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How the ESF works

Each Member State, in partnership with the European Commission, agrees on one or more Operational Programmes for ESF funding for the seven-year programming period. Operational Programmes describe the priorities for ESF activities and their objectives.

The  EU distributes ESF funding to the Member States and regions to finance their operational programmes. These programmes fund employment-related projects which are run by a range of public and private organisations called beneficiaries. These projects benefit their participants – usually individuals, but also companies or organisations.

Working in partnership

The European Social Fund is designed and implemented in a partnership between the European Commission and national and regional authorities. This partnership also involves a wide range of other partners, such as NGOs and workers’ organisations, in the design of the ESF strategy and the monitoring of its implementation. Working in partnership is the best way to ensure that spending is as effective and efficient as possible and meets the needs of the region or community concerned. Two other important principles guide the functioning of the ESF:

  • Co-financing ensures ownership at national and regional level: ESF funding is always accompanied by public or private financing. Co-financing rates vary between 50% and 85% (95% in exceptional cases) of the total project costs depending on the relative wealth of the region.
  • Shared management allows for taking responsibility at the appropriate level: ESF guidelines are designed at European level through consultation with a wide variety of stakeholders, and Operational Programmes are negotiated between national authorities and the Commission. Implementation on the ground, through Operational Programmes, is managed by the relevant authorities in each country.

Needs-based funding

The level of ESF funding and the types of projects that are funded differ from one region to another depending on relative wealth. EU regions are divided into three funding categories based on their regional GDP per head compared to the EU average (EU with 27 Member States).

Structural Funds (ERDF and ESF) eligibility 2014-2020