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Mannah from Brussels? The EU Regional Policy and its Structural and Cohesion Funds




This first paper has been written in order to lay the basis of the section “Europe with Regions”. It represents a functional description of the evolution, main actors, mechanisms, objectives, principles, instruments of the EU Regional Policy preceded by general concepts and definitions inserted in the paper in order to facilitate an as deep as possible comprehension of the material. Even if I used several scientific sources for this paper, and to a smaller extent mass media information, it cannot be considered a scientific paper, more an instrument which gathers together reasonably numerous details about the most relevant aspects of the RP. Each of these aspects can be and will be developed in future articles.

The paper will start by enunciating some general notions, basic concepts and definitions needed in the following pages. Most of these are controversial in the scientific world, nevertheless I chose one (as neutral, simple but consistent as possible) which can be considered a “work definition”, it can be used to understand most of the literature on this subject.

The second part is dedicated to the European Regional Policy, its development stages, objectives and principles. Further I focus on NUTS : Nomenclature for Statistical Territorial Units, eligibility criteria for SF, the decision making process and the main European, national, regional etc. actors relevant to it, as well as the Commission of Regions.

In the last part of this paper the main instruments of the European Regional Policy will be concisely presented.

1. Regional Policy. Basic Concepts, Definitions

1.1. Definitions

A region is considered as being a part of a country, either administrative territorial or historical, or identified and recognised as units in scientific literature. The regional government is the democratic decision-making authority immediately beneath the central state. Territories, currently (or previously) included in the sphere of regional policy and subject to state intervention qualify as problem regions while a crisis region is the territory which, although characterised by unsatisfactory social economic parameters, are not officially selected as RP targets. An area is a part of a region which is designated officially or in scientific literature.

Regions can be classified by sector, i.e. agricultural and industrial, as well as by historical development, i.e. historical regions.

Decentralisation involves the shift of authority and/or financial resources from higher- to lower-tier governments. Political decentralisation allows local government representatives to be selected through local election. Administrative decentralisation means transferring authority and responsibility for service delivery to local governments. Fiscal decentralisation implies shifting authority to raise adequate revenues and make expenditure decisions to the local level.

Deconcentration is a form of decentralisation that implies the simple dispersion of central government responsibility to central government regional offices. It occurs when lower levels of government (regional or municipal) execute functions on behalf of the central government without having decision-making authority.

Delegation is the process in which the central government transfers decision-making over certain functions to relatively autonomous local governments, which have limited autonomy and are ultimately responsible to the central government.

Devolution involves the complete transfer of decision making over finance and management of public services to quasi-autonomous local government units.

The process of regionalisation implies the creation of a new tier in the territorial organisation of the state, with the corresponding institutions to which a transfer of competencies from the centre is realised. This is a top-down process, initiated in the 80’s in France, for example, nowadays illustrated by the devolution process almost completed in UK.

The concept of regionalism is based on the idea that a region is a sum of cultural characteristics which justify the coagulation of a political entity recognised as more or less autonomous. In regionalism cases regions acquire a high degree of autonomy, political, economic, in the framework of the national state, this being a bottom-up process most successfully developed in Spain.

1.2. Designating a crisis area : quantitative and qualitative parameters

There are three series of criteria used in order to asses if a region or an area qualifies as being problematic.

The first set of criteria is describing the quality of life. Among these we can count the level of unemployment and income, housing conditions, the state of education and public health services, the availability of social infrastructure. The environmental parameter is one of the most significant, i.e. the level of water and air pollution, the richness of flora and fauna etc.

The second set is describing the level of economical development : GDP per head, the structure of economy and its individual sectors, the share of declining or stagnating industries, the level of export production (at regional level) and the level of infrastructure development.

The geographical position is also determinant for the economic situation of a particular region. Peripheral regions, regions in the mountain areas or poor in natural resources, islands, rural or predominantly agricultural regions tend to lag behind and to have more severe difficulties in coping with the challenges of the globalised market economy that central, urban, rich regions.

1.3. Regional Policy. General objectives and instruments The general objectives of a regional policy, at national and/or European level are above all of economic nature, i.e. boosting the national economy by attenuating or eliminating (levelling up) the economic discrepancies between the regions development levels, process which would avoid the future necessity of intervention. Improving the investment climate through public investment in problem regions is one major instrument, as well as a desired result of a well conducted regional policy. A more efficient management of local and regional resources (territorial, human, economic) is a further economic goal of RP.

Besides economic cohesion, social solidarity through financial redistribution from rich to poor regions, and political reasoning, i.e. the maintenance of national unity are supporting the initiation and implementation of a regional policy at either national, or European level.

The most common instruments of RP are tax exemptions, grants, low-cost loans, partial investments, welfare state provisions applied in order to encourage private investment in the particular problematic region, the main indication of a successful RP.

1.4. Institutional models

Mostly in accordance with national traditions in political organisation and administration there are three institutional models of conducting RP.

As it is the case in France in Italy, the regional policy is implemented by specialised bodies (France : DATAR, and Italy : Agency of the South). They may have their own budged or simply monitor the distribution of resources by other institutions. They may act as ministry and have (exclusive) right of legislative initiative or just prepare the laws to be submitted to the Parliament by another ministry, commission scientific research and consult with state and private offices.

In several other countries regional policy is conducted by several ministries engaged in fields as economic development, environment, labour and social problems (Sweden, Denmark etc.). These ministries may prepare legislation or collaborate to this process, may implement various assistance measures, i.e. infrastructure, re-cultivation of lands, or finance scientific research.

In federal states (Germany, Switzerland), the “Länder” enjoy considerable powers in most policy areas. Nevertheless, key decisions are still met at national level.

As the regional policy in Europe suffered especially in the 80’s and 90’s paramount changes (see further), the tasks to be fulfilled at national level in order to comply with the RP procedure requirements became more and more complicated. The relatively recent decision of the European Commission to decentralise the functioning mechanisms of the regional policy deepened the process. As a result, the second institutional model is predominant nowadays in this policy area.

2. The European Union Regional Policy

2.1. The four development stages of the EU Regional Policy

Before being, at least partially, transferred under the jurisdiction of the European Union’s institutions and developed at this level, regional policy was conducted at national level. In the 1920s-1930s the first programmes for depressed old industrial regions and underdeveloped regions were implemented. Later, in the 1940s-1950s regional policy acquires legislative and institutional legitimisation at regional level, to flourish and expand spatially and financially in the ‘60s and at the beginning of the ‘70s. On the background of the ‘70s crisis and retrenchment, regional policy suffers a curtailment and reorganisation phase in the late ‘70s and 80’s. After this moment, more exactly after 1988, regional policy in this part of the world is “Europeanised”.

2.1.1. Between 1958-1975 a common regional policy was not one of the objectives of the European Community, even if, especially at the and of the 60’s, several appeals for a such a policy were made to the EC institutions and member states (ex. Werner Report). In the Treaty of Rome cohesion as principle was mentioned only in the preamble. Nevertheless, in this period of time two funds, the European Social Fund (ESF) and the European Agricultural Guidance and Guarantee Fund (EAGGF), serving mainly the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) of the EC were set up.

2.1.2. In 1975 what has become in the meantime the most significant structural fund, the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) was established. This development was determined by the first enlargement EU underwent in 1973 when, finally surmounting the French opposition, UK, together with Ireland and Denmark joined the EC. UK and Ireland, both demandeurs of structural aid, turned the tables of the fierce intergovernmental bargaining around the RP and ERDF in their favour, joining the already stated, pro-structural assistance Italian position. Till 1988, the Commission acted as a mere administrator of the ERDF, and the funds were distributed according to a quota system, the European Council (in consequence the Member States) being the main decision-making actor.

2.1.3. Between 1988 and 1999 the Structural Funds and the Regional policy were subjects of a series of reforms, the most paramount being introduced in 1988. For one more time enlargement had a heavy word to say in the bargaining process preceding this historical moment. In 1981 Greece and in 1985 Spain and Portugal became EC members. As UK and Ireland in the previous decade, several regions in these three lands were less developed than the European average and they formed a strong coalition convincing richer countries (i.e. Germany, till 1993 paymaster) to accord financial compensations meant to balance the negative effects the common market completion had on their economies. Signed in 1986 the Single European Act succeeded in balancing the interests of all member states, the widening vs. deepening camps, by adding to the Treaty of Rome a new title on regional policy. The 1988 reform brought the ERDF, ESF, EAGGF together under the common framework presently known as the Structural Funds, it doubled their budget and introduced relatively explicit objectives and principle for granting funds to regions . From institutional point of view the Commission registered a remarkable increase in power. From a mere administrator of the ERDF it emerged as a pivotal actor in the process of drafting regulations and it had exclusive right of proposing besides legislation, the list with regions eligible for funding. Further weakening the national state position, the sub-national actors’ (SNAs) role in the policy making process is enhanced by the introduction of the “partnership principle” (see further).

In 1993 the funds are not radically reformed, nevertheless a shift of power back to the member states took place, which by no means re-nationalised the regional policy. Even if the national governments acquired some competencies in drafting the list with eligible regions, the Commission remains arbiter of the entire process. The Maastricht Treaty, having entered into force in 1993, had a particular significance for furthering the position of RP among European other policies. The Cohesion Fund and the Committee of Regions (see further) were established. With 1/3 of the budged dedicated to structural expenses, the RP occupies thesecond place among the European policies. Simultaneously the Financial Instrument for Fisheries Guidance (FIFG) was set up.

2.1.4. The Berlin European Council deciding on the Agenda 2000 proposals reformed again significantly the Structural Funds form, regulations and mechanisms. The Agenda 2000 is one of the major documents which was drafted as a response to the challenges the enlargement wave to come was raising for the European institutional structures and policies. Following the same line as the SEA and the ToEU it reassessed the importance of economic and social cohesion. The common principles and objectives of the RP were restated and re-adapted to the new realities in the EU of regions. Along concentration, efficiency, simplification of the applying and monitoring procedures, Agenda 2000 proposed also a greater role to be played by the Member States in the day to day administration and monitoring the funds. The ceiling of 0.46% of EU GDP as structural expenditures was to be maintained, this actually meaning no increase in the SF. The conflict between net-beneficiary countries which would have lost their structural funds not because their GDP is higher but because poorer regions are entering EU (the so called statistical effect) was resolved by according them transitional support, to most of them till 2005.

2.2. The Objectives and Principles of the EU Regional Policy for the current Financial Framework 1999-2006

Before Agenda 2000 the EU regional policy had 6 objectives, which turned into 3 in order for the structural expenditures to be concentrated in the most needed areas and social groups.

Under the first objective (Objective1 – territorial) structural financial assistance is accorded to regions whose development is lagging behind in order to catch up, i.e. providing them with the basic infrastructure which they continue to lack or encourage investments in business economic activity ; 50 regions, 22% of the Union’s population are benefiting from 70% of the funding available.

The Objective 2 (territorial) is supporting economic and social conversion in industrial, rural, urban or fisheries-dependent areas facing structural difficulties. It covers 18% of the Union’s population and it amounts to 11.5% of total funding.

The third Objective is not a territorial but a thematic one. It aims at modernising systems of training and promoting employment. Measures financed by Objective 3 cover the whole Union except for the Objective 1 regions where measures for training and employment are included in the catching-up programmes. 12.3% of total funding is dedicated to this third objective.

As mentioned before, 4 principles are guiding the Structural Funds spending mechanisms. The Funds should be concentrated in the most disadvantaged regions (lagging ones, declining industrial area, high unemployment, in need of workers adaptation and rural development). The population covered by SF should fall from 50% in 1999 to 35-40% in 2006.

The short-term project-by-project programmes were abandoned and replaced by specific multi-annual programmes of three of five years (programming).

In the preparation, financing, monitoring and assessment of programmes different levels of government should be involved : the Commission, member states and the relevant authority at local, regional or national level. If the 1988 reform legitimated the participation of SNAs (sub-national actors, i.e. regional and local) in the policy-making process, Agenda 2000 enhanced the principle of partnership by making possible the involvement of local social and economic actors, NGOs in the policy-making process.

The principle of additionality stipulates that structural funding should be additional to, and not simply a substitute for, existing or planned domestic investments. In the current Financial Framework this principle was relaxed, by limiting and simplifying the procedures by which additionality is verified, due to the several problems it raised, especially in UK.

2.3. Eligibility

A triple conditionality is imposed on regions in order to become eligible for Structural Funds. Firstly they have to be a particular type of region (NUTS II or III), secondly to fall under the incidence of one of the three major objectives of the RP and thirdly the programmes/projects proposed have to qualify under the criteria of one of the four major financial instruments serving these objectives.

Eligibility for Objective 1 is principally defined with reference to NUTS II regions ; Objective 2 areas are generally defined with reference to NUTS III. As a consequence, eligible for Objective 1 funds are regions NUTS II, with per capita GDP less than 75% of the Community average and for Objective 2 regions NUTS III undergoing socio-economic change or rural areas, nevertheless, eligible are only programmes/projects able to be financed by ERDF and ESF (i.e. NUTS III regions can not apply for EAGGF funds !). For Objective 3 funds all regions could apply except the ones eligible for Objective 1, so the NUTS II with per capita GDP less than 75%. It remains in principle wealthier and smaller regions aiming at improving their human resources management.

Objective 1
Objective 2
Objective 3

2.4. NUTS : Nomenclature for Statistical Territorial Units

NUTS is a hierarchical classification on 5 levels (3 are regional and 2 are local) of the administrative structures already in place in Member States. It was set up by the European Office for Statistics (Eurostat) in order to place the divers administrative systems of the member states in a single and coherent structure of territorial distribution in the EU. NUTS has no legal value per se, its form is the consequence of a “gentlemen’s agreement” between the Member States and not of an administrative reforming or harmonising process initiated at the European level. Nevertheless, it has been used in the Community legislation pertaining to the Structural Funds since 1988.

In 2003 the NUTS was reformed in order to manage the inevitable changing process the administrative systems of the present and future Member States have suffered in the last years. A new Regulation establishes the new form in which the NUTS is presented, i.e. in lists and maps.

There are 78 NUTS 1 regions, with a population between 3 and 7 million people. The German Länder, regions in Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Ireland, Wales and Scotland, comunidades autonomas in Spain, régions in France, regioni in Italy are classified in this category.

The NUTS 2 level counts 210 regions with a population between 800.000 and 3 million people. Among them the Kreise in Germany, départements in France, provincias in Spain, provincie in Italy, etc. can be found.

The NUTS 3 regions are more numerous (1093) with a population between 15000-800.000. NUTS 4 is defined only for certain countries : Finland, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, Portugal, UK. Together with the NUTS 5 regions, actually districts and municipalities, they are called “Local Administrative Units” (LAU) and are not subject of the NUTS 2003 Regulation.

2.5. Regional policy-making process for the structural funds (1999-2006)

The Commission proposes the budget and its structure (by country and Objective) for the Structural Funds, negotiated with the EP. The areas which may benefit from this funding are laid out by the Commission in agreement with the countries concerned and common thematic guidelines.

The Council decides on the budget for the Structural Funds and the basic rules governing its use.

Each Member State or region draws up its proposals and groups them in a development plan of areas in difficulty or of vulnerable social groups, taking into account the Commission’s thematic guidelines and with the participation of governmental SNAs and economic and social actors. These plans are sent to the Commission. The Member States and the Commission discuss the contents of these documents and the appropriate national and Community funds to be used to implement them.

The Commission adopts the resulting plans, known as Community Support Frameworks (CSFs) or Single Programming Documents (SPDs), and programmes. A payment on account is made so that Member States may begin implementing the programme. The Programme Complements (detailed CSFs or SPDs) are decided by the national or regional authorities. These documents enable the authorities to launch these projects according to their operating methods (calls for project proposals, calls for tenders for the construction of infrastructure, etc). The relevant authorities select the projects which best correspond to the goals of the programme and inform the tenderers of their choice.

The bodies selected, which may be governmental institutions or agencies, divers social and economic actors or NGOs, may then implement their project, which must be completed before the deadline laid down in the programme since the timetable for the disbursement of Community aid is fixed at the start.

The appropriate authorities (Ministry for Finance, Secretary of State for European Affairs, special set up agencies, i.e. DATAR) monitor the progress of programmes, keep the Commission informed and provide it with proof that the money is being used in the best way possible (certification of expenditure).

The Commission keeps track of the audit systems put in place, gradually pays out the remainder of the contribution from the Structural Funds and analyses the development of the monitoring indicators and evaluation studies and conducts theme exchanges.

The Cohesion Fund

Unlike the Structural Funds, the Cohesion Fund do not co-finance programmes but projects or stages of projects which are clearly identified from the start. These projects are submitted to the Commission by the Member States, managed by the national authorities and supervised by a Monitoring Committee.

2.6. The Committee of the Regions

The CoR was set up by the Maastricht Treaty. It met for the first time in March 1994. Initially the CoR was obligatorily consulted in five areas, i.e. economic and social cohesion ; trans-European networks in the field of transport, energy and telecommunications ; public health ; education and youth ; culture. The Treaty of Amsterdam added a further five : employment, social policy, environment, vocational training, transport.

Despite its (only) advisory role, the establishment of the Committee meant a significant step forward for regions and their interests. The Committee is the first official European body which gives regional actors the possibility to express formally their needs and requests to the EU institutions.

The Committee is formed of 222 members and 222 alternate members, appointed for 4 years by the Council, after having been nominated by member states. These are organised in four political groups : the Party of European Socialists, the European People’s Party, the European Liberal Democrats and Reform Party the European Alliance. A President and First-Vice President are elected for a two year term by the members of the Committee. The Bureau is responsible for implementing the CoR’s political programme. It is elected for 2 years from the Committee members. It consists of 40 members including the President and First Vice President. These three institutions are the most powerful in the framework of the CoR. Nevertheless, there are also 6 CoR Commissions, made up of CoR members, specialising in particular policy areas as noted below :

Commission for Territorial Cohesion Policy
Commission for Economic and Social Policy
Commission for Sustainable Development
Commission for Culture and Education
Commission for Constitutional Affairs and European Governance
Commission for External Relations

3. The Instruments of the EU Regional Policy

There are 4 Structural Funds, considered the most significant instruments of the RP in financial terms and these are the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the European Social Fund (ESF), the Financial Instrument for Fisheries Guidance (FIFG), the “Guidance” Section of the European Agricultural Guidance and Guarantee Fund (EAGGF – Guidance).

The Cohesion Fund, is unique in its aim and it was relatively recently set up. There are voices advocating the adoption of its less complicated eligibility and granting mechanisms also for the Structural Funds.

The 4 Community Initiatives, the Interreg III, Urban II, Leader+, Equal, even if they do not redistribute major funds, are very important from several points of you. Firstly, because the Commission and the eligible regions/actors are the main decision factors according and implementing these funds, and the role of the central government is minimum, they give the Commission the possibility to import its objectives and implemented models in the member states and empower financially the regions. The state can be bypassed to a large extent by both actors. Secondly, less complicated granting, implementing and monitoring mechanism are practised, to be applied, if successfully, to the 4 structural funds. Thirdly, the initiatives are focused on very specific problems EU presents, and come with very specific solutions. Fourthly, through the Community initiatives, the countries not benefiting from structural funds are receiving back a part of their financial contribution to the EU budget.

Other minor instruments are : the Special support for fisheries, Innovative actions and the performance reserve. The European Investment Bank can accord loans to member states and/or eligible regions in order to help them matching the EU funds, according to the “additionality” principle.

3.1. European Regional and Development Fund

The ERDF is the most important SF and it aims at redressing regional imbalances in Community and at promoting stable and sustainable development. Its main fields of intervention are productive investment to create/safeguard permanent jobs, infrastructure, enhancing endogenous potential : local development & SMSEs, technical assistance.

3.2. European Social Fund

The first created Structural Fund was the ESF to help the EU member countries dealing with unemployment. It mainly aims at developing human resources and eliminating unemployment and social exclusion. It supports the multi-annual National Action Plans in this field through active labour market policies to promote integration and re-integration, equal opportunities on the labour market, helping lifelong learning systems and training for innovation and adaptability to be design and successfully implemented. The second major ESF field of intervention is information society.

3.3. European Agriculture Guidance and Guarantee Fund

The Guidance section of the EAGGF is the most controversial structural fund, due to its mission to support CAP and improvement of agricultural structures. Its field of interventions are mainly “accompanying” measures to the CAP (promoting early retirement, agri-environment, forestry), which transform the fund in an annex to the CAP, in this way altering seriously it structural nature. The recurrent criticism brought to CAP and indirectly to the EAGGF is that the Guidance section is less financially equipped in comparison with the Guarantee, when the first one brings positive results in long run in rural areas. Further than accompanying measures, the Guidance section of the EAGGF is involved in restructuring farms, setting up of young farmers, training, processing and marketing as well as other rural development measures.

3.4. The Cohesion Fund

As we saw in the previous sections, the CF is different from the SF. It was set up with a very clear cut mission, respectively to enable some Member States to join the final phase of the EMU as quickly as possible. Eligible for CF are MS of the EU with a per capita GDP of less than 90% of the Community average : Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain.

The CF was not created for regions per se, but in order to support the development of an entire country. It deals only with projects in environment and infrastructure (trans-European networks). The 2000-2006 cohesion budget amounted to 18 billion EURO, Spain being the main beneficiary.

Before the end of 2003 the progress made by these 4 states will be assessed in order for the European Commission to see if they are still eligible for cohesion funds. Ireland’s GDP is already 114% of the Community average, and it is debatable if this country will loose its founding of not.


INTERREG has been a very successful programme, and this is the reason for reaching already the thirds stage in its existence. It comprises three sections : A on cross-border co-operation, 67% of the total funding, targeting the peripheral regions in a national context, transformed in central regions when the common market completed, B on cross-national co-operation, 27% and C on interregional co-operation, 6% of the total funding.

A large series of priority actions are envisaged, from urban, rural (incl. coastal) development, entrepreneurship, SMEs, local development, labour market integration & social inclusion, RTDI, culture, info/communications networks, environment and energy, transport infrastructure, institutional capacity building till the management of natural resources and of cultural heritage, maritime and insular co-operation, and exchange of experience on activities.

Out of 4 875 million € allocation 2000-2006 Spain benefits of 900 million, followed by Germany (737 million), UK (362 million), Netherlands (349 million) and Sweden (159 million)


As the rural area has decreased in the last decades, numerous urban agglomerations came into being, bringing with them specific problems. The objectives of the URBAN II, another successful Community initiative are to promote the formulation and implementation of particularly innovative strategies for sustainable economic and social regeneration of small and medium-sized towns and cities or of distressed urban neighbourhoods in larger cities and to enhance and exchange knowledge and experience in relation to sustainable urban regeneration and development in the Community. 50 cities and urban districts, mostly in the richest member states are eligible for Urban II funds.

Among eligible measures one can count mixed use and environmentally friendly brownfield redevelopment, entrepreneurship and employment pacts, integration of excluded persons and affordable access to basic services, integrated public transport and communications, waste minimising and treatment ; efficient water management and noise reduction, reduction in consumption of hydrocarbon energies, development of the potential of information society technologies, improvements in governance

3.7. Leader+. The Community Initiative for Rural Development

The main aims of Leader+ are to encourage and help rural actors to think about the longer-term potential of their area, to encourage the implementation of integrated, high-quality, original strategies for sustainable development. All rural areas are eligible for Leader + funds. The creation of “local action groups” (LAGs) is encouraged. Three types of actions are eligible under this initiative :

. action 1 : support for integrated territorial rural development strategies of a pilot nature based on the bottom-up approach and horizontal partnerships,

. action 2 : support for inter-territorial and transnational co-operation,

. action 3 : the networking of all rural areas in the Community, whether or not beneficiaries under Leader+, and all rural development actors.

3.8. Equal

The last, but not least, on the contrary, Community initiative aims at promoting new means of combating all forms of discrimination and inequalities in connection with the labour market, through trans-national co-operation and at facilitating the social and vocational integration of asylum seekers.

Its thematic priorities are employability, entrepreneurship, adaptability, equal opportunities for women and men, asylum seekers.

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