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EU cohesion and structural policy is to be socio-ecologically orientated: Florian Kern on the Academic Sounding Board “Cohesion for Transition”

To strengthen economic and social cohesion within the European Union, the European Commission provides “cohesion funds”. These make up around a third of the EU budget. To date, the funds have mainly been used for roads, motorways and bridges in structurally weak regions. Since 2021, cohesion policy should also take much greater account of environmental goals, such as the Paris Climate Agreement. An Academic Sounding Board is now to help channel investments in a sustainable way. Florian Kern, research group leader at the IÖW, has been appointed to the board, which will meet for the second time on 22 November 2023.

For the long-term budget 2021 to 2027, the EU has set itself the goal of utilising cohesion funds more strongly in terms of sustainability transitions. To support this, the European Commission's DG Regio set up a Cohesion for Transition (C4T) Community of Practice in June 2023. It brings together relevant stakeholders involved in the implementation of cohesion policy. These include the managing authorities of the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and Cohesion Fund (CF) programmes, regional and local authorities, implementing authorities and other public institutions in the fields of environment, energy, and climate.

Cohesion policy – “one of the EU's most important financial levers”

An Academic Sounding Board is also part of the community. As a scientific forum, it advises the C4T Community of Practice and the Just Transition Platform. The European Commission has appointed the political scientist Florian Kern, research group leader at the IÖW, to the board. He is an internationally recognized expert on political strategies to support sustainability transitions. Kern emphasizes: “Cohesion policy is one of the most important financial levers the EU has at its disposal. These funds have been playing an important role in supporting structural change in European regions for years. I believe it is an important step to consider how these funds can be used even more specifically to support sustainability transitions.” 

Cohesion and structural policy as drivers of transformation

Florian Kern explains: “An important new part of cohesion policy is the Just Transition Fund (JTF). It is intended to help regions that are severely affected by the necessary structural change – for example coal regions – to manage the necessary transformation in a socially just way. It enables investment in alternative value creation and employment so that these regions are not ‘left behind’. This is important for the EU to keep its promise to ‘leave no one behind’ in the ecological transition.”

Between 2021 and 2027, cohesion funding will add up to almost 400 billion euros – provided via various funds such as ERDF, CF, ESF+ and JTF. If these funds are increasingly used for rail infrastructure, the expansion of electricity grids, investments in renewable energies or natural climate adaptation measures, this can become a key driver of the necessary transformation. 

Second meeting of the C4T Community of Practice and the Academic Sounding Board

Following a first conference in summer 2023, the second meeting of the C4T Community of Practice takes place from 21 to 22 November in Brussels and online. In this context, the Academic Sounding Board will meet for the second time in person. Eleven experts from research on cohesion policy and sustainability transformations are currently participating in the board. The meeting partly takes place together with the three C4T working groups (Climate, Energy, and Environment). This creates close cooperation between scientists, stakeholders from administration and authorities as well as cohesion and structural policy experts.

“The first session was about identifying gaps in knowledge and prioritizing topics on which the working groups would like to have more knowledge. In the second session, we will explore the first two topics – renewable energy and nature-based climate adaptation measures – and discuss what open questions the authorities have in this regard,” says Kern. 

Academic Sounding Board synthesizes knowledge on renewable energies and nature-based climate adaptation measures

Following the meeting, the members of the Academic Sounding Board want to draw up short papers on the current state of knowledge and resulting recommendations. Experts from the fields of cohesion policy and sustainability transformation will work together on these knowledge pieces. This offers great potential for synergies and the emergence of new ideas, says Florian Kern:

“Until now, these two academic discourses have largely run parallel to each other. Cohesion policy has so far been neglected in the academic discussion on the governance of sustainability transitions. Conversely, only a few findings from transitions research have so far penetrated the discourse on cohesion and structural policy. The collaboration in the Academic Sounding Board therefore offers exciting opportunities for scientific exchange and for the development of innovative policy recommendations.”