EU regional policy spending accounts for about a third of the EU’s total budget. It is the EU’s main mechanism for financial redistribution. In addition to supporting jobs, economic growth, sustainable development and so on, one of its key stated aims is to underpin European solidarity. In this way it is a key part of the European integration project. This is why the Commission places a lot of emphasis on how its regional spending is communicated to citizens, and it’s why they are particularly concerned with how spending is perceived and making sure it is well publicized. For this reason, recipients of EU funds are required to acknowledge the EU’s contribution on public signage and in literature.
Despite these efforts, communication of EU regional policy is far from perfect and awareness of EU spending varies significantly across the EU. To get a feel for how it is doing on this front, the European Commission sporadically looks at public opinion about EU regional policy through the Eurobarometer survey. The results of the latest survey were published last month. There are some interesting findings when looking at the UK.
In June 2015, just 9% of UK respondents said they had “heard about any EU co-financed projects to improve the area where you live”. This was the lowest level of awareness among any EU member state (the EU average was 34%, Poland had the top spot at 76%). In March 2017, however, this had doubled to 18%. This is still very low (though no longer the lowest), but on a percentage point basis this represents the joint highest increase (with Ireland) in the EU.
Large increases are found in other measures in the survey too. 35% had heard of the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) in March 2017 (EU28 average 28%), compared to 29% in June 2015. Again this 6 percentage point difference was the highest increase across the EU28.
27% said they were aware that EU funding fosters cross-border co-operation between regions (EU28 average 22%), up 13 percentage points from June 2015 and again the joint highest increase across the EU28.
Of the respondents who had heard of either the ERDF or Cohesion Fund, 22% felt they had benefited from an EU funded project (EU28 average 24%), up 12 percentage points from June 2015 and the second highest increase across the EU28.
What accounts for the increased awareness of EU regional policy in the UK between 2015 and 2017? The survey itself does not answer this question, but one obvious possibility is the EU referendum and Brexit. EU investment in UK regions was a feature of the referendum campaign, and was frequently linked to wider debates about the overall costs and benefits of the UK’s membership. In this way Brexit may have given EU regional policy an unintended publicity boost.
The potential impact of this shouldn’t be over stated, though. At 18%, the overall level of awareness is still low and behind the EU average of 35%. Indeed, this overall lack of awareness might be part of the reason why areas which received relatively large amounts of EU investment (Wales, Cornwall, the north-east) nevertheless voted to leave. It is also entirely possible that increased awareness of EU funding may have had a negative impact on support for EU membership. There were, after all, many more respondents stating they had not benefited from an EU-funded project (65%) compared to those that said they had (22%). Nevertheless it may indicate that part of the solution to raising EU citizens’ awareness of EU regional spending may be to incorporate it into national discourses.