Policy brief

How to improve European Union cohesion policy for the next decade

This policy contribution investigates the performance of the design, implementation and effectiveness of cohesion policy, the most evaluated EU tool f

Publishing date
22 May 2019

The academic literature on the effectiveness of the European Union’s cohesion policy is inconclusive: some studies find positive long-term impacts, others find positive but only short-term impacts, while others find no or even negative impacts. This range of results arises from major complicating factors, related to complex local environments, the diversity of policy interventions beyond cohesion policy, varying time frames, cross-regional spillover effects, lack of appropriate data for the analysis and various econometric problems and related estimation biases.

We adopted a novel methodology that first estimated ‘unexplained economic growth’ by controlling for the influence of various region-specific factors, and then analysed its relationship with about two dozen characteristics specific to projects carried out in various regions in the context of EU cohesion policy. We found that the best-performing regions have on average projects with longer durations, fewer priorities, more inter-regional focus, lower national co-financing, more national (as opposed to regional and local) management, a higher proportion of private or non-profit participants among the beneficiaries (as opposed to public-sector beneficiaries) and a higher level of funding from the Cohesion Fund. No clear patterns emerged concerning the sector of intervention.

Interviews with stakeholders suggested that cohesion policy is the most evaluated of all EU policies and generates European value added. In some countries, local stakeholders have different attitudes towards cohesion and national funds, which sometimes leads to less-careful management of EU funds. The Performance Framework is seen as creating an additional layer of administrative burden, without a clear connection to results or the quality of interventions. Beyond the crucial role of administrative capacity and institutional quality, there are no clear-cut characteristics that contribute to the success of cohesion programmes.

Cohesion policy reform should focus on addressing the underlying problems, involving more strategic planning, fostering simplification but with stricter controls when the corruption risk is high, increasing the interregional focus and exploring synergies with other EU and national programmes. Focused and longer-term strategic programmes do not require high levels of flexibility. The national co-financing rate should be set on the basis of fiscal constraints, the additionality principle and corruption risk. The importance of a locally-led perspective should be reconciled with our finding that centralised management works better. Thematic concentration along with fewer EU goals is well justified for more-developed regions, but not for less-developed regions. A strengthened link with the European Semester should be avoided. Transparency over data, design and implementation of projects should be increased.

About the authors

  • Zsolt Darvas

    Zsolt Darvas, a Hungarian citizen, joined Bruegel as a Visiting Fellow in September 2008 and continued his work at Bruegel as a Research Fellow from January 2009, before being appointed Senior Fellow from September 2013. He is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Corvinus University of Budapest.

    From 2005 to 2008, he was the Research Advisor of the Argenta Financial Research Group in Budapest. Before that, he worked at the research unit of the Central Bank of Hungary (1994-2005) where he served as Deputy Head.

    Zsolt holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Corvinus University of Budapest where he teaches courses in Econometrics but also at other institutions since 1994. His research interests include macroeconomics, international economics, central banking and time series analysis.

  • Jan Mazza

    Jan, an Italian and Polish citizen, is a research assistant at Bruegel. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Economics and Political Science and a Master's degree in Economics, both from the University of Bologna, and a Master of Science in Economics and Philosophy from the London School of Economics. During his studies, he also spent a semester at the University Paris-2 Panthéon-Assas and one at the Ludwig-Maximilians University of Munich.

    Before joining Bruegel he was a trainee at the European Commission (DG Budget) and at the Brussels office of Assonime, the association of Italian joint stock companies.

    His research interests include European governance, international economics, monetary and fiscal policy.
    Jan is fluent in Italian, English and French and has a good knowledge of Spanish.

  • Catarina Midões

    Catarina Midões works at Bruegel as a Research Analyst, where her research is centred on Better Regulation in EU law-making, Competition Policy and Cohesion Policy. Catarina holds an MSc in Econometrics and Operations Research with a Specialisation in Econometrics from Maastricht University and a BSc in Economics from Nova SBE. Her research work has been focused in inequality, ex-post impact evaluation of public policy and inference techniques.

    Before joining Bruegel, Catarina worked as an Economic Analyst at Oxera, where she focused on efficiency benchmarking in the regulated utility markets, using Stochastic Frontier Analysis and Data Envelopment Analysis, and on transport economics, in ex-ante evaluation of transport projects and estimation of public transport demand elasticities.

    Catarina also completed an internship in the European Commission’s Joint Research Center, in the Competence Centre on Microeconomic Evaluation, where she focused on implementation of Structural Reforms. Catarina also worked as a Research Assistant in Nova School of Business and Economics, as part of the research centre NOVAFRICA.

    She is fluent in Portuguese, English and Spanish and has a working knowledge of Italian.

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