Is the European cohesion policy effective in tackling inequalities between young Europeans?

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1. Learn the ropes

What’s the situation of young Europeans?
The European Union and its 27 countries have very contrasting economic situations from one country to another. Across the continent, young Europeans do not have the same opportunities or living standard. For example, in 2017, the poverty rate in Spain was 14.6%, compared to 6.8% in Denmark and 6.7% in France. Regarding the labor market, 50.6% of young people aged 20-24 years in the EU had a job in 2021, as well as 74.3% of those aged 25-29 years. Unfortunately, the Covid crisis has exacerbated inequalities in most Member States. Within the EU, the main challenges are inequality of outcomes (income and wealth) and inequality of opportunity. Inequalities not only have an impact on social cohesion, mainly because of the lack of fairness, but also on economic growth. Indeed, individuals in the most difficult situations may not be able to reach their full potential, which is detrimental to overall growth. In European States, social welfare systems can help reduce inequalities.
What’s the cohesion policy, and what are its goals?
The aim of the regional policy of the European Union (also known as cohesion policy) is to reduce disparities in wealth and development between the 242 regions of the EU. The cohesion policy ensures investment for growth and employment in order to strengthen the job market and regional economies. It also promotes European territorial cooperation. The cohesion policy thus provides support through several structural and investment funds. These funds include the ERDF (European Regional Development Fund), the ESF+ (European Social Fund), or the CF (Cohesion Fund). The ERDF aims to strengthen economic, social and territorial cohesion in the European Union by correcting imbalances between its regions. It finances local projects in each Member State. The ESF had a budget of almost €99.3 billion for the period 2021-2027 and provides an important contribution to the EU’s employment, social, education and skills policies, including structural reforms in these areas. These funds are allocated under the framework of the EU Cohesion policy legislative package 2021-2027.
Are young people facing new types of inequalities?
The sanitary crisis has severely impacted young people’s mental health. In 2021 in France, people aged 18-30 have had trouble looking into the future, and they have suffered from loneliness and from lack of contact with their loved ones. They are also worried about the evolution of the job market. 41% of young people frequently feel lonely. This can be worse for those not in employment, education or training, those having health issues or those geographically isolated. Moreover, young people can also be impacted by the digital divide: 16% of them did not have the appropriate computer equipment to properly be connected to the internet in 2021. Even though they are very comfortable with the use of social networks and smartphones, some young people lack information about government services available online. Thus, to include young people in the discussion and answer their needs, 2022 was the European Year of Youth. The goal was to shine a light on the importance of European youth to build a better future. So, can the European Union reduce inequalities between young Europeans?

2. Choose your side

The idea behind the Rift is simple: for each topic of debate, we provide you with an expertise based on a pro-con approach, written by competent and legitimate experts. We want to help you make your own opinion, and guide you on first steps to civic engagement.

Is the EU doing enough to fight inequalities between young Europeans?


European Structural and Investment Funds : a real support for young people 

Anne Bucher

Non-residential fellow at Bruegel, former director of the European Commission


First, I should point out that between 2000 and 2020, Regional Disparities in the European Union have decreased by 20%. European Structural and Investment Funds are the main tool of the Cohesion Policy. They are mainly allocated to lagging-behind regions (where gross domestic product per inhabitant is less than 65% of the Community average). The beneficiary regions receive a budget envelope for seven years to finance a long term investment and development strategy. Through modernizing the economy and infrastructures, cohesion policies foster growth and employment in these regions, thus creating new opportunities for the young people living there. 

Structural funds turned young people into a political priority

Cohesion policy also incorporates a social dimension that directly supports young people to get an education and towards occupational integration. These funds thus finance several actions targeting young people, such as programs preventing students from dropping out, or plans promoting partnerships with local employers. Between 2014 and 2020 in France, 20% of the funding from the ESF (European Social Fund) have benefited young people, representing a budget of 150 million euros a year. The assessment of the ESF has shown that European intervention allowed for better monitoring and personalized interventions in favor of young people exposed to the risk of unemployment or social exclusion. The most important scheme is The Youth Guarantee, with 637,000 beneficiaries. European funds also made it possible for 460,000 young people to get access to the “Missions Locales” intensive support system.

According to Eurosceptics, who insist on the fact that France is a net contributor to the EU budget, structural funds would only be a way for the national policy to retrieve the funds that had been allocated to the EU budget, but without getting any additional value from it. This neglects the fact that structural funds, that have a set budget for 7 years, are more oriented towards long term investments than national budgetary policies that have to answer short term challenges and are subject to electoral pressure. A study has shown that even though The Youth Guarantee existed in France before European recommendation, structural funds have institutionalized it and made it permanent. This is one of the examples that suggest that structural funds turned young people into a political priority. This would not have been the case at a national level only.

The European Union is a long term project that invests in young people

The outlook for the next few years is looking good: actions to support young people in the next few years will benefit from the general increase in the European budget and from funding from other programs than structural funds. The recovery plan “Next Generation EU” (NGEU), adopted after the Covid-19 crisis, has almost doubled the EU budget for the programming period 2021-2027. In France, the “1 young person, 1 solution” scheme, at the heart of the French recovery plan, thus receives funding from structural funds, as well as from the new Recovery and Resilience Facility. Moreover, in addition to the structural funds, a program such as ERASMUS now also has double the funds for the new programming period, making it possible for more young people to move across Europe, including less privileged people. Until recently, this was only an opportunity for students enrolled in universities. Since the European Union is a long term project, the EU believes that it is essential to involve young people and to invest in them. 


Who can do more can do less

Marie Caillaud

President of the French Orientation Council of Youth Policies, former president of the Young Europeans – France


When it comes to the cohesion policy, the youth has a very particular place. The European Union cares about their inclusion in the job market and about their transition into working life, challenged by many factors: their level of education, financial instability, short term jobs… Regarding these elements, gaps between European regions are very large: in April 2022, Greece and Spain were struggling with unemployment of young people under 25 years old (36,8% and 28,9%). On the other hand, Germany or the Netherlands had an unemployment rate under 7%. 

In terms of employment, the gap between regions remains very high

One of the goals of the European Social Fund (ESF) is to support higher quality jobs creation and to offer vulnerable citizens better career opportunities. As such, young people are a special target of European solidarity policies, for instance through financing the French “Missions Locales”. Young people also benefit from the ESF+, now incorporating the YEI (youth employment initiative), previously named the Youth Guarantee. In France, this has enabled the creation of the Youth engagement contract. However, are these actions enough to really tackle inequalities? In terms of employment, the gap between regions is now higher than it was before the 2008 economic crisis. 

An important part of these European cohesion policy funds are used to finance research, innovation and competitiveness. Since the EU is focusing on regional development through economic development and productivity, the social dimension, despite the positive announcements, is sometimes forgotten. Projects to modernize public infrastructure would be the best possible investment to have a real impact on inequalities. Unfortunately, they are not the most visible to this day. 

We need a real “Social Europe”

Can the 2021-2027 cohesion policy be a game-changer through making social rights and justice a priority ? A “more social Europe” supporting education, access to a decent job, equal access to health care… What if this was the actual solution to tackle inequalities between young people (and less young, too)? What if, instead of structural and investment funds, we could frankly talk about a social Europe? Instead of using financial incentives, the EU could develop an ambitious social policy, whether for employment, equality for all, or social protection. This Europe could be structured around social rights granted to all citizens, on the basis of upward harmonization: young people would be the first winners. This would be a major change, since one of the major flaws of the current cohesion policy today is to put an emphasis on employment and youth inclusion in the job market at all costs. If we really had a social Europe, institutions would be able to take a necessary step back to build a global policy for education, culture, employment, mobility… The European Union takes pride in supporting young people in many aspects of their daily lives: building this action within an asserted social Europe would contribute greatly to the empowerment of young people and help fight inequalities, much more than structural and investment funds do. Building this action within an asserted social Europe would contribute more to the empowerment of young people and the fight against inequalities, much more than cohesion funds on their own.

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