A case study on the local implementation of the European Social Fund: joint management and the participation of local agents, by Antón Lois Fernández Álvarez & Mónica López Viso

The European Social Fund (ESF) together with other Structural Funds, of which the Autonomous Community of Galicia – Spain – has been a major recipient, constitutes the key components of European Union (EU) cohesion policy. Though the Structural Funds have become the most tangible expression of EU policy for many EU and Galician citizens, this does not entail that policy rationale or the criteria for the implementation of these resources is readily understood by citizens, primarily due to the complexity and overwhelming number of directives, regulations, provisions, and procedures established for policy implementation.

The aims of this study, published in Revista Brasileira de Relações Internacionais (RBPI, vol.57, 2/2014), were to assess the local implementation of ESF by exploring the characteristics and obstacles that hinder the participation of local agents in multilevel governance, and to evaluate the achievements and shortcomings of the local implementation of ESF as perceived by those who implement policy on the ground.

The initial hypothesis of this study was that the implementation of ESF was based on the principle of shared management i.e., ESF lines of action are drawn up at a European level, but the actual execution on the ground is the responsibility of the national, regional, and local authorities of each member state. Hence, it was assumed that local agents played a key role due to their territorial proximity, and common social reality with the target population. Bearing in mind these assumptions, this study explored if the participation of local agents in the management of ESF had been reinforced during past programming periods as endorsed by the new analytical approach of European multilevel governance, and analysed the degree to which the local actors involved in the final phase of implementation shared this perception as well as the subsequent implications for the operationalization of ESF.

The paper contends that the literature concerning Structural Funds has focused primarily on macroeconomic models designed to assess their role and impact in promoting ‘multi-level governance’ in the European Union (Bache, 2007; Hooghe and Marks, 2001). In comparison, few studies on ESF have examined the role and influence of subnational entities in the decision-making process for allocating these resources or the perception of local public and private actors regarding policy goals and implementation (Verschraegen et al., 2011; López-Santana, 2009). An innovative approach has emphasized the role of ‘micro’ rather than ‘macro’ mechanisms in evaluating the impact of ESF on domestic activation policies in the three Belgian regions: Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels (Verschraegen et al., 2011).

The results of this study on how local actors perceived and assessed the instruments for the ‘creation of Europe’ have corroborated the findings reported in the literature concerning the motivation, functioning, and shortcomings underlying the local implementation of ESF. The paper highlighted that it is widely acknowledged that participating in a system of pluriannual programing in line with European directives enhanced the efficacy of subnational tiers of administration even though planning became more complex. Moreover, this study has shown that the ESF was positively rated in contributing to generating and innovating active employment policies. Notwithstanding, there was an overall feeling of unfulfilled expectations in terms of the outcomes of ESF funding, and the lack of local participation.

On the whole, local actors readily acknowledged the contributions of Structural Funds in general, and ESF in particular, in the development of the Province of Ourense, and the Autonomous Community of Galicia. Though local entities recognised funding had positive outcomes in terms of vocational training, counselling for job seekers, grants for fostering employment, and in raising gender equality at work, there appeared to be widespread resentment at provincial level regarding ‘unfulfilled expectations’ in the implementation and application of European funding. The comments of local agents illustrated well their misgivings on two counts.  First, the relations between autonomous and central government were perceived as excessively institutionalized i.e., hardly flexible and open to the proactive participation of local agents. Moreover, local actors expressed their disappointment with the outcomes of policies that were inadequately funded and/or failed to address the needs of the local population.

Finally, owing to the deficient participation of local actors, and in relation to the initial hypothesis of this study that the insufficient participation of local actors would lead subsequently to deficient operationalization of ESF, most local agents believed ESF interventions lacked flexibility and failed to adjust to meet the specific local needs of populations i.e., resources were inadequately allocated, and many local issues remained neglected under ESF. The procedure for the joint management of ESF has been restricted to the central government’s devolution of power to the autonomous communities who, in turn, are unwilling to abdicate the channelling of European funding to local authorities.

Local agents had to overcome surmounting obstacles in municipal management given the lack of resources that undermined investment in new employment projects. As the economic crisis spreads throughout the economy, the priorities of ESF have become essential tools, not only for speeding up economic recovery in Europe, but also in addressing issues that are relevant to each specific local population in order to counteract the growing disillusionment with Europe and its institutions that are perceived as inefficient in responding to vital problems and issues of the current economic crisis.

Read the article: LOPEZ-VISO, Mónica; ALVAREZ, Antón Lois Fernández. Multi-level governance and social cohesion in the European Union: the assessment of local agents, a study case inside Galicia. Rev. bras. polít. int.,  Brasília ,  v. 57, n. 2, Dec.  2014. Available from <http://www.scielo.br/article_plus.php?pid=S0034-73292014000200196&tlng=en&lng=en>. access on  21  Feb.  2015.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1590/0034-7329201400311.

Contact

Mónica López Viso, Universidade de Vigo (UVigo), Espanha, mviso@uvigo.es

Antón Lois Fernández Álvarez, Universidade de Vigo (UVigo), Espanha, alfa@uvigo.es

Mónica López Viso, Universidade de Vigo (UVigo), Espanha, mviso@uvigo.es

Antón Lois Fernández Álvarez, Universidade de Vigo (UVigo), Espanha, alfa@uvigo.es

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