At the recent European Week of Regions and Cities, a senior official summed up the Commission’s current position on what ‘territorial cohesion’ means: “We know it when we see it.” Territorial Cohesion is a vital principle for the EU. As a policy, it aims to redress disparities between Europe’s regions. In practice, that means distributing funding for regional development projects. But getting regional development ‘right’ is a major challenge at both European and local levels – and it may not help that the EU has never quite defined what territorial cohesion’s key components are. Is it really enough to say we know cohesion when we see it?

Cohesion as a ‘fuzzy’ concept

There are good reasons for not defining territorial cohesion. After all, as Andreas Faludi points out, when concepts are left ‘fuzzy’, there can be something in them for everybody. This is not just useful for a Europe united in diversity. Practically, keeping cohesion fuzzy allows the idea to be adapted into different national and regional policy frameworks. That means, for example, that the devolved government in Cymru Wales can work with cohesion, and so can INTERREG projects that cooperate across borders. But although they’re all working towards territorial cohesion, they might not be doing the same ‘cohesion’. With a fuzzy concept, it is hard to know.

The European Commission has made several attempts to clarify cohesion’s fuzziness, like the 2008 Green Paper on Territorial Cohesion. The concept has been variously linked to sustainability, good governance, polycentric development, inter-regional networking and cooperation. But researchers have continued to find little common understanding among regional stakeholders. Lisa Van Well, for example, has shown how cohesion gets used across Europe mainly in relation to regions’ own priorities. We have found similar results in our own respective research on Austrian-Czech-Slovak-Hungarian cooperation and in Wales. In Wales, research for the IMAJINE project found that policymakers were well aware of European funding, but much less certain about the goals for cohesion that funding is meant to serve. Meanwhile, research into three cross-border INTERREG A programmes in the Austrian-Czech-Slovak-Hungarian border region again showed how stakeholders base their understanding of cohesion mainly upon their own regional needs. Without a common European definition of territorial cohesion, regions tend to design their own.

“What has the EU ever done for us?”

What we might call ‘design your own’ cohesion has helped the widespread acceptance of cohesion policy. Development is not a cookie cutter, and regions do know their own needs best. Yet, while the European Commission leaves territorial cohesion conceptually fuzzy, it continues to propose ever more narrowly defined indicators to measure the regional effects of funded projects. These indicators mean that member states and programme authorities are being pushed to rigidly operationalise the Commission’s current vision for territorial cohesion – without the Commission actually defining what this vision should look like long term. Measuring a fuzzy concept can cause a lot of confusion.

More than confusion is at stake. Andrés Rodriguez-Pose warns of ‘the revenge of the places that don’t matter’, in which growing regional disparities lead to declining public support for the EU. This has already happened in Wales, where a majority voted for Brexit, despite the country being a net beneficiary of EU funds. One often retold story has a young man standing outside an EU-funded regeneration project, asking “What has the EU ever done for us?”. These sorts of stories have led the Commission to take a growing interest in communication (#EUinmyRegion). But is more communication a real solution? Preliminary Brexit analysis from IMAJINE’s Diana Gutiérrez Posada and Maria Plotnikova suggests that the poorer a region compared to its neighbours, the more likely it had a higher percentage of leave votes. Better communication will not help people in the places that don’t matter to know cohesion when they see it, because they might not be seeing it.

Communication is not the answer

No matter how high the European budget for communication strategies rises, if territorial cohesion remains a fuzzy concept it will still be ultimately difficult to say what it is or what should be communicated. We’re left with disparate regional projects, some of which the Commission ‘knows’ as territorial cohesion, but others (as the increasing indicators suggest) that might be looked at askance. By keeping territorial cohesion fuzzy, the Commission has brought member states on board. But the waters are choppy, and the Commission has navigated into an awkward spot where it wants to measure and communicate what it will not define. So let’s be clear: the solution is not just saying ‘cohesion’ more often – it is to commonly agree on what we want to see in the future development of European territories.


About the authors

Barbara Demeterova is a PhD candidate at the Andrássy University Budapest, Hungary and works at the Research Lab Democracy and Society in Transition at Danube-University Krems, Austria. She is part of the ECOnet project that deals with economic and political development in rural regions. Her research focuses on European cohesion policy, territorial cohesion, cross-border cooperation and urban and regional development in Central and Eastern Europe.


Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Aberystwyth University in Cymru Wales. She is part of the Horizon 2020 funded IMAJINE project, which addresses territorial inequalities in Europe through spatial justice. Her main expertise is in rural development and ethnographic research, and she is affiliated to WISERD, the Wales Institute of Social & Economic Research, Data & Methods. @bryonnygh

Both authors are writing in a personal capacity.


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