Championing Social Cohesion: Analyzing the Strength of the 2021-2027 EU Cohesion Policy in Advancing
As Europe moves towards a new geostrategic platform in the 21st century, the continued coalescence of a cohesive European identity is essential to both internal and global progress. In parallel, migration and questions of internal mobility have in recent years come as major challenges to European integration and continued development of a common European identity. The European Union’s renewed Cohesion Policy for 2021-2027 aims to simultaneously address both issues and continue a legacy of prioritization of the social, economic, and territorial aspects of cohesion. How does the new EU Cohesion Policy address issues of social cohesion related to increased migration and inclusion within the EU? What are the strengths and weakness of these policies and funds, and what can be improved?
Overview of EU Cohesion Policies
The ethos behind the European Union’s implementation of regional policies dedicated to multilateral cohesion builds on Article 174 from the original Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. This article states that in order to promote “harmonious development”, the European Union shall pursue policies that aim to “strengthen its economic, social, and territorial cohesion”, as well as “reduce disparities between the levels of development of the various regions and the backwardness of the least favored regions.” Since its inception in 1957, considerable funds have been put aside by the EU to promote these principles. While the scope and implementation of this budget has shifted in tandem with the changing political, economic, and social landscape of the EU, its overall objective remains the same: “to support job creation, business competitiveness, economic growth, sustainable development, and improve citizens’ quality of life'' in all regions and cities of the EU (European Commission, n.d.).
European Union Cohesion Policy frameworks are established every 7 years, with the most recent period being from 2021 to 2027. The priorities and principles of these policies are negotiated between the EU member states and the Commission. Once strategies are established at the state and regional level, member states are then in charge of their implementation. The new EU Cohesion Policy for the period from 2021 to 2027 differs significantly from its predecessors based on its unique approach to its priorities as well as its implementation. The new Cohesion Policy has reduced its objectives from 11 to 5, with a focus on “a more competitive and smarter Europe, a greener, low‑carbon transitioning towards a net zero carbon economy, a more connected Europe by enhancing mobility, a more social and inclusive Europe, and a Europe closer to citizens by fostering the sustainable and integrated development of all types of territories” (European Commission, n.d.). Other significant changes include a greater reliance on local and regional institutions in managing policy programs, as well as more flexible fund allocation with the addition of regular strategic reviews. The four general funds that are jointly used to implement the EU Cohesion Policy objectives are the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the Cohesion Fund (CF), the European Social Fund Plus (ESF+), and the Just Transition (JT) Fund. Other EU funds connected to these policy objectives include the European Maritime, Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund (EMFAF); the Asylum, Migration, and Integration Fund (AMIF); Border Management and Visa Instrument (BMVI); and the Internal Security Fund. These 8 budget allocations make up all EU funds subject to the Common Provisions Regulation, a single framework that dictates the regulations behind all EU shared management funds. These shared funds, which are jointly managed by national authorities and the Commission, make up almost a third of the entire EU budget.
Migrant Integration Funding Frameworks for the EU
The last ten years have seen an accelerated evolution of the frameworks that the EU uses in managing migration, including issues of integration and inclusion of migrant populations. Back in 2011, the EU merged the European Agenda for the Integration of Third-Country Nationals with dedicated funding sources to support the implementation and completion of these integration policy goals. In 2016, the official Action Plan on Integration was launched, a comprehensive framework to guide EU level funding to support Member States’ integration initiatives. In tandem with the renewal of the 2021-2027 EU Cohesion Policies, the EU has also developed a renewed 2021-2027 Action Plan on Integration and Inclusion responding to various integration challenges. While the overarching goals remain similar, funding sources and implementation strategies differ greatly from predecessor.
The Action Plans for Integration aim to help migrants into the EU attain full economic, social, political, and cultural integration over the course of their lifetime. The plans created by the EC pull heavily from the European Pillar of Social Rights, established in 2017 as a “rulebook for the essential rights and principles that the EU must seek to adopt and embody in order to build a strong Social Europe” (European Commission, 2022a). Specifically, the 2021-2027 plan aims to increase effectiveness of the previously established policy goals. The new framework, for example, has expanded its scope to include third-country nationals (both EU and non-EU; European Commission, n.d.). Strategies for implementation have also been reorganized. The 2021-2027 action plan stresses the importance of local and regional partners in initiating integration policies. Greater dialogue between member states and local grassroots initiatives can be considered as the backbone of the new action plan.
Most significantly, the new 2021-2027 action plan heavily consolidates the funding sources for new integration initiatives. Before 2021, funding related to migration was heavily decentralized, across almost 9 different funding sources available through both Member States and the EC. The new action plan, however, focuses heavily on only two sources of funding to help develop strategies for both short- and long-term integration initiatives. The Asylum, Migration, and Integration Fund (AMIF) is the main funding source for short term integration policies and migration management, with its main goals being to strengthen common European asylum policy, tackle irregular migration, encourage legal migration pathways, and enhance cross-border responsibility and solidarity among Member States. This fund has seen a staggering increase from the 2014-2020 period (from €3.137 billion to €9.9 billion). While the main policy goals of AMIF have stayed consistent, the new 2021-2027 plan further encourages transnational partnerships.
Long-term integration funding has seen the most reorganization under the 2021-2027 action plan. In addition to a few other funding sources, EU Cohesion Policy funding plays a major role in developing sustainable integration initiatives within the EU. The two sources utilized for developing long term integration include the aforementioned ESF+ and the ERDF. The ESF+ has amalgamated many of the old funding sources related to employment and social policies, while the ERDF pursues these social programs through regional initiatives. How do these programs for integration further the EU’s goals of building a more integrated and cohesive society?
Overview of Changes in the 2021-2027 EU Cohesion Policy Funding
The ESF+ is the EU’s main instrument in developing social policies and initiatives to meet the goals of the European Pillars of Social Rights. The € 99.3 billion budget for the 2021-2027 year is utilized by both Member States and the EC to contribute to structural reforms for the EU’s employment, social, education and skills policies (European Commission, 2022b). The origins of this fund can be traced to the Treaty of Rome, making it one of the EU’s oldest European Structural and Investment Funds (Brine, 2002). In 2021, the European Social Fund was renamed the ESF+ because of its new aggregated funding structure, which brings together the older European Social Fund (ESF), the Fund for European Aid to the most Deprived (FEAD), the Youth Employment Initiative, and the European Program for Employment and Social Innovation.
The ESF+ “finances the implementation of the principles of the European Pillar of Social Rights” by focusing on three main pillars of policy action: education and skills, employment, and social inclusion (European Commission, 2022b). Integration programs for migrants are developed within all three areas of focus. Initiatives in the employment sector have included adaptation of labor market institutions and services to accommodate migrants as well as initiatives to improve labor market accessibility. Equal access to educational services for both migrant youth and adults have also been a key policy initiative within the ESF+. However, policies supporting social inclusion have been the most targeted in catering to migrant integration. While employment and education initiatives tend to laterally benefit migrants, social inclusion policies are better targeted to ensure migrants are receiving full access to social benefits and opportunities offered by the ESF+ programs.
Funding for the ESF+ is implemented through a two-pronged structure. The vast majority of the budget is given directly to Member States to finance local partners in developing integration initiatives. Member State responsibility lies with allocation of appropriate funds, while the EC is responsible for monitoring implementation. The EC also has a direct pool of funds to manage, titled the Employment and Social Innovation strand (EaSI). The main goal of this strand is to “support analytical activities… to promote evidence-based policy making in the areas of employment and social policy” (European Commission, n.d.). The EC is in charge of all aspects of fund allocation for the EaSI strand, including the call for proposals and follow-up of their implementation.
The European Social Fund is arguably the most valuable tool for the Union’s investment in creating a sustainable and efficient environment for the long-term integration of migrants. Its main strength comes from its decentralized funding process. By giving Member States the freedom to allocate funds to local partners, they are creating an environment for the development of effective integration programs. Migrant integration is a multifaceted process that can differ greatly between communities. By allowing for flexibility and encouraging a reliance on local partners, integration programming can be customized to fit the needs of local migrant communities.
While the ESF+ comes with its many strengths, there are still considerable challenges that may arise because of the fund’s new structure. While the ESF+’s fund consolidation attempts to maximize efficiency, it might actually stall fund allocation for various programs. With a greater range of responsibilities and priorities, the ESF+’s funding allocation process could prove to be more susceptible to administrative and bureaucratic hurdles, making programs less efficient. This problem could also arise during emergency situations involving increased migration into Europe. Even though AMIF funds most of the short-term integration initiatives, emergency funding for long-term integration initiatives to help increase personnel and resources might be delayed because of the ESF+’s current wider range of priorities. There is also the question of long-term funding and its continuity. Creating funds with direct goals to aid in long-term integration only works effectively if these funds can be relied on further down the road; local programs and initiatives might not be as sustainable or efficient if funding is only promised for 7-year periods.
The ERDF is another one of the EU’s main European Structural and Investment Funds. Its origin stems from the initial impetus of the EU to create some sort of regional investment framework. Unlike its counterparts within the 2021-2027 Cohesion Policies, the ERDF aims to encourage investment in infrastructure and services of less developed regions in Europe, not only from a country-to-country basis (European Commission, n.d.). Similarly, the ERDF has had several changes to its funding framework for the 2021-2027 period. Thematic concentrations will be given a high priority, rather than solely a regional focus. These concentrations center around creating more green, innovative, and inclusive Europe. Primary goals for these concentrations include developing a more connected and smarter Europe by promoting innovation and technological transformation, transitioning towards a greener Europe and a new zero carbon economy through clean energy transitions and climate change mitigation, and promoting a more inclusive and social Europe through investment in housing, education, public health, and social programs. The new framework also prioritizes communication among regional partners to ensure that research and innovation can be utilized cooperatively.
The ERDF shares many of its strengths and weaknesses with the ESF+. The ERDF also draws strength from its ability to coordinate regional initiatives, while its move towards thematic concentrations may lead to stronger competition for funding. The same questions arise for continuity of funding as well. Especially considering its regional scope, having funding only confirmed for a certain period could create instability within integration initiatives. Actual analysis of implementation of initiatives will have to tell whether the ERDF can be a functional tool for promoting integration initiatives in the EU.
Case Study: Belgium and Migrant Integration Initiatives
The 2021-2027 Cohesion Policy funds are still in an ongoing process of allotment as Member States develop management strategies. Therefore, continuous analysis of the implemented projects will be necessary to fully understand how the changes made to the Cohesion Policy frameworks and individual funding frameworks for the 2021-2027 period will impact actual initiatives. However, since the beginning of the funding period, some countries have started to establish local partnerships for engaging with migrant integration. The following section will examine the recent migration integration initiatives established by Belgium.
Belgium is the first country in this funding period to fund a new initiative related to migration integration. This project, based in Brussels, is titled “Achieving Inclusion for Migrants living with Undocumented or Precarious Status” and is funded by the ESF+’s Employment and Social Innovation strand. It is spearheaded by the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM), a network of organizations working to ensure social justice and human rights for undocumented migrants (PICUM, 2020). The project aims to “develop a positive narrative about migration and the presence and contributions of undocumented people living and working in the EU, in a context where there is greater recognition of the ‘essential’ work of migrants who have been invisible and undervalued”. According to PICUM, the current pandemic has uncovered systemic gaps that exist within EU social structures and initiatives in serving migrant populations. The proposal framework goals intend to center equity in the ongoing development of social policies. The current project states that its advocacy will take place on both the EU and Member State level by activating member organizations throughout PICUM’s network. Through this funded project, PICUM hopes to influence EU policy making in the areas of “poverty and social inclusion, labor markets, fair working conditions, child poverty and well-being, health care and social service provisions” to include provisions that account for needed opportunities and for challenges faced by migrants. PICUM’s proposal also plans to engage new audiences to create positive narratives of a more inclusive Europe through its communications networks.
The project proposed by PICUM stands out as an exemplary funding initiative for the ESF+. This project has a built-in cooperation thread, where local partners will automatically be engaged in advocacy efforts as PICUM is inherently a partnership system. The funding line from the ESF+ for this project comes directly from EaSI, which is directly managed by the EC and therefore has fewer administrative hurdles in terms of funding allocation and proposal approval. While PICUM’s proposal is a strong example of how the new funding structures for Cohesion Policy can further integration, there is still room for differently structured proposals in order to understand whether the new funding frameworks truly promote effectiveness.
Recommendations for Policy Implementation
The European Social Fund and the Europeans Regional Development Fund are arguably the most valuable tools for the Union’s investment in creating a sustainable and efficient environment for the long-term integration of migrants. Their main strengths come from their decentralized funding process. However, with a greater range of responsibilities and priorities, the ESF+’s funding allocation process could prove to be susceptible to administrative barriers, decreasing the efficiency of programs. Creating more permanent safeguards for program funding could aid in establishing more sustainable long-term integration initiative. Creating funds with goals to improve long-term integration only works effectively if these funds are also promised for the foreseeable future. In order to ensure that the implementation of these funds are creating an environment for the development of effective and efficient integration programs, the EC and Member States must ensure that partnerships with local organizations are prioritized in fund allocation. By allowing flexibility and encouraging the involvement of local partners, integration programming can be customized to fit the needs of local migrant communities.
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