The False Promise of Decentralization in EU Cohesion Policy

Fernanda G. Nicola


The European Union (EU) is “going local” by taking decentralization of power seriously in order to create greater effectiveness for European law and policy, especially with respect to its economic development or cohesion policy strategies. In this vein, the Treaty of Lisbon has modified the subsidiarity principle now including a “regional and local” dimension while offering new legal and political safeguards to protect subnational actors from the reach of EU law. However, in EU cohesion policy, cities, regions, and Länder in the different Member States are ‘lumped together’ into a third-level Europe that does not differentiate among these subnational actors. In addition, despite the attempt to connect Europe to its subnational level to enhance local autonomy and territorial cohesion, European courts do not always recognize the local level as independent from their Member State. As a result, EU cohesion policies attempting to narrow the welfare imbalances among European regions are not territorially attuned, flexible enough, or equipped with accountability mechanisms capable to address the development problems they are designed to solve. Scholars have shed light on the invisibility of local actors by proposing to strengthen their “input legitimacy” (process and participation) through greater representation before EU decision making processes or European courts. By focusing on EU-wide procedures instead of understanding how different legal and geographical factors characterize each territory, EU scholars have refrained from addressing whether increasing decentralization is accomplishing the desired development goals and improving the “output legitimacy” (effectiveness of regulation) of EU institutions. This Article instead offers a "thick" description of EU cohesion policies aimed at creating economic development and territorial cohesion by disbursing EU funding to the European peripheries. Rather than assessing if these policies enhance local autonomy and decentralization through EU-local cooperation, I demonstrate that often they foster centralization and produce new conflicts among heterogeneous subnational actors, Member States, and the EU. Through a textured account of local power in Germany, Greece, and Italy, I suggest that a more contextualized and needs-based approach to cohesion policies, which acknowledges territorial and socio-economic disparities in each region, would anticipate and evade the shortcomings of current EU cohesion policy. This Article departs from notions of local autonomy and decentralization of power to improve the “input legitimacy” of EU institutions by suggesting that the findings on cohesion policy — the need to pay greater attention to local heterogeneity and to create accountability mechanisms to monitor disbursement policies — are important lessons about local governance in the EU that should “travel” to other regulatory areas.