The European Social Fund (ESF) is Europe’s principal tool for supporting jobs, assisting people in finding better jobs, and guaranteeing that all EU citizens have equal access to job opportunities. It works by putting money into Europe’s human capital — its employees, young people, and job seekers. Millions of Europeans, particularly those who struggle finding work, benefit from ESF’s funding of EUR 10 billion every year.

The European Union is committed to providing more and better jobs, as well as a more inclusive society. These objectives are at the heart of the EU’s Europe 2020 policy for smart, sustainable, and inclusive growth. The current economic crisis has complicated this task. The ESF is critical to achieving Europe’s objectives and alleviating the effects of the economic crisis, particularly the growth in unemployment and poverty levels.

The ESF is not a job agency and does not post job openings. Rather, it funds tens of thousands of local, regional, and national employment-related projects across Europe. These range from small projects run by neighborhood charities to assist local disabled people in finding suitable employment to large-scale projects that promote vocational training for the entire population. The type, size, and goals of ESF programs vary greatly, and they address a wide range of target groups. Projects are geared at education systems, teachers, and students; young and older job searchers; and potential entrepreneurs from all walks of life. The ESF is concerned with people.


How Does ESF work?

Each Member State agrees on one or more Operational Programmes for ESF funding over a seven-year period in collaboration with the European Commission. These Operational Programmes define the aims and objectives of ESF activities.

ESF funds are distributed by the EU to Member States and regions to help them finance their operational initiatives. The programs provide funding for employment-related projects that are managed by a variety of public and commercial entities known as beneficiaries. These projects help those who participate in them, which primarily means individuals, but also includes businesses or organizations.

The ESF 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’ organizations, 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.

Depending on relative income, the amount of ESF financing and the sorts of projects that are sponsored vary from one region to the next. 

Across the EU, ESF projects have helped European citizens by supporting job creation, opening new job opportunities and drawing more people into the workforce. These efforts – comprising thousands of programs and projects – cover a wide spectrum of activities and groups. ESF programs are also improving performance across the entire education system. It finances initiatives to improve education and training, to ensure young people complete their education and get the skills that make them more competitive on the job market. Moreover, ESF finances many thousands of projects to help people in economic difficulties and from marginalized groups to acquire skills, get jobs and have the same opportunities as others do.