Despite its significant ambition and budget, the EU’s Cohesion Policy remains something of an enigma to most people. “This is probably one of the largest policies of redistribution in the world,” says PERCEIVE (Perception and Evaluation of Regional and Cohesion policies by Europeans and Identification with the Values of Europe) project coordinator Edoardo Mollona, professor of corporate strategy at the University of Bologna in Italy. “It is the means by which the EU addresses differences in economic development across regions and tries to reduce inequality. It takes up about a third of the overall EU budget and is a striking example of EU ambition. Yet very few people know about it.” Communicating Cohesion Policy is challenging in part because it is so complex. It supports hundreds of thousands of projects all over Europe through three major EU funds and involves interaction at three levels of government – the EU, central government and local government. It is at the local level where cohesion funds are spent. “At the beginning of this project we conducted a survey to analyse citizen perception and awareness of Cohesion Policy,” adds Mollona. “We found that in many poorer regions, where funds are often directed, awareness of and support for Cohesion Policy were low.” This ties into the fact that awareness of the EU in general is lower among older, less-educated and rural citizens. “On the other hand, in countries with mildly Eurosceptic national governments, support for Cohesion Policy in some regions was high.” These findings underline the point that political interests at each level of government can clash, such as a populist-leaning national government for example that could have to work with a left-wing pro-EU regional administration. This again makes communicating the purpose and benefits of Cohesion Policy extremely challenging.
Understanding citizen awareness
Building on this initial survey, PERCEIVE sought to explain regional variations in Cohesion Policy experiences, and to analyse citizen awareness and appreciation of EU efforts. It also sought to assess citizen identification with the EU and put forward concrete recommendations. The relationship between investments and results, and the perception of these results, was examined. The specific language used to communicate policy successes was assessed. For example, once an EU-funded project has been completed, how are the benefits – and the role the EU plays – brought to the attention of citizens? What became clear was that citizen perceptions were often filtered through existing political and cultural structures. Any EU-driven message was not getting through. “In some regions, the idea of raising awareness of the EU’s role is explicitly stated, whereas in other contexts, there is no explicit objective,” explains Mollona. A modelling tool to help local policymakers was built. This takes into account variables such as policy processes, resources and different levels of governance, when implementing projects. “We ran some workshops using the computer model as a learning environment with local administrators and are looking into the possibility of building models for specific regions,” he adds.
Everything is local
The PERCEIVE project confirmed a strong correlation between the language used by local policymakers and citizens’ attitudes towards Cohesion Policy. The presentation of simple success stories, for example, can humanise figures, and shorten the distance between institutions and citizens. “In terms of recommendations, we think it is important to visualise the EU’s presence in local contexts and in small projects,” says Mollona. This could involve physically crediting the EU in small, local projects, or identifying them in communication materials. Furthermore, all communication at the local level should be preceded by an examination of the language that is used at this level. “Words used in one region can mean something different in another,” comments Mollona. “You need to understand the local discourse.” The project also found that regular funding campaigns were more effective than one-off large investments, in terms of maintaining citizen support. And because the impact of communication wears off over time, investing in education systems is critical. “This means advancing metre by metre and never losing ground,” notes Mollona. “You have to then communicate what you are doing, and explain why it works, at the local level.” Overall, the project’s findings should help to support local managing authorities in reframing the benefits of European solidarity, as well as European citizenship.
PERCEIVE, Cohesion Policy, funding, solidarity, regional, local, communication, citizenship, inequality, Eurosceptic