The European convergence machine at work

The EU’s cohesion policy has reduced territorial disparities and boosted economic growth all over Europe. How is this policy progressing in 2022?

What is the goal of the 8th Cohesion Report?

The 8th Cohesion Report, prepared by the European Commission, aims to answer an essential question: how can cohesion policy keep playing its role as the strong motor of Europe’s convergence machine?

Just as the report is published, Europe – and the world – begins a third year of the Covid-19 pandemic. No wonder that the pandemic has tested European health care systems, economic and social structures, and exposed sharp regional differences.

As the European Commission warns, new territorial and social disparities have emerged. More than ever, the EU’s financial support also serves as a tool of solidarity. The good news provided by the report is that the majority of less developed European regions, including the Danube Region, continue to catch up.

Where does cohesion policy help in everyday life?

Supporting public investment
As national public investments were shrinking due to the economic crisis, cohesion policy became an even more important source of investment. In cohesion countries, cohesion funding grew from the equivalent of 34% to 52% of total public investment from the 2007–2013 programming period to the 2014–2020 programming period.

Improving transport infrastructure
Southern regions closed the road performance gap and eastern regions reduced the gap. Still, as the EU transitions towards climate neutrality, more investments are needed in clean mobility.

Boosting connectivity
Basic broadband access is almost universal in the EU, but with rural–urban gaps. Very-high-speed connections are only available to 2 out of 3 city residents and 1 out of 2 6 rural residents. Many European regions need more investments in digital infrastructure and a stronger business environment.

Growing employment
The employment rate has increased, but differences between European regions remain large. Less developed regions must reduce the employment gap between genders, and improve education and digital skills, especially in rural areas.

Reducing poverty
The number of people at risk of poverty and social exclusion has fallen by 17 million between 2012 and 2019, mostly due to the decline of the number of people in severe material deprivation in Eastern European member states. Reaching the EU 2030 target of reducing the number of people at risk of poverty by at least 15 million requires maintaining the current rate of reduction over the next decade.

Promoting environmental protection
Air and water pollution have been reduced, although still remain too high in many less developed regions. Waste water treatment has improved throughout the EU, but more investments are needed in many less developed regions to improve water quality.

Increasing life expectancy
Health disparities have been diminishing. Life expectancy has increased faster in less developed regions over the past decade than in other regions. However, life expectancy is still low compared to the EU average in many eastern regions.

What are the specific benefits of EU cohesion policy?

In the last 20 years, less developed Eastern European regions have been catching up with the rest of the EU. As a result, the GDP per capita gap has substantially decreased.

Let’s have a look at the near future. By 2023, the GDP per capita of less developed regions is estimated to be up to 5% higher thanks to support from cohesion policy. Also by 2023, the GDP per capita gap between the top and the bottom regions is estimated to fall by 3.5%. Thus, the real beneficiaries of the EU cohesion policy will be the citizens themselves.
During the Covid pandemic, crisis response measures (business support, workers, health systems) have become eligible under the cohesion policy. Drawing on the lessons from the pandemic, cohesion policy will become more flexible, to adapt more easily to unexpected shocks.

In the next 30 years, the EU’s growth will be driven by the green and digital transitions. The green transition and especially the goals of a carbon neutral and circular economy will transform European economies. The digital transition is moving forward at different speeds across Europe. Its completion will require expanding very-high-speed internet access, boosting digital skills and investing in IT equipment.

Without the cohesion policy, it would be far more difficult for most member states to address all these new challenges. An efficient cohesion policy helps, at the same time, bring EU institutions closer to the citizens, providing clear examples of how European policies can improve quality of life. To make the cohesion project truly successful, involving European citizens is crucial – as this involvement creates a genuine ownership feeling.

Facts and figures

EU funding for cohesion policy over the 2014–2020 period averaged €112 per year per person in the EU, and close to €400 per year in some of the least developed regions.

Between 2014 and 2020, cohesion policy supported over 1.4 million
enterprises. Projects selected indicate that this number could rise to over million by the end of the programming period.

By the end of 2020, 11.3 million people had benefited from the flood-protection measures co-financed by cohesion policy in the 2014–2020 period. When all selected projects are completed, 24 million people overall should be better protected.

Thanks to cohesion policy, 1 544 kilometres of railway lines had been laid or upgraded between 2014 and the end of 2020, and a further 3 500 kilometres will be by 2023, once the projects selected are completed.

Investment in the construction of new roads and the upgrading of others has increased road safety and reduced the number of accidents – the latter by 54% in Poznań and 74% in Lublin (Poland), for example.

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