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Communicating EU regional policy and the EU referendum

Last year I was fortunate enough to take part in a masterclass for early career researchers on EU regional policy organised by the Regional Studies Association, the EU Committee of the Regions and the European Commission. The masterclass was part of the annual European Week of Regions and Cities, which last year it took place against the backdrop of the recent UK referendum on EU membership. During the opening plenary EU Regional Policy Commissioner, Corina Crețu, highlighted her disappointment that regions which have seen significant investment from the EU’s regional policy, such as Cornwall, Wales and the North East, voted to leave the EU. This, Commissioner Crețu argues, highlighted the need to look at how well EU spending in these regions was communicated.

This year’s European Week of Regions and Cities is happening at the moment. While I’m not fortunate enough to be there in person this year, I am trying to follow what’s going on. Again in this year’s opening plenary, Commissioner Crețu highlighted the need to improve how EU regional policy is communicated to citizens. This focus on the communication of regional policy has become increasingly important, not least because of the Brexit vote, but also because regional policy spending accounts for a third of the EU’s entire budget. The assumption is if citizens are aware of what EU regional policy does in their local area they’ll have a greater understanding of how the EU supports them and their local areas, and consequently have a more positive attitude towards the EU.

So, what effect will raising awareness of EU regional policy have? Given Commissioner Crețu’s disappointment at the result in certain UK regions, let’s have a look at EU regional policy awareness in those regions and the result of the UK’s referendum on EU membership.

The data here is aggregated here at the NUTS1 level. Data on the EU referendum result comes from the UK Electoral Commission, while awareness of EU regional policy is taken from Flash Eurobarometer 423 on EU citizen awareness and perceptions of EU regional policy. This was conducted one year prior to the referendum. The main question we’re interested in is: “Europe provides financial support to regions and cities. Have you heard about any EU co-financed projects to improve the area where you live?” The aggregate data I’ve used can be downloaded here.

GRAPH

Generally speaking, UK regions with higher levels of regional policy awareness appear to have lower levels of support for “Remain” in the referendum. Crucially, in the UK’s case at least, higher levels of regional policy awareness, didn’t translate into higher levels of EU support at the ballot box.

This comes with some rather large caveats, of course. The UK may be a unique case here. NUTS1 regions are rather large and diverse, so this isn’t going to account for large differences of awareness and EU spending within these regions. And regional policy spending had very little, if anything at all, to do with the referendum result (that’s for another blog post!). While there is a negative correlation (r = -0.43), it isn’t significant at the 0.05 level (p = 0.165).

These caveats aside, the key message to take away here is that merely raising awareness of EU regional policy spending isn’t going to be enough. If the EU wants to increase support among citizens it is going to have to do more than just show it spends money in a given area. There needs to be more of a focus on how that communication will work and how it will engage with citizens. Part of this will also come down to how regional policy is designed and how EU funding is invested in local areas. Does it meet local economic need and does it address the priorities citizens see as important?

There are grounds for optimism. Initiatives to improve the communication of EU regional spending are out there. During last year’s masterclass I witnessed Fireflies, a Lithuanian project led by local organisations aiming to increase transparency in EU regional policy by showing how EU funding is spent, win the 2016 RegioStars award. However the lessons from projects like this need to receive greater recognition by EU policy makers and be applied more widely beyond the confined of a single project.

So yes, communicating regional policy is important, but much more thought need to be put into how this will work rather than simply telling citizens how much EU cash is spent locally.

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