SERN Policy Briefing: Cohesion Policy linked to SDGs

SERN Policy Briefing #3: 20/9/2020

Cohesion policy linked to SDGs: how do these interact?

Cohesion policy linked to SDGs: an interesting interaction. The development of UN SDGs is an important pillar of EU policy. These interact in particular ways with European cohesion policy. Below, we’ll explain how.

Europe’s cohesion policy has a tangible impact on the lives of millions of Europeans. Then, Cohesion is at the heart of the European Project. And reform, with cohesion, must be at the top of the agenda. More coherence between EU policies to build a tailored cohesion policy for all regions becomes an important issue. Investment in local communities and infrastructure helps regions to catch up and reduces geographical disparities.

It also helps to address daily realities, such as a growing rural divide, or ageing and declining populations in different parts of Europe. Reforms and cohesion must work together. They must reinforce each other, not come at each other’s expense. Taxpayers should not fund policies which contradict or ignore each other.

The European project was built for the benefit of its citizens, independently of the place where they happened to be born, which puts a huge responsibility on the politicians to create the right instruments for an accelerated process of convergence of the less prosperous regions and countries towards higher levels of prosperity combating with determination against the risk of being ‘left behind’.

This effort is what cohesion policy has been attempting to achieve with a lot of lessons to be learned from several decades-long and rich experience. However, transition and adaption to new ways of working have to absorb the new paradigms that will make the difference between a long-term sustainable development and a short-term support: environment and climate awareness together with the development of digital capacities enabling future-oriented development. The European Green Deal with the transition to a healthy planet and a Europe fit for the digital age constitute a perfect framework for action.

The 2030 Agenda

The 2030 Agenda foresees the implementation of the SDGs by 2030. The MFF (multiannual financial framework) is the EU’s long term budget. It will run for at least five, more likely for seven years – that is from 2021-2027. Whilst encouraging and mobilizing others around the world to implement the 2030 Agenda is important, the MFF post-2020 provides a unique opportunity to match EU’s policies and initiatives with the future financial framework to ensure delivering on commitments. For the EU to achieve these ambitious goals, the platform unanimously recommends that the next MFF thoroughly mainstreams the sustainable development throughout the EU budget for the EU to be able to meet its 2030 commitments. This also requires a re-definition of the current guiding principle behind spending decisions, economic growth, towards sustainability (with its environmental and social dimension). The MFF post-2020 will cover a crucial period regarding delivering the SDGs.

In the 2021-2027 period, the thematic menu will consist of five “Policy Objectives” covering economic, social and territorial cohesion and contributing to the smart, sustainable and inclusive growth of the Union. And these investments will contribute to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Indeed, the outputs and results of the cohesion policy will be tracked through a set of common output and result indicators, which relate to many of those goals.


Cohesion is a strategic policy for the survival of the European project

In fact, the welfare generated by the European internal market reinforced (in the case of some of its members) by the participation in a monetary union and banking union, does not automatically trigger a generalised and balanced sharing of such welfare by all citizens in all regions. The challenge increases in the present globalised competitive world where competition is harder and often fierce.

In her candidacy for Commissioner, Elisa Ferreira ensured the delivery of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) within her policy area. Her team as a whole will be responsible for the overall implementation of the Goals in the field of Cohesion.

Investment in local communities and infrastructure helps regions to catch up and reduces geographical disparities. Ferreira is in charge of a large portfolio of investments within the MFF and also manage Structural and Investment Funds. In total, she takes over the management of €373 BEUR proposed for future Cohesion Policy.

The mission Letter…

According to the “mission letter” addressed to Ferreira by Von der Leyen, during the next five years her role is to:

  • work with the co-legislators to find agreement on a legislative framework for Cohesion Funds for the next long-term budget. Support regions and managing authorities in preparing their programmes, in line with their specific needs and Europe’s overall objectives.
  • work with the Member States to ensure they make full and effective use of the funds in the current budget and ensure there are appropriate controls on expenditure.
  • design and put forward a new Just Transition Fund, working closely with the Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal and the Commissioner for Budget and Administration. It should offer tailored support for the most affected, for instance, those in industrial, coal and energy-intensive regions undergoing significant local transformations. There should be close coordination between the Just Transition Fund, employment and social funds, as well as the InvestEU Programme.
  • support Member States’ structural reforms aimed at speeding up growth-enhancing investments through the Structural Reform Support Service, offering technical and financial support for reforms.
  • promote sustainable development of Europe’s cities and urban areas on issues such as climate change, digitalisation and the circular economy.

Concerning the actions to get the SDGs, the climate and digital transitions are already having a profound impact on many communities and workers. At the same time, regions will also provide many of the solutions and innovations we need. We must support a just transition through targeted investment and support for structural reforms to speed up inclusive growth.

So cohesion policy spending should be strongly linked to the European green deal and digital objectives. Just Transition Fund will also be an immediate task, inspired by a Parliament proposal to support regions where the transition to a climate-neutral economy is more challenging, namely, industrial, coal and energy-intensive regions. And involving local stakeholders is essential, a partnership is also crucial, to ensure that there is full participation of local communities in every project.

Furthermore, Gender equality is a vital component of sound economic growth and cohesion policies. In line with the President-elect’s political agenda, gender mainstreaming will be also a priority for her mandate. She believes that there must be the same opportunities for all who share the same aspirations. 

Tracking progress, a challenge…

To adjust policies accordingly, it will be required good data to monitor the progress that will enable governments to make evidence-based decisions and citizens to hold them to account. In short, Europe needs a new global positioning system–a GPS for the SDGs. Many of the SDG targets are complex, interlinked and multifaceted, requiring the development of new concepts and measures. The SDGs’ emphasis on leaving no one behind will also require disaggregated data across multiple dimensions, such as gender, age and socioeconomic status.

To be sure, the SDG measurement task is daunting. No country, even EUROSTAT, currently has all the necessary data. New sources must be tapped to fill the gaps, and an unprecedented and sustained international effort will be needed to develop all the information required. But there are good reasons to hope that the challenge can be met. There are now more data available than ever and new technologies and methods can provide more detailed and granular information.

National-level reporting presents special challenges, as countries must first adopt and adapt the global goals in the light of their situations and objectives. To help members orient their thinking on national follow-up, it should be produced a preliminary assessment of their starting positions against the SDGs. This will help shed light on national priorities to deliver on both domestic outcomes and global responsibilities, thus demonstrating the importance European countries attach to this universal agenda.

Clearly, building a statistical system capable of pinpointing countries’ progress against the SDGs will demand even greater investment in capacity and skills across the entire spectrum–from conceiving and collecting data to interpreting and communicating them clearly, and making them open and accessible to all.

The impact…? 

The impact of the implementation of cohesion policy on the sustainable development of EU countries is of great interest and presents several actual challenges. In the context of EU regional development, cohesion policy and sustainable development converge into a common economic strategy. Cohesion policy also encourages regions and cities in the different EU Member States to collaborate and learn from each other through collaboration through programs, projects and networks with a concrete impact on every economic aspect including innovation, accessibility, education, business, employment or the environment.

Integration of sustainable development objectives into EU policies and initiatives is thus an undeniable subject, with the European Commission regularly reporting from 2017 on the progress made by the EU in implementing the Agenda 2030, with the main aim of defining a long-term vision longer in a post-2020 perspective.


Regional Development and Cohesion Policy beyond 2020

Five main objectives will drive EU investments in 2021-2027. Regional development investments will strongly focus on objectives 1 and 2. 65% to 85% of ERDF and Cohesion Fund resources will be allocated to these priorities, depending on Member States’ relative wealth.

  1. Smarter Europe, through innovation, digitisation, economic transformation and support to small and medium-sized businesses
  2. a Greener, carbon-free Europe, implementing the Paris Agreement and investing in the energy transition, renewables and the fight against climate change
  3. a more Connected Europe, with strategic transport and digital networks
  4. a more Social Europe, delivering on the European Pillar of Social Rights and supporting quality employment, education, skills, social inclusion and equal access to healthcare
  5. Europe closer to citizens, by supporting locally-led development strategies and sustainable urban development across the EU.

The allocation method for the funds is still largely based on GDP per capita. New criteria are added (youth unemployment, low education level, climate change, and the reception and integration of migrants) to better reflect the reality on the ground. Outermost regions will continue to benefit from special EU support.

Cohesion Policy further supports locally-led development strategies and empowers local authorities in the management of the funds. The urban dimension of Cohesion Policy is strengthened, with 6% of the ERDF dedicated to sustainable urban development, and a new networking and capacity-building programme for urban authorities, the European Urban Initiative.


Local approaches cases based on the SDGs

In Spain, for the Basque country, the regional strategy ‘Agenda Euskadi 2030‘ closely follows Agenda 2030 objectives, develops them coherently with the local context, and links them to topics and objectives of the 2017-2020 Programme of the Basque Government (Basque Government, 2016). The strategy is aligned along with both the 15 overarching goals defined by the Basque Government’s programme and the 17 SDGs. For each of the SDGs, 100 specific targets are detailed which translate into 93 commitments. Selection criteria include the proximity of commitments to SDGs, focusing on issues of common interest rather than merely domestic problems. Each programme action is defined up to the end of the Basque Government’s term in 2020.

The municipality of Utrecht strategy focuses on making the population more aware of SDGs. By developing the strategy ‘along the way’ and depending on community initiatives, the aim is for awareness and knowledge about SDGs to generate more projects and gradually relate or develop policies linked to them. Local authorities neither focus on specific SDGs nor use them explicitly to address the city’s main development challenges or opportunities. Ongoing and supported activities would, however, most likely relate to SDG 11 – sustainable cities and communities.

In Italy, the strategy for sustainable development (NSDS) was defined at the national level and approved in 2016. Organised around the five core areas of Agenda 2020 – People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace and Partnership – identifies priorities addressing National Strategic Choices and delivering SDGs. In the Lombardy region, the partnership first considered climate and energy issues, in line with the regional priorities. SDG indicators cover broader topics, including socio and economic aspects. The national NSDS covers all socio-economic and environmental dimensions of sustainable development.

The following table shows the connection between the SDGs and the external/internal actions that the European Union is carrying out, through its different tools and Institutions: