It is a principle, a pillar of the EU that strengthens and unites people across our continent.

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