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The Impact of Cohesion Policy on EU Identification

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - COHESIFY (The Impact of Cohesion Policy on EU Identification)

Reporting period: 2017-02-01 to 2018-04-30

The EU requires citizens’ support and identification to enhance its legitimacy and underpin European integration in. Yet, trust in EU institutions has declined in many parts of the EU and identity politics has become more salient following the recent economic and migration crises. While EU institutions have made it a priority to reconnect with citizens, this is a challenging task given the EU’s territorial diversity and the lack of systematic and robust knowledge about how EU policies impact on citizens’ attitudes and identity. The COHESIFY project aims to assess the contribution of EU Cohesion policy to a positive identification with the EU and to determine the implications for communicating EU Cohesion policy to citizens. The specific objectives are:

1. to develop an analytical framework based on a critical review and assessment of the current state of conceptual and methodological knowledge for exploring the interrelationship between policy implementation, communication and citizen perceptions at regional and local levels

2. to assess regional variation in the perceptions of the relevance of EU policies across the EU and over time

3. to analyse regional differences in perceptions of the implementation and performance of Cohesion policy among civic society groups and individual citizens at regional and local levels and how they influence citizens’ support for and identification with the EU;

4. to assess the effectiveness of EU Cohesion policy communication channels and initiatives targeting the public;

5. to formulate policy recommendations for adapting communication strategies at EU, national and regional levels to improve their impact and increase civic appreciation of Cohesion policy; and

6. to disseminate the research outputs to journalists and stakeholders and reach out to citizens at EU, national and local levels.
COHESIFY has explored the effectiveness of communication strategies, what needs to be done to improve the communication of policy with citizens, and what kinds of media or other tools can make a difference to citizens’ perceptions in different parts of the EU. The study has used a range of methodological tools: case studies and an original citizen survey of 8,500 people in 17 EU regions; 47 focus groups; framing and sentiment analysis of 6,700 news articles and 33,000 user comments; application of big data techniques to social media covering more than 115,000 posts/tweets and comments on Facebook and Twitter; and analysis of existing Eurobarometer and socio-economic data across regions. The key conclusions are:

1. The image of the EU among the public has deteriorated over the past decade, especially in Southern Europe. Importantly, attachment to the principle of European Union remains either neutral or positive.

2. There is clear evidence of the impact of Cohesion Policy on individual perceptions of the EU and European identity. Survey results demonstrate that awareness of (in particular) the ERDF and the Cohesion Fund, and communication about their benefits for citizen's daily lives and for their region's development contributes significantly to citizen identification with the EU.

3. Spending through Cohesion Policy improves recognition of the advantages of EU integration. Focus groups show that people recognise the importance of Cohesion Policy for convergence – narrowing differences in quality of life – and common action to address regional and local development problems. The citizen survey shows that the vast majority of people think that the economic impact has been positive for their region or city.

4. Perceptions of Cohesion Policy are influenced by exposure (the scale of funding in a country/region), the effectiveness of the policy (what it does and achieves), and the quality of its management (regularity, efficiency, transparency).

5. Perceptions are also affected by the coherence between citizens’ perceptions of development needs/challenges and how the funds are deployed. Focus groups show that many citizens believe that EU spending needs to be more focused on the perceived needs of their region or city.

6. Perceptions of Cohesion Policy are influenced by communication. Citizen awareness and the perceived effectiveness of Cohesion Policy are determined by media exposure and communication of EU funding. Regional and local news are generally more positive towards the EU than national news

7. The significant territorial differences in attitudes to and identification with the EU between and within countries mean that both the use of EU funding and its communication need to be regionally differentiated.

8. Communication strategies are improving but are failing to rise to the challenge in terms of a focus on citizens and their daily lives, clarity in presenting EU funding, sophistication of methods, effective use of both traditional and social media and local differentiation. Focus groups with citizens show that they are inadequately informed about Cohesion policy and want to have more say on how funds are allocated.

9. A new, more citizen-focused approach to the programming of EU funds is needed. Further, the role of communication in programming and implementation should be upgraded to connect more directly with citizens and increase their appreciation of the EU.
The impact of COHESIFY has been substantial in academic, policy and social terms. Academically, the research has contributed towards a better scientific understanding of the relationship between EU Cohesion Policy, European identity and perceptions by citizens. The results have been widely disseminated as research papers and scientific publications, many of which are in the pipeline. Policy impact has been achieved by delivering conclusions and recommendations that are relevant to policy at different levels. A letter from Commission President Juncker’s cabinet expressed gratitude for communicating the results directly to the President and informed the coordinator that the content was taken note of with attention and would be analysed further by Commissioner Creţu. A more detailed response – on behalf of President Juncker – by DG REGIO’s Policy Director confirmed the significant impact of the research in framing the post-2020 reform proposals and ongoing work on communication as follows: “The Cohesify project presents a wealth of information. I know that we have drawn on it in framing our communication of the post-2020 reform of Cohesion Policy, and will continue to do so in the future...I agree that we can do a lot more in this area...I firmly believe the Cohesify project is an important contribution in this respect, identifying many of the key challenges and techniques we will need for the coming months and years.” Beyond the impact on academia and policy, COHESIFY has achieved societal impact through awareness-raising activities targeting journalists, civil servants and politicians, civil society organisations and the public at large. This was achieved through a strong social media presence, the publication of articles in magazines (e.g. the DG REGIO Panorama publication) covering different languages, press releases and in particular the final conference. The project attracted considerable media attention across Europe which helped to disseminate the main messages of the project to the wider public.