Geographical Specificities and their implications to the new Cohesion policy

Mountain and coastal areas, islands and sparsely populated areas face several challenges related to their development. According to ESPON project BRIDGES, these challenges are similar and interlinked for all the areas the Territories with Geographical Specificities (TGS) and have concrete implications to all the five Policy Objectives of Cohesion policy:

  • Smarter Europe: For TGS the key development goal is to improve their connections with other territories. It is crucial to overcome their insufficient critical mass and establish mechanisms that will allow them to mobilise external resources whenever required.
  • Greener Europe: Although renewable energy production potentials are concentrated in TGS, islands face specific challenges in their transition to clean and sustainable energy provision. These areas also have particular vulnerabilities to climate change. While mountains are Europe’s water towers, islands are particularly exposed to water shortage. The concept of Circular economy might also benefit these areas, due to their remoteness and disconnection. BRIDGES also presented the concept of Residential economy’: It can help to focus on economic flows associated with the circular economy and on its potential contribution to economically and socially more sustainable development in TGS.
  • More connected Europe: It is crucial for TGS is to improve connections between secondary transport networks and TEN-T core networks and to take advantage of the possibilities offered by ICTs. Current cohesion policy proposals focus on multimodal mobility in urban areas. However, ESPON BRIDGES has shown that there are numerous challenges in the design, implementation and monitoring of Public Service Obligation (PSO) in these areas. European measures to promote exchanges of experience and good governance in this field could be of added value.
  • More social Europe: There is a need for alternative approaches to promote more balanced demographic flows, especially among persons with sought-after capacities and competencies. These approaches may include incentives for ‘return migration’ after graduation, but also efforts to brand TGS as attractive living environments for newcomers. One may also take into account the importance of seasonal employment in TGS. Such measures are fundamental to improve the economic and social development ‘fundamentals’ in many TGS.
  • Europe closer to citizens: The importance of geographic specificities in territorial identities of EU citizens can become a lever in the pursuit of a Europe closer to its citizens. Actors from different horizons can be federated around a geographic specificity. At the same time, it is essential to acknowledge the conflicts between different types of activities and pressures in TGS, e.g. with respects to affordable housing and protected areas.

Cohesion policy includes mechanisms that can help to address TGS issues. However, their uptake is so far limited. There are only very few examples of CLLD targeting geographic specificity-related issues and TGS areas. European Commission’s proposal for the next programming period foresees the possibility of establishing ‘territorial strategies’ (Proposal for Common Provisions Regulation, COM(2018) 375 final, Art. 23) where “relevant […] territorial authorities or bodies” would be involved in the selection of operations.

Additionally, regulations anticipate that programmes may finance operations outside of the programme area without restrictions (Proposal for Common Provisions Regulation, COM(2018) 375 final, Art. 57(4)). These provisions open promising possibilities for policies addressing TGS, which tend to be located across the borders or at the edges of NUTS 2 regions.

However, one may fear that the uptake of these possibilities will be still low if the current framework is not updated, as, the capacity of the Member States and the Managing Authorities is limited. They are already facing significant administrative burden in the design and implementation of ESIF programmes. Therefore, optional solutions such as ITIs, CLLDs and territorial strategies may therefore not be a priority. Additionally, as described above, TGS territories often have limited capacities when it comes to the development and implementation of integrated territorial policies.

mountain strategy, island strategy, SPA strategy and coastal strategy

A more proactive European approach to TGS could be to reframe ITIs, CLLDs and territorial strategies as a component of a ‘mountain strategy’, ‘island strategy’, ‘SPA strategy’ and ‘coastal strategy’. The ‘strategies’ could be light structures bringing together TGS stakeholders from each category. It will allow them to jointly reflect on the policy relevance of geographic specificity, and provide inspiration and visibility to initiatives and monitoring progress.

These strategies would provide incentives and support to the design of measures targeting TGS within the framework of ESIF programmes, targeting relevant local and regional authorities, managing authorities and Member States.

The strategies would also make it possible to present cohesion policy solutions in a less technical and abstract way, emphasising their potential applications to territories that EU citizens can recognise spontaneously. As such, TGS categories could help to bring cohesion policy closer to EU citizens.

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Article edited by Nikos Lampropoulos, ESPON Project Expert Press and Media Activities