EU Cohesion Policy is navigating stormy waters. Policymakers face challenging tasks of closing past programmes, implementing new ones and charting a course with an uncertain outlook. The 2021-27 programmes, which faced approval delays, are under pressure to spend rapidly. Closing 2014-20 programmes and managing Recovery and Resilience Facility funding at the same time has stretched capacity.
Thematic concentration was generally straightforward but balancing green, digital, and basic infrastructure investment needs is difficult for some countries. Only four Member States had recorded any EU payments for 2021-27 by end October 2023, apart from advance payments. The delays in launch and spending cast doubt on the ability to meet 2024 targets.
The Territorial Just Transition Plans had programming challenges and pressure to spend but are seen as effective instruments. Funding for territorial instruments has expanded with varied ambitions, whereas the use of financial instruments has declined in some countries.
The performance frameworks have pushed the use of common indicators, yet there are reservations about targets, data reliability, the clarity of guidelines and the implications of implementation delays. The compliance with enabling conditions took longer than anticipated and was administratively onerous.
The debate on the EU’s post-2027 budget and Cohesion Policy has intensified amid challenges of the Ukraine war, net zero commitments and budgetary strains, with Member States hesitant to commit more resources for EU spending.
The Mid-Term Revision (MTR) of the budget underscores the energy crisis, migration costs and introduces the Strategic Technologies for Europe Platform to foster innovation using Cohesion Policy funding. The MTR looks to be prioritising new policies over cohesion. As it aligns with EU economic governance, Cohesion Policy risks being overshadowed in terms of unacknowledged territorial disparities and place-based solutions at EU level.
Debates on regional funding eligibility, development traps, green transition challenges, and EU enlargement further intensify the debate on the resourcing and distribution of cohesion funding. Many contributions to the debate on future Cohesion Policy urge radical reform. The question is whether there is a strong enough constituency to articulate the case for a powerful Cohesion Policy.