Solidarity has long been the European Union’s watchword. The EU’s cohesion policy, which distributes billions of euros in public funding across the 500m-person bloc every year, is the most tangible realisation of that ambition.

This colossal funding programme – equivalent to what Britain plans to spend on health and defence over the next two years – helps fund more than 600,000 projects, ranging from bridges across the Danube to the training of McDonald’s burger flippers in Sweden.

In an attempt to promote economic development and heal cold war divisions, Europe’s leaders are aiming to bind the region’s peoples more closely together and raise living standards, not just in impoverished backwaters but also in the developed heartland by stimulating overall demand for goods and services. From the thousands of kilometres of roads they drive on, to the museums they visit, even the fitness classes they attend, millions of Europeans are enjoying the fruits of EU largesse.

“It is an inherent part of the European idea, and the European project,” says Johannes Hahn, the commissioner in charge of the EU’s directorate general for regional policy who oversees the structural funds programme.

Critics, though, attack the programme as a flawed wealth-redistribution exercise, riddled with waste and fraud. At a time of growing economic tensions that have rattled the eurozone’s bond markets, at times pitted Europe’s capitals against each other, and called into question the future of the European project, these critics also question whether this money could not be better spent.

As EU member states begin negotiations for the next funding round and the European Commission prepares to review the very framework on which the policy is based, a joint FT/Bureau of Investigative Journalism project attempted to answer two simple questions: Where does the money go? And is the policy achieving what it has set out to do? Read full article in Financial Times (registered users) or in Presseurop's nine other languages...