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50 years of the European Social Fund

28 June 2007
by eub2 -- last modified 28 June 2007

On 28 June 2007, in Potsdam, Germany, a high-level event to mark the official 50th birthday of the European Social Fund (ESF) brought together EU Ministers and key players in the Fund. Organised by the German Presidency, the event reflected on how the ESF is helping millions of Europeans join and progress in the job market. The next generation of ESF programmes (2007-2013) will have a budget of EUR 77 billion for 27 Member States, providing funding in areas like training, ensuring better access to jobs, fighting discrimination and improving public services.


What is the ESF?

Set up in 1957, the European Social Fund (ESF) is the oldest of the EU's Structural Funds. It is the European Union's main financial instrument for investing in people. It is devoted to promoting jobs and helps Member States make Europe's workforce and companies better equipped to face new, global challenges. In short:

Funding is spread across the Member States and regions, in particular those where economic development is less advanced.

It is a key element of the EU's strategy for Growth and Jobs targeted at improving the lives of EU citizens by giving them better skills and better job prospects.

Over the period 2007-2013 EUR 77 billion will be distributed to the EU Member States and regions to achieve its goals. This represents around 10% of the total budget of the European Union.

The European Employment Strategy (EES) brings together the 27 Member States to work at increasing Europe's capacity to create more good jobs and to provide people with the skills to fill them. It guides the ESF which spends European money on achieving these goals.

How does the ESF work?

The European Social Fund is based on the principles of co-financing and shared management.

• Co-financing means EU financial support always runs alongside national public or private financing. The level of EU intervention is linked with the situation on the ground. Depending on a number of socio-economic factors, the co-financing may vary between 50 and 85% of the total cost of interventions.

• Shared management refers to the guidelines for ESF actions which are designed at European level, whereas implementation on the ground is managed by the relevant national or regional authorities in each Member State. These authorities prepare the Operational Programmes and select and monitor the projects.

The ESF does not fund projects directly from Brussels. ESF funding is available through the Member States and regions and each Member State or region - together with the European Commission - agrees on an Operational Programme for ESF funding for the 2007-2013 period. Operational Programmes set out the priorities for ESF intervention and their objectives.

Beneficiaries of ESF funding can be of many different types: public administrations, NGOs and social partners active in the field of employment and social inclusion, enterprises and other relevant stakeholders.

The ESF's resources are committed for seven years. Such financial continuity is crucial, since it offers projects the security they need to deliver their objectives, regardless of shifts in national priorities. European investment also draws in funding from other sources – on a 50-50 or sometimes even a 15-85 basis – such as from public authorities or industry.

How does the ESF address the real needs of an area or a region?

The Commission has set out very clear guidelines on how national and regional authorities should draw up their Operational Programmes. The Commission has also put a strong emphasis on the need for a thorough assessment of the labour market and economic development needs of the areas covered by ESF programmes. Together this package represents a huge investment in the prosperity and labour market development of Europe.

As part of this process, the Commission has also encouraged decentralisation of decision-making and those drawing up plans to consult widely on their priorities for ESF. This should ensure a better match of funds to specific local and regional labour market problems.

Where does the money go and how is it helping people in Europe?

Some real examples:

• In Hamburg in northern Germany, the ESF co-financed an information centre to help school-leavers from immigrant families to find their way into the labour market, and to strengthen contacts between local employers, teachers and social workers.

• People with serious psychiatric disorders have big difficulties joining the labour market. So in Prague in the Czech Republic, the Dragonfly gallery runs a gift shop where people are trained under therapist supervision. It also helps to break down stereotypes surrounding psychiatric illness.

• In Italy, ESF funding went towards setting up a Masters degree in industrial research, giving mainly engineering students an opportunity to develop practical projects within industry. Some 85% of graduates from the first intake were in employment within weeks of qualifying.

• People with disabilities may sometimes lack the confidence to seek help, so Estonia's ESF-funded network took the initiative in making contact. Starting with a target group of 600, the project had already reached 2,916 people, with some four months still to go.

• In Sweden, the ESF has co-financed a project with the social welfare authority to improve the skills and training opportunities for over 2,000 of the welfare authority's workers, improving their adaptability and level of skills.

What's new about the new programming period 2007-2013?

From now until 2013 the ESF has adopted a ‘strategic’ approach, coordinating the work of the ESF with the other main strands of EU economic and social policy, including the ‘Lisbon agenda’ for growth and jobs, and the European Employment Strategy. This will ensure that money is targeted towards the same overall – and vital – European objectives.

The new generation of ESF will also concentrate resources on the areas where it can make the most impact in achieving those objectives.

Finally, the rules governing the ESF have been simplified. Following Member States’ and project promoters’ concerns that the system was too complicated in the past, the division of responsibilities between the EU and national authorities has been clarified. This means that Member States have greater flexibility in choosing their priorities and targeting ESF resources towards their own specific problems and conditions. There is no single EU way of doing things and the Commission respects Member States’ right to choose their own methods for achieving common objectives.

How to find out more about the ESF?

Member State authorities are responsible for the ESF in each country. For specific national information, go to the national ESF contacts.

The new revamped EU Europa ESF website provides more information as well as an interactive map with funding areas and programme details per region.

European Social Fund (European Commission website)

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