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New Prospects for Cohesion Policy 2014–2020 in Portugal: Caught between Promises of Economic Recovery and the Limits of a Centralized State

0 Comments 🕔13.Jan 2015

This article is part of our EU Cohesion Policy 2014-2020 feature.

Porto, Portugal. Credit: mat's eye

Porto, Portugal. Credit: mat’s eye

by Sandrina Ferreira Antunes



The European Union (EU) Cohesion Policy is one of the oldest policies of the EU, but it has never been popular due to constant criticisms for being a complex and “catch-all” policy without a clear mission (Hooghe 1988; Bachtler and Gorzelak, 2007). Despite these criticisms, the EU Cohesion Policy has been able to adapt over time without losing sight of its core orientation (European Commission 2008; Bachtler et al. 2013). In that sense, it has always carried the banner of “partnership,” as it has been able to deliver the proper tools for national, regional, and local governments to engage in overarching strategies within the logic of a multi-level system of governance (Hooghe and Marks 2001; Bache and Finders 2004). In other words, the EU Cohesion Policy has managed to evolve gradually in order to find proper ways to link decentralization and regional development.

Moreover, with the advent of the EU Cohesion Policy program 2014-2020, policy targets have been further clarified and the implementation process has been simplified. Yet, Portugal seems to have lost track of the strategic link between decentralization and regional development as it continues to confine its regions within the limits of a centralized unitary state, which prevents them from performing better economically. Based on the Região Norte case study, the purpose of this article is twofold: first, to bring more clarity to the economic potential of the new European Cohesion Policy program for the Região Norte; and second, to highlight the unresolved contradiction between regional development and centralization in Portugal.


1. The Cohesion Policy 2014-2020: The European economic solution in times of economic crisis

The EU Cohesion Policy 2014-2020 is not completely new but it introduces major novelties, which will improve its efficiency and effectiveness. In fact, this new economic program has been reorganized in order to maximize the possibilities of regions to meet the European 2020 policy targets. In that sense, policy instruments have been diversified in order to achieve a smart, sustainable, and inclusive economy, and the implementation procedure has been simplified in order to include a Common Strategic Framework that provides the basis for better coordination between the European Structural and Investment Funds (ERDF, Cohesion Fund, and ESF as the three funds under Cohesion Policy, as well as the Rural Development and Fisheries funds).

When it comes to the Região Norte (see picture 1 below), the new Cohesion Policy “package” has been perceived as an opportunity to strengthen the economic and social dimensions of regional sustainability. On the other hand, it has also been perceived as a counterbalanced measure to smoothen the social and economic impact of the economic crisis. In other words, in line with the previous package 2007-2013, the novelties of the new Cohesion Policy program have been received as a positive European solution to boost its economy, especially in times of economic crisis.


Figure 1: the Região Norte of Portugal (in blue). Source: Comissão de Coordenação e Desenvolvimento da Região Norte (CCDR-N). 2013. “Norte 2020: dagnóstico propectivo da Região do Norte 2014-2020”

Picture 1: the Região Norte of Portugal (in blue). Source: Comissão de Coordenação e Desenvolvimento da Região Norte (CCDR-N). 2013.


As we look into the prospective diagnosis of the Região Norte for 2020 (CCDR-N 2013), we acknowledge the perfect replication of the three priorities defined by the European 2020 strategy. Bearing in mind these policy objectives, the Região Norte has set up a strategic economic plan called “Norte 2020,” which aims to deliver the best policy solutions to overcome the economic and financial downturn. Indeed, since 2008, the region has been going through difficult times, which have caused the widespread decline in economic activity, employment, and social welfare. It seems that the negative impact of the financial adjustment program, as well as the decline of domestic and international demands, have worsened the economic situation. Additionally, the reversal of economic growth in 2011 slowed down the positive trend toward real convergence achieved between 2006 and 2010. During that time, the GDP per capita in the Região Norte rose from 61.9 percent to 64.9 percent, and in 2011, it fell back to 62.2 percent, making it the least developed region in Portugal (see picture 2 below).

Therefore, it is within a broader regional economic strategy that the new Cohesion Policy emerges as the policy responsible to promote the economic and social convergence of the Região Norte toward the European average. However, irrespective of being a very dynamic economic region that applies the coordination principle between regional and local levels of governance and provides proper deliberative forums targeted toward the engagement of social and economic stakeholders, the Região Norte continues to be confined to the limits of a centralized unitary state, which prevents it from defining its own priorities regarding the Cohesion Policy targets. In other words, the region falls victim to a centralized unitary state, which decides how to implement the Cohesion Policy directly from Lisbon, without being able to adapt it to the region’s specific needs.

Picture 2: Source: Eurostat, 2012.

Picture 2: GDP per capita in Portuguese regions in comparison with the European average. Source: Eurostat 2012.


2. “Norte 2020”: Caught between prospects of economic growth and the limits of a centralized state

The situation is not completely new. Indeed, we would have to go back in time in order to make sense of the establishment of the “Regional Coordination and Development Commissions”[1] (CCDR) in the late 70s. These Commissions were expected to evolve toward a democratic regional political structure with a broader set of administrative and political competencies, but soon European membership became a priority and the political reform was postponed. In present days, these Commissions continue to perform within the same institutional framework but the “Commission for the Development and Coordination of the Região Norte” (CCDR-N) has become one the most critical voices asking for a new territorial reform.

More recently, the situation has become unsustainable and the criticism has become even more acute due to the negative impact of the economic crisis. According to the President of the Regional Council of the CCDR-N (Correia 2013), the Região Norte requires the institutional capacity to decide upon its own policies, which in turn would improve the levels and quality of the implementation process. For this civil servant, it is all about pooling resources correctly in order to perform better economically, which would benefit not only the region, but also the country as a whole.

The Região Norte is the most populated region of Portugal but it is simultaneously the region that benefits the least from European financial support. For the CCDR-N, it all comes down to an enormous centralization of the implementation of regional policies, which affects the economic performance of the region. In the face of this critical situation, it is rather difficult for the CCDR-N to spread the message of decentralization in Europe – largely inspired by the principle of subsidiarity – when Portugal continues to promote the centralization of its policies and even suggests the re-centralization of the national strategic framework (QREN). The President of the Regional Council of the CCDR-N simply concluded: “We don’t want them to think for ourselves” (Correia 2013).


3. Concluding remarks: Now that we know the problem, where do we go from here?

Now that the problem has been clearly identified, where do we stand? Today, the issue is present in all political debates concerning the re-formation of the Portuguese state, and it reemerged, from time to time, when the local governance reform was discussed this past year. At the time of this writing, the biggest Portuguese political party in the opposition – the Portuguese Socialist Party (PS) – has made the issue a priority on its political agenda for next year’s elections. On the other hand, the Portuguese government has finally assumed that the articulation between the European, national, and regional levels of governance (as well as the local level) requires a decentralization of competences. In other words, there is a gradual consensus that the regionalization of Portugal could be the best political solution to pool resources more effectively across the country. In that respect, the political debate of next year’s elections will certainly contribute to generating a new political compromise between the national government and regional authorities.


Sandrina Ferreira Antunes is an Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations and Public Administration at the Universidade do Minho (Portugal) and a scientific fellow at the Department of Political Science at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (Belgium). She is interested in devolutionary, federalist and regionalist processes within all categories of political systems.


This article is part of our EU Cohesion Policy 2014-2020 feature.

[1] CCDR stands for Regional Coordination and Development Commissions – Comissões de Coordenação e Desenvolvimento Regional – that have been established in 1976. These are “deconcentraded” institutional structures that cover the geographical area of NUTS II. Portugal is composed of five CCDR: CCDR-Norte; CCDR-Centro; CCDR-Alentejo; CCDR-Lisboa e Vale do Tejo and CCDR-Algarve.


 1. Books

Bachtler, John, Carlo Mendez, and Fiona Wishlade. 2013. EU Cohesion Policy and European Integration: The Dynamics of EU Budget and Regional Policy Reform. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Hooghe, Liesbet, and Gary Marks. 2001. Multi-Level Governance and European Integration. Oxford: Roman and Littlefield Publishers.

Bache, Ian, and Matthew Flinders, eds. 2004. Multi-Level Governance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Figueiredo, Ernesto. 1988. Portugal: que regiões?. Lisboa: Instituto Nacional de Investigação.


Bachtler, John, and Gorzelak Grzegorz. 2007. “Reforming EU Cohesion Policy.” Policy Studies 28(4): 309–26.

Hooghe, Liebset. 1988. “EU Cohesion Policy and Competing Models of EU Capitalism.” Journal of Common Market Studies 36(4): 457–77.

Official documents

Comissão de Coordenação e Desenvolvimento da Região Norte (CCDR-N). 2013. “Norte 2020: dagnóstico propectivo da Região do Norte 2014-2020.” Porto.

European Commission. 2014. “Refocusing EU Cohesion Policy for Maximum Impact on Growth and Jobs: The Reform in 10 Points.” Available at <> (accessed October 18, 2014).

European Commission. 2012. “Europe in Figures 2012: Eurostat Yearbook 2012.” Brussels.

European Commission. 2008. “EU Cohesion Policy 1988-2008: Investing in Europe’s Future.” Brussels.

European Commission. 2007. “Fourth Report on Economic and Social Cohesion.” Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.

4. Newspapers

Manuel Hugo Correia “Não queremos que pensem por nós,” Jornal de Notícias, 4 April 2013.



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