The University of Strathclyde’s European Policies Research Centre can generally be counted on for clear summaries of the issues involved in EC regional policies and duly produced two years ago a paper “Challenges, Consultations and Concepts – preparing for the Cohesion Policy Debate”
Last August the Centre presented an updated 150 pages briefing on the issues to the European Parliament - Comparative study on the vision and options for Coherence Policy after 2013 – although its Executive Summary does not seem quite up to its normal standards of clarity. Judge for yourself -
The Commission proposes to reinforce the urban agenda, encourage functional geographies, support areas facing specific geographical or demographic problems and enhance the strategic alignment between transnational cooperation and macro-regional strategies.And what, exactly, does this mean???
Unsurprisingly, there is resistance to some of the more prescriptive elements. Yet, the territorial dimension could benefit from a greater strategic steer at EU level, potentially drawing on the recently agreed Territorial Agenda for 2020 to clarify and reinforce future territorial priorities for Cohesion Policy. A more strategically focused approach to the territorial dimension of cooperation must also be a priority, including a greater focus on priorities and projects of real transnational and cross border relevance, seeking greater coherence with mainstream, external cross-border cooperation and macro-regional strategies and the simplification of administrative requirements.
The 2009 Barca Report was a bit long (250 pages plus 10 annexes) but did at least give a good summary of what we know about the impact of Structural Funds -
20. The state of the empirical evidence on the performance of cohesion policy is very unsatisfactory. The review of existing research, studies, and policy documents undertaken in the process of preparing the Report suggests, first, that econometric studies based on macro-data on growth and transfers, while providing specific suggestions, do not offer any conclusive general answer on the effectiveness of policy. This is due partly to the serious problems faced by any attempt to isolate at macro-level the effects of cohesion policy from those of several confounding factors, and partly to the fact that existing studies have largely analysed the effect on convergence, which is not a good proxy of the policy objectives. The review also shows both the
lack of any systematic attempt at EU and national/regional levels to assess whether specific interventions “work” through the use of advanced methods of impact evaluation, and a very poor use of the system of outcome indictors and targets formally built by the policy.
21. Despite these severe limitations, the available quantitative evidence and a large body of qualitative evidence lead to two conclusions on the current architecture of cohesion policy. First, cohesion policy represents the appropriate basis for implementing the place-based development approach needed by the Union. Second, cohesion policy must undergo a comprehensive reform for it to meet the challenges facing the Union.
22. The strengths of cohesion policy, which indicate that it represents the appropriate basis,
include, in particular:
• the development of several features of what has come to be called the “new paradigm of regional policy”, namely the establishment of a system of multi-level governance and contractual commitments that represents a valuable asset for Europe in any policy effort requiring a distribution of responsibilities.
• A good track record of achieving targets, both when cohesion policy has been implemented as a coherent part of a national development strategy and when local-scale projects have been designed with an active role of the Commission and the input of its expertise.
• A contribution to institution-building, social capital formation and a partnership approach in many, though not all, regions, producing a lasting effect.
• The creation of an EU-wide network for disseminating experience, for cooperation and, for sharing methodological tools in respect of evaluation and capacity building.
23. The most evident weaknesses which indicate the need for reform of cohesion policy are:
• A deficit in strategic planning and in developing the policy concept through the coherent adoption of a place-based, territorial perspective.
• A lack of focus on priorities and a failure to distinguish between the pursuit of efficiency and social inclusion objectives.
• A failure of the contractual arrangements to focus on results and to provide enough leverage for the Commission and Member States to design and promote institutional changes tailored to the features and needs of places.
• Methodological and operational problems that have prevented both the appropriate use of indicators and targets – for which no comparable information is available - and a satisfactory analysis of “what works” in terms of policy impact.
• A remarkable lack of political and policy debate on results in terms of the well-being of people, at both local and EU level, most of the attention being focused on financial absorption and irregularities.