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The Impact of Cohesion Policy on EU Identification

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - COHESIFY (The Impact of Cohesion Policy on EU Identification)

Reporting period: 2016-02-01 to 2017-01-31

The European Union (EU) requires citizens’ support and identification to enhance its legitimacy. The question of whether and how much European identity is necessary for European integration is highly contested, largely because it is connected to controversial normative debates about the nature of the EU as a polity. What is clear is that the politics of European identity in Europe has become more salient following the recent economic and migration crises which have fuelled a rise in nationalist and anti-EU sentiment across Europe and exposed deep divisions among governments and citizens about the value, purpose and future of the EU – most strikingly evident in the Brexit referendum vote in the United Kingdom. EU institutions have made it a priority to reconnect with European citizens through participatory, decentralised and creative communication about the EU. But this is a challenging task given the EU’s territorial diversity and the lack of systematic and robust knowledge about how specific EU policies impact on citizens’ attitudes and identity and what communication mechanisms would best serve the re-connection with citizens.

This is the context for the COHESIFY research project, which aims to assess the contribution of EU Cohesion policy to a positive identification with the European integration project in terms of a valued, popular sense of European identity and to determine the implications for EU strategies for communicating EU Cohesion policy to citizens. Its overall aim is to analyse the effect of Cohesion policy on the identification of citizens, at local and regional levels, with the EU and to determine the implications for EU strategies for communicating EU Cohesion policy to citizens. Within this overall aim, the project has the following specific objectives:

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.
In its first year, the project has developed an analytical framework to investigate the interrelationship between policy implementation, communication and citizen perceptions with a literature review and analysis of datasets on elections, public awareness of Cohesion policy and the spatial differentiation of Cohesion policy implementation. Two original taxonomies of EU regions have been produced on regional perceptions of citizens of different policy settings in which EU actions are implemented, and the relations between territorial characteristics of regions and the regional variation in EU identity, EU policy sensitivity performance of EU Cohesion policy. Analysis of the representation of EU themes in the electoral manifestos of sub-regional political parties across the EU has also been undertaken.

Preparatory work for two surveys is in progress. The first, being carried out by Consortium partners, involves a combination of online and interview survey of Cohesion policy stakeholders on their perceptions of policy implementation, performance and communication. The second, for which a procurement process has been launched, will involve a survey of citizens across regions and small states to show whether attitudes to the EU is affected by variation in key factors of theoretical interest such as knowledge and awareness of Cohesion policy.

Research has also been undertaken, through a literature review, on how the media represent citizens' attitudes towards Cohesion Policy, as well as the EU and its policies more generally. A web crawler has been designed to collect news articles, for analysis using data mining and sentiment analysis techniques, to help understand how citizens construct their attitudes on Cohesion policy in comparison to the media representations.

Finally, a communication strategy has been developed to publicise the project to relevant stakeholders at EU, national and sub-national levels. Knowledge exchange is being actively pursued through participation in events (EuropCom, European Week of Regions & Cities, INFORM, IQ-Net) complemented by active use of the web, blogs, social media, interviews and published articles in European and national/regional television and print media, and engagement with senior officials responsible for communication in the EU institutions.
The research is expected to contribute towards a better scientific understanding of the relationship between EU Cohesion policy, European identity and perception of EU by citizens. Research papers are published on the project website and will be developed into academic publications in the second phase of the project. Policy impact will be achieved by delivering conclusions and recommendations that are relevant to policy at different levels and to creative communication practice on Cohesion policy. Contacts and exchanges with representatives of EU institutions including through an advisory board have provided a good platform for engaging with policy-makers and Cohesion policy stakeholders. So too will engagement with policymakers in the case study regions during the next phase of the research. Beyond the impact on academia and policy, COHESIFY aims to have a societal impact through awareness-raising activities targeting journalists, civil servants and politicians, civil society organisations and the public at large. In the first stage of the project, this has involved developing a COHESIFY brand as well as a strong social media presence, the publication of articles in different magazines (e.g. the DG REGIO Panorama publication) covering different languages and blogs, as well as press releases.
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