The aim of this research project is to examine the effectiveness of the structural funds in assisting the transition of the European Union (EU) toward sustainable development. Specifically, the study examines how cohesion policy has responded to the sustainable development imperative and to the requirement of environmental integration.
EU cohesion policy seeks to ensure that the benefits from the integration process are distributed equitably across different groups and regions, through its main financial instruments, the structural funds. The questions that the research project addresses are: (1) how have the structural funds addressed sustainable development and especially its environmental pillar? and (2) why have the structural funds been applied in the way that they have, and to what extent has their application supported the realization of sustainable development? The research explores whether the EU's governance system can effectively respond to changes in policy priorities.
Having established that the regulatory framework of cohesion policy has incrementally integrated environmental considerations, this project undertakes a comparative case study of the application of the structural funds in Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and Hungary. Specifically, the research traces the evolution of environmental integration in programmes co-funded by the EU in these four member states over several programming periods. The examination benefits from a synthesis of theoretical perspectives on the evolution of the EU.
The case studies demonstrate that while attention to the environment has increased slightly over the years, integration of the environment into programme objectives and funding priorities of the countries examined has been gradual, modest, and at times counterproductive to environmental sustainability. Spending allocation, especially direct environmental investments, has remained largely unchanged. The study concludes that missing links in the multi-level governance of the EU can explain the ineffectiveness of the EU in supporting the transition to sustainable development.
This research project provides evidence that the EU must expand its efforts to incorporate environmental concerns into cohesion policy if it is to achieve its stated sustainability objectives. By understanding the lessons learned, the findings could contribute to a more rapid and also more responsible transition to a sustainable future for Europe.