EU discontent: leaving regions behind puts the European project at risk

David Hackling- Information and Communication Officer- DG REGIO

In less than eight months, the first European elections since the UK left the EU will be held. Brexit was a wake-up call that made it clear to everyone that support for the European project cannot be taken for granted.

The results of the 2024 elections could see the highest polls ever for Eurosceptic parties. Trends show that Euroscepticism is on the rise in the EU because of disengagement and discontent among citizens.

What are the reasons behind this worrying trend?
Recent research has shown that citizens from regions stuck in the so-called ‘development trap’ (regions unable to retain their economic dynamism in terms of income, productivity and employment) are much more likely to vote for Eurosceptic parties. According to many scholars, the support for anti-system parties is linked to long-term economic decline in places that have struggled to adapt to globalisation, trade integration, and the green and digital transitions.

Big cities tend to be economically dynamic and diverse places where progressive ideas are accepted. Many smaller cities, towns and rural areas lack these characteristics.

Cohesion Policy could be the solution to this worrying trend, as it shows that every day the EU is improving the economic and social conditions of its regions for its citizens.
Reviving EU regions and delivering on the green and digital transitions

During the 2023 #EURegionsWeek, which took place in Brussels on 9–12 October, citizens discussed the causes of the regional development trap, which makes people feel forgotten by the EU. The result was clear: strong Cohesion Policy is crucial to help regions to get out of the trap.

So what is Cohesion Policy actually doing to help regions to escape this trap? In the 2021–2027 programming period, Cohesion Policy will support in particular those regions that are facing big challenges. The Just Transition Fund will provide crucial investment to support people and businesses in the regions most affected by the green transition in their industries. EUR 19.2 billion is available for measures such as upskilling and reskilling workers from the mining sector or other carbon-intensive industries.

Cohesion Policy will also invest a total of EUR 118 billion in climate action to help all regions in their path towards climate neutrality. Without these investments, many regions would not be able to implement the green transition on the ground.

Moreover, Cohesion Policy will boost digitalisation in European regions, an important factor in combating the digital divide. EUR 40 billion of investments are available for the digitalisation of, for instance, SMEs and public services, and for the rapid rollout of broadband infrastructure.

The Talent Booster Mechanism, a new set of initiatives launched under Cohesion Policy, will help regions faced with a rapid decline in their working age population and high youth outmigration. It will promote training in those regions and retaining and attract talent there.

A policy close to the citizens
Thanks to its place-based approach, which ensures that investments are tailored to local realities and challenges on the ground in Europe’s regions, Cohesion Policy is the EU policy that is most relevant to people’s daily lives and their concerns.

A recent Eurobarometer on citizens’ awareness and perception of Cohesion Policy showed that only 4 out of 10 people are aware of related EU-funded projects in their regions, a result that leaves room for improvement. Even among regional and local authorities, 3 out of 10 seem to be unaware of any EU-funded projects in their region, as indicated by another recent survey published by the CoR.

However, the Eurobarometer also showed that, among citizens who are aware of EU-funded projects, 8 out of 10 think that they have a positive impact on their region.

Cohesion Policy has a huge untapped potential to fight Euroscepticism. Making more people aware of EU-funded projects and engaging more with citizens living in smaller cities, towns and rural areas will bridge the gap between European institutions and local communities and prevent some citizens from feeling left behind by the EU.

These actions are crucial for the future of regions and for the future of Europe.

This article appears in Thriving Regions Stronger Together

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