To help achieve its various policy objectives, the European Union provides financial support for activities to be undertaken by organisations, including local and regional authorities, via a number of funding programmes and financial instruments financed through the EU budget.

The current set of programmes will run until 2027 and covers a wide range of areas such as regional and urban development, research and innovation, environment, education and training, support to SMEs and culture. This section attempts to demystify EU funding – in theory, in practical terms and specifically in relation to the options out there.

All you need to know about EU funding

Funding programmes usually rely on the following principles:

  • Co-financing: the EU contribution cannot cover the entirety of the cost associated with the project
  • European added-value: the project needs to demonstrate that it makes more sense to carry out its activities on a European scale than at a national or local level and that the whole EU will benefit from the results
  • Transnationality: in many cases, the project has to be developed by a consortium of partners located in different EU Member States (and potentially partner countries)

A growing characteristic of EU programming is a move away from the traditional purely grant-based approach towards the allocation of a proportion of their programme budgets towards Financial Instruments which provide repayable loans and other financing assistance arrangements for investment purposes.

There are two kinds of European funding programmes:

  • Shared management programmes: where, upon the agreement of the Commission, an allocated funding envelope is managed by, for example, a national ministry or a regional government – as with the Department of Education & Skills for Ireland’s European Social Fund (ESF) programme or two of the Regional Assemblies for their Investment Programmes as supported by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) [www.southernassembly.ie and nwra.ie]. These programmes correspond with EU policy objectives, the design of the detail of their priorities and measures as well as determination of how grants are to be allocated is carried out in Ireland.
  • Programmes “directly” managed by the European Commission – referred to as “competitive” EU funding.

The competitive programmes operate differently. Rather than supporting grants for standalone investments within an Irish context such as the delivery of state training schemes (ESF) or the provision of research/innovation programmes or support to micro-enterprise development (ERDF), for example, they predominantly provide finance towards the delivery of coherent sets of actions, in the form of projects, which are intended to contribute a sense of additionality. This applies not only in terms of making extra financial resources available to project beneficiaries but also to the ‘’European added value’’ requirement of bringing together partner organisations from different countries (‘’transnationality’’), and often from different sectors, to work together towards a common aim. This in turn creates a platform for experimental opportunities to deploy ‘innovative’ approaches of all kinds.

EU funding programmes are instruments designed so that specific policies may be tested, informed, developed and put into action and possibly serve to support, coordinate or supplement actions at national or regional level. In that sense, EU funding contributes to the fulfilment of short- and long-term EU objectives.

Most obviously, the overall current EU policy framework derives from the EU Strategic Agenda 2019-2024 which aims at:

  • protecting citizens and freedoms
  • developing a strong and vibrant economic base
  • building a climate-neutral, green, fair and social Europe
  • promoting European interests and values on the global stage

This has set high-level EU-wide (and national) targets in relation to employment, research/innovation, climate, education levels and social inclusion. Each sectoral policy will have further objectives which feed into this and these will be written into the terms of one or more relevant funding programmes.

European funding is probably still synonymous in most Irish people’s minds with heavy infrastructure – notably the building of the motorway network with significant ERDF backing in the years either side of the turn of the millennium. While Ireland’s two regional investment programmes continue to deliver investment funding on the ground in themes such as broadband, housing energy retrofitting and major urban development facilities, this is not the remit of the competitive programmes. Instead, their main focus is on soft actions intended to move progressively from the given issue or challenge towards identifying and validating a solution.

A typical project might involve a combination of some or all of the following: active stakeholder engagement with specific target groups; awareness-raising campaigns (among the public and decision-makers); networking and knowledge exchange; studies; joint analysis and peer review; guidance tool development (e.g. Best Practice manuals); mentoring; knowledge transfer & adaptation to other contexts; common approaches/methodology/model development; or applied research (pilot & demonstration projects). Some programmes such as Erasmus+ provide opportunities for capacity-building and mobility either within projects or as standalone grant-funded activities for individuals and groups.

Increasingly, many funds also allocate a portion of their resources to Financial Instruments (repayable loans) as opposed to grants for projects.

Action grant funding requires “co-financing“, meaning that the EU will provide a proportion of the total eligible costs of the action seeking funding. This can range from 50-100% depending on the scheme, with lower rates serving to ensure a greater degree of ‘’buy-in’’ from the project promoter. Payments are made retrospectively subject to compliance with the submitted action plan, submission of reporting and appropriate financial compliance.

EU projects should align with their financial plan and break-even during their lifetime. However, efforts to leverage additional future investment thereafter is encouraged.

In order to access the EU’s competitive programmes, which are managed centrally by the European Commission or one of its agencies (as well as the various Interreg programmes which are managed by other organisations), applicants must collectively devise competitive bids which will be assessed in line with the particular programme criteria – both administrative and policy-driven. This is set out in published programme documentation.

The funding is allocated via scheduled calls for proposals which formally invite bids. The opening of calls as well as their updated priorities, conditions, budgetary allocations and deadlines for submissions are foreseeable having been flagged in advance in an (Multi-)Annual Work Programme for the Commission programmes or in a prior announcement for the Interreg programmes.

There is no ‘one-size fits all’ format for the competitive EU programmes. Some are thematically linked to a single policy area. Others are multi-themed. Some are wide-ranging ‘frameworks’. They operate independently of each other and according to their own schedules, procedures and criteria. This means it is important to monitor programmes’ progress – including their remaining budget resources. Some programmes established to cover the 2014-2020 period – such as Interreg Atlantic Area  – are not accepting bids beyond June 2018 having already exhausted their budget while others such as LIFE (Environment and Climate Action) look likely to continue providing funding opportunities until 2021/2022.

See our guides to the main EU programmes of relevance to local authorities.

So you’ve got an idea and you’re thinking of pursuing EU funding?

Firstly, ask yourself a series of questions in order to work out if this is an option worth considering:

  • Am I looking for funding or looking for funding to carry out a particular activity? The latter approach will enable you to better focus your efforts in accordance with the realities off the situation.
  • Is my idea very localised? Has this type of thing obviously been done before? Could the LEADER programme provide assistance?
  • If not, could my ERDF-supported Regional Investment Programme or the national ESF Programme for Employment, Inclusion & Learning provide an option?
  • If not, what about European Commission’s various competitive programmes? Are you ready to consider their general requirements such as the emphasis on soft measures and a project of activities devised and delivered by a transnational partnership? Do you have one particular programme in mind already?

General questions for Competitive Programme bids:

  • Why would the EU have an interest in the issue being addressed? Can you identify a particular reason (other than the obvious pursuit of funding) to address this using EU resources? Is there a compelling case to link your ambitions with those of the EU/an EU funding programme?
  • Does the planned intervention solve an obvious problem which is relatable beyond the local situation to other circumstances (transfer of experience)?
  • Will the outcomes contribute something promising towards improvement in one or more of the following areas in real life:
    • Job creation?
    • Skill levels?
    • Lower energy consumption?
    • Overcome poverty?
    • Create knowledge?
  • Is the specific approach ground-breaking in some way?
  • Do you know what results can (realistically) be expected from this?
  • Can the benefits be measured (from the starting point/baseline)?
  • What use will they be put to in the longer-term after the funding ends…what are the possible next steps in making this a worthwhile exercise (influence national policy etc.)?
  • Can you encapsulate in your application how the project will deliver benefits beyond the purely financial?

Financial questions for Competitive Programme bids:

Is the grant sought as a means to an end – the extra means to deliver worthwhile improvement or otherwise unlikely activities – or as an end in itself?

  • Is the value-for-money case persuasive?
  • Are there guaranteed in-house/available resources (including to deploy existing overheads, if permitted) to ”match” the EU grant? This is to ensure proper ‘’buy-in’’ and prevent waste.
  • Will it be possible to leverage additional funding to deepen/widen activities?

Project Management questions for Competitive Programme bids:

  • Do you have specific and measurable objectives in mind to be delivered through identified actions within a set timeframe?
  • What level of commitment will be required (budget, time etc.);
  • Can your current ambitions be adapted to fit a (joint) EU project structure? This may entail slotting local ambitions into a wider transnational project or breaking a bigger ambition up into more focussed parts, some of which can be applied to the project?
  • Who will act as the formal local project partner? Does your organisation have the capacity and expertise to handle the (considerable) administrative work involved?
  • Will each partner have a relevant contribution to make? Does it all fit together coherently?
  • Is it clear who the local stakeholders will be and how they’ll be properly involved?
  • What is the timetable on your side? How quickly is the funding needed – bearing in mind that each fund has its own timetable and payment is subject to activity and reporting commitments? How far ahead are you planning?

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