European Union Politics

Palgrave Foundations Series

by John McCormick

Chapter 22: Cohesion Policy

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Social and economic inequalities are a fact of life, if for no other reason than because humans have different aspirations and abilities, and because economies vary by time and place in the opportunities they provide. Differences in wealth, income and aptitude skew the dynamics of open markets, benefiting some at the cost of others and reducing the free flow of people, money, goods and services. As a result, efforts to remove those differences have long been at the heart of European integration.

Cohesion policy focuses on promoting the single market by creating new economic opportunities in the poorer parts of the EU: the GDP of the wealthiest EU states is several times that of the poorest, and urban areas are generally wealthier than rural areas, creating economic pressures that interfere with balanced development. Meanwhile, social policy focuses on encouraging free movement of labour, improving living and working conditions, and protecting the rights and benefits of workers. At the core of EU concerns have been the curiously persistent high rates of unemployment in parts of the EU, made worse since 2007 by the effects of the global economic crisis.

Improved social mobility and a more open labour market are, in turn, a function of the portability of educational qualifications. Education policy is still very much the responsibility of the member states, and this is unlikely to change, but the Council of Europe and the EU have been behind programmes to establish equivalencies across national borders and to encourage Europeans to complete at least part of their education in another member state.
  • Levels of income and economic opportunity vary both within EU member states and from one state to another.
  • EU cohesion policy works to strengthen the internal bonds of the European marketplace by supplementing national efforts to reduce economic disparities, mainly through the use of three structural funds that redistribute wealth from richer to poorer parts of the EU.
  • The effects of cohesion policy have been hard to measure, in part because the links between cause, effect, and response are so difficult to measure.
  • EU social policy addresses issues such as improved working and living conditions, and the rights of workers, women, and the disabled.
  • Although the Treaty of Rome referred to the need to improve working conditions and to raise the standard of living, most early Community initiatives in this area were more rhetorical than practical.
  • The idea of a European Social Model has been more aspirational than actual, although the approaches of north-western, southern, and eastern states have achieved closer uniformity with time.
  • One problem that European policy has so far been unable to address has been the persistence of high levels of unemployment in many parts of the EU, a problem made much worse by the effects of the global economic crisis.
  • At least initially in the interests of promoting the free movement of workers, the EU since the late 1980s has been increasingly active in efforts to promote mobility in education.
  • One of the effects has been the rise of the Erasmus generation, a group of mainly younger, better-educated, and more cosmopolitan Europeans with a heightened sense of pan-European identity.