Economic, social and territorial cohesion
Economic and social cohesion is an expression of solidarity between the Member States and regions of the European Union. The aim is balanced development throughout the EU, reducing structural disparities between regions and promoting equal opportunities for all. In practical terms, this is achieved by means of a variety of financing operations, principally through the Structural Funds and the Cohesion Fund. Every three years the European Commission presents a report on progress made in achieving economic and social cohesion and on how Community policies have contributed to it.
At European level, the origins of economic and social cohesion go back to the Treaty of Rome (1957) where a reference is made in the preamble to reducing regional disparities. In the 1970s, Community action was taken to coordinate the national instruments and provide additional financial resources. Subsequently these measures proved inadequate given the situation in the Community, where the establishment of the internal market, contrary to forecasts, had failed to even out the differences between regions. With the adoption of the Single European Act in 1986, economic and social cohesion proper was made an objective alongside completing the single market. The Maastricht Treaty (1992), finally, incorporated the policy into the EC Treaty itself (Articles 158 to 162).
Economic and social cohesion is essentially implemented through the regional policy of the European Union. Besides the reform of the common agricultural policy and enlargement to the Central and East European countries in 2004, regional policy was one of the major issues discussed in Agenda 2000, which covers the period 2000-2006, largely because of the financial implications.
Regional policy is the European Union's second largest budget item, with an allocation of 348 billion euros (2006 prices) for the period 2007-2013. Enlargement to 27 Member States in January 2007 has meant an entirely new order. The surface area of the European Union has increased by over 25%, its population by over 20%, and its wealth by only 5% approximately. Average GDP per capita in the European Union has fallen by more than 10% and regional disparities have doubled. Since 60% of the regions whose development is lagging behind are in the 12 Member States which joined the EU In 2004, the centre of gravity of regional policy is shifting eastwards.
For the period 2007-2013, economic and social cohesion will have to concentrate more on crucial development concerns in the field of economic growth and employment while continuing to support regions which have not completed the process of convergence in real terms. Structural assistance also remains necessary in geographical areas facing specific structural problems (areas undergoing industrial restructuring, urban areas, rural areas, areas dependent on fishing, and areas suffering from natural or demographic handicaps). Finally, simplification and decentralisation of the management of regional policy financial instruments (Structural Funds and Cohesion Fund) will be the watchwords of the regional policy reform for the period 2007-2013.