Policy makers at European level have over the last decades discussed and developed policy orientations for the European territory. Policies for regional development are an inherent part of the Lisbon Treaty, with the aim of facilitating economic, social and territorial cohesion.

The aim of territorial cohesion for the European cooperation shall be seen in the context of the increasing interest by policy makers in a territorial approach with deeper horizontal policy integration which has emerged little by little over last decades.

The subsequent INTERREG programmes are a result of this process, which has implied an opening for cooperation in a larger territorial context, being it cross-border, transnational or inter-regional in geographical terms.

Actually, the demand for a European cross-sector strategy for the European territory was first voiced in 1992. This challenge was taken up by EU Member States that developed and approved at an Informal Ministerial Meeting in Potsdam in 1999, the European Spatial Development Perspective. This document included policy orientations, approaches and governance ideas that are still to be found in the policy thinking today. Key policy orientations for the entire European territory were (1) balanced and polycentric development, (2) good access to regions and services and (3) intelligent management of natural and cultural resources.

The European Commission was supportive to a number of actions set up by Ministers in Tampere. Of particular importance was the further support to transnational activities under Interreg as well as to testing the idea of a European Observatory on Territorial development. The test of the observatory later led to the first ESPON 2006 Programme. 

This intergovernmental process has over the last years experienced a revival as all 27 Member States of the enlarged Union has adopted in 2007 a Territorial Agenda for the European Union. Ministers modernised the policy orientations of the ESDP and added stronger emphasis on (1) the competitiveness of regions and cities including creation of innovative clusters, (2) climate change concerns and (3) territorial cooperation and multilevel governance. The Territorial Agenda has been followed up by an ambitious Action Plan 1, which currently is under implementation involving Member States in carrying through several projects.

The European Commission has supported this policy process and gradually processed a policy response at European level related to the territorial development. This has first been visible in the 4th Cohesion Report that for the first time mentioned a new concept of “territorial cohesion” which in 2009 was ratified with the Lisbon Treaty.

In 2008 the Commission launched a debate publishing a Green Paper on Territorial Cohesion.This document puts a territorial perspective on economic and social cohesion setting the objective of a more balanced and harmonious development of the European territory. It focuses on 3 key territorial development dynamics: (1) Concentration, (2) Connections and (3) Cooperation. It pays as well particular attention to regions with specific geographical features.

The Green Paper on Territorial Cohesion is accompanied by a Staff Working Document and poses questions for a European wide debate that will run until 28 February 2009.

The next step in defining the future EU Cohesion Policy after 2013 is envisaged by a 5th Cohesion Report due to be published by the European Commission in October 2010.