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Does cohesion need a personal touch?

July 2023

EU Cohesion Policy aims to correct economic, social and territorial imbalances between countries and regions. What could follow?

Does cohesion need a personal touch?

Europe is a wonderful place. If civilisation is measured by the quality of life for the lowest level of society, Europe is on the right path. Talk to older people and it’s amazing the difference in lifestyles and quality of living in two or three generations.

I remember many houses with outside lavatories, not everyone had a telephone and very few families had two cars. Talk to the (even) older generation here in Italy and many did not grow up with a fridge, or finish high school and university was rare.

Having just used my mobile phone to instantaneously sent money to my son, it’s a very big step from my first job in London. I was a clerk helping to put a major international American bank on a computer! After 25 years in international finance followed by five years teaching, I started editing studies for European institutions. From carnivorous capitalist to helping, in a tiny way, supranational evidence-based decision making. And it is interesting seeing pan-European visions and big picture ideas, while living in the countryside in Le Marche (central Italy).

From here the theory looks superb, elevated, inspired and, too often, theoretical. How much do, or should, grand ideas impact our daily grind?

Politics is a common lament in polite conversation. Given the major weaknesses in Italy of excellent food and superb weather it is more like something to pass the time till lunch. Maybe that’s why almost none can name their Italian parliamentary representative, let alone their MEP.

But what does that matter when can eat well and the sun is shining, the air is fresh and even the water, not to mention the local wine, tastes good. That’s quality of life. And not unusual.

Quality of life goes beyond consumerism. It is broader than GDP and across Europe it has continued to rise for decades. Quality of life is also very subjective. We all had, have and will have different ways of evaluating it.

As a child, we may feel play is more important than income, friends more than privacy, on a Sunday, or vice versa on a Tuesday afternoon. As an adult, employment, transport and an internet connection may be more important than healthcare, or peace and quiet, or not. As an older person, healthcare and privacy may be more important than employment, or vice versa.

In Europe there are some 450 million citizens, dozens of languages, multitudes of cultures and a gazillion opinions. Most importantly these reflect that we don’t want to be the same.

One definition of cohesion is ‘forming a united whole’ In physics it is ‘a unifying molecular force between particles within a body’. Cohesion as a unifying force, recognising individual people and communities seems a more positive idea than looking for standardisation.

What works for someone living in a city won’t always work in the countryside, and vice versa.

If it’s not creating similar lifestyles, what should future policies aiming at cohesion, incl. Cohesion Policy, look to achieve? How can we define cohesion as a broad concept, to guide continued improvements in the quality of life for European citizens?

In this millennium access is becoming more important than ownership. Cohesion across Europe could look to continue the work of European institutions and raise minimum levels of access to basic needs. Some of these we take for granted such as clean air and drinking water. For many electricity, heating and the internet are taken as given. Others may be less immediately obvious including transport, open data and privacy. In addition, Member States look to provide security, healthcare, education and public services beyond all of the above. And we normally only notice when they’re not there.

The point is access. We can’t ‘own’ the air we breathe and very few can independently own the other basic needs. But we don’t need to own them, we need access. Much economic growth since the European project started has concentrated on consumerism. Your own transport, washing machine, fridge and telephone are not unusual by any means. And these are just a few conveniences it is easy for many people to discount as essential.

In the 21st century economic growth may help, or hinder, our quality of life. Also, focusing on GDP easily leads to pessimism. Someone else will always have a better job and more money. Is that more important than being able to enjoy a home cooked meal with friends, or time alone and a good internet connection?

Even at that meal with friends, news and gossip can often turn negative as it is much easier to complain about what we lack. But advantages and disadvantages differ for us all. Our view of the overall balance should be more important than where we stand on a limited number of factors listed on a spreadsheet, or locked in an index.

The European cohesion objective could recognise the inherent differences within Europe and concentrate on broader measures, beyond all of the above. Noting, publicising and promoting other ways to look at our quality of life may even highlight the significant (mostly unsung) gains the European project has brought us.

Surveys could prompt us to reflect on positive aspects of our lives. They could also help anyone who likes to measure the state of affairs through numbers. Of course it would be easy to ‘nudge’ people by starting with questions like ‘what are you grateful for?’, ‘what has been good about your day?’, or ‘do you normally think about the air you breathe / water you drink?’

With today’s technology it is easily possible to survey thousands, or tens of thousands of different people every day, with maybe half a dozen questions, changing every time. Perhaps let people volunteer when they want the survey, during the day’s first coffee, Sunday morning in bed, last thing at night? Make the historical results accessible to each person and it may become a diary for some, or even mild cognitive behavioural therapy.

Such surveys could establish what is important to the quality of life in different places, for different types of people. For example, rural areas have food, environmental quality, peace and quiet, etc  that could more than offset proximity to public transport or hospitals in urban centres, which come with air, noise and light pollution. The relative importance of each will differ for all of us now, and in the future as we don't want to all be the same, even over time!

What defines our own quality of life?

Should we compare it with other people, or even ourselves?

So, what values can we find for Cohesion to be the unifying force that maintains our diversity?

by Tim Wills (Opens in a new window) (Opens in a new window)
Topic Cohesion (policy)
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