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What do we mean by cohesion?

August 2021

As imbalances between people and places increase, cohesion features in more and more debates. It features as underlying idea of European integration as well as a European way of life and decision making.

In Europe cohesion has also a formal legacy, as the EU shall promote cohesion. More specifically, economic, social and territorial cohesion and solidarity are introduced as aims of the EU in Article 3, TEU. In this sense, the EU is perceived as an area of growing stability, security and prosperity, with integration allowing it to boost citizens’ living standards and to enhance its influence globally (see (Opens in a new window)). The underlying idea is that cohesion reinforces solidarity, promotes convergence and reduces inequalities between the better off and those with less promising prospects or who are lagging behind. Indeed, cohesion is mainly depicted as limiting (the devastating effects of) disparities and fragmentation. Cohesion is also understood as a corrective to the fact that some benefit more than others from European integration and the Single European Market. This leads to ideas for convergence and catching up. Most recently the Territorial Agenda 2030 (Opens in a new window), pinned it down to a sustainable future for all places and people.

Following the general understanding of cohesion, past discussions framed it often in terms of GDP, growth and jobs. This helped operationalising cohesion and providing comparable information. However, it does not really catch the essence of it, as discussed in the previous contribution (Opens in a new window). The idea of cohesion might be far more fundamental, touching the primary reason for public intervention in a democratic system, i.e. as an overall objective to make people’s live better. In this case, the ultimate purpose would be linked to people’s well-being, health, quality of life or harmony.

Regardless whether we follow the more traditional understanding of cohesion in terms of GDP, growth and jobs, or move towards a more citizens’ centred understanding of cohesion being about personal well-being, the question remains what do we mean by cohesion.

In general, there are at least four principles describing different underlying understandings of cohesion: Is cohesion about acknowledging that we are in it together (mutual interdependencies), striving for equal opportunities, treatment and support (equality), tailor-made support to achieve greater fairness of outcomes (equity), and/or reducing or eliminating structural barriers (justice)? All four of them are valid and can be found to varying degrees in EU and national policies. What do we actually aim for – or rather what do we want to achieve – when we refer to cohesion?

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Topic Cohesion (policy)


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