First published on Ireland After Nama
At a time when the financial crisis in the Eurozone is seen to cast doubts on the extent to which European institutions act in the collective interests of Europe, it is perhaps instructive to consider the question of the territorial agenda of the European Union. To what extent does the EU have a coherent spatial policy or agenda or do individual sectoral policies have uncoordinated and even contradictory effects?
This is a question which European spatial policy initiatives have sought to address, particularly since the publication of the European Spatial Development Perspective in 1999.
Yesterday (19th May) at a meeting of the Ministers of EU member states responsible for spatial planning and territorial development in the town of Gödöllő, Hungary a new Territorial Agenda for the European Union was agreed upon. With the title ‘Territorial Agenda of the European Union 2020: Towards an Inclusive, Smart and Sustainable Europe of Diverse Regions’ the document follows on from a previous Territorial Agenda published in 2007. In light of the lead role of the Hungarian Presidency, the new Territorial Agenda has been expected to place a renewed emphasis on reducing disparities between Western and Eastern Europe and the particular development challenges faced by Eastern member states. The document supports the principle of ‘territorial cohesion’ which may be interpreted as balanced regional development at the European level:
We believe that territorial cohesion is a set of principles for harmonious, balanced, efficient, sustainable territorial development. It enables equal opportunities for citizens and enterprises, wherever they are located, to make the most of their territorial potentials. Territorial cohesion reinforces the principle of solidarity to promote convergence between the economies of better-off territories and those whose development is lagging behind.
It is further stated that ‘development opportunities are best tailored to the specificities of an area’ indicating that territory matters and regional development policies need to take account of the specific characteristics and diversity of individual regions. This echoes recent arguments for a ‘place-based’ approach to regional development policy rather than a reliance on ‘spatially-blind’ sectoral approaches (such as the Common Agricultural Policy). Suggesting continued support for an interventionist approach it is noted that ‘Regions might need external support to find their own paths to sustainable development, with particular attention to those lagging behind’.
Drawing on an evidenced-based ‘Territorial State and Perspectives’ background document (as yet not in the public domain) the Territorial Agenda identifies 6 main territorial challenges facing the European Union:
- Increased exposure to globalisation: structural changes after the global economic crisis;
- Challenges of EU integration and the growing interdependences of regions;
- Territorially diverse demographic and social challenges, segregation of vulnerable groups;
- Climate change and environmental risks: geographically diverse impacts;
- Energy challenges come to the fore and threaten regional competitiveness;
- Loss of biodiversity, vulnerable natural, landscape and cultural heritage
Informal meeting of Ministers responsible for territorial development and spatial planning, Gödöllő, 19th May
The challenges outlined serve to highlight that regions in Europe face distinct sets of challenges but that there also significant commonalities. In particular the impacts of demographic and climate change are recognised to vary significantly across the European territory. It may be noted that development disparities between East and West (or urban and rural regions) are not specifically mentioned.
The document subsequently identifies six ‘Territorial Priorities’ for the EU, for the purpose of responding the challenges outlined above:
1. Promote polycentric and balanced territorial development
2. Encouraging integrated development in cities, rural and specific regions
3. Territorial integration in cross-border and transnational functional regions
4. Ensuring global competitiveness of the regions based on strong local economies
5. Improving territorial connectivity for individuals, communities and enterprises
6. Managing and connecting ecological, landscape and cultural values of regions
The concepts of polycentric development and integrated development of urban and rural regions are themes which have featured centrally in European spatial policy since the 1990s; although it may be argued that they still require clarification in terms of their intended operationalisation. The identification of territorial integration in cross-border and transnational functional regions reflects a particular commitment in EU regional development policy to reduce border effects and improve cooperation, particularly through the INTERREG programme from which Ireland has benefited significantly. In total, approximately 40% of the territory of the EU is located within border regions.
Implementation of the Territorial Agenda of the European Union is dependent on EU institutions such as the European Commission taking its messages on board as well as actions by member states, regional and local authorities. The ESPON Programme (see also ESPON Ireland website) receives specific mention in relation to its central role in providing the evidence base for European territorial development and cohesion policy. The new Territorial Agenda places particular emphasis, however, on actions by member states. In Ireland, the National Spatial Strategy and National Development are the principal policy mechanisms in this regard. As the EU does not have any competence in spatial planning, the Territorial Agenda therefore does not represent a binding spatial plan for the EU in any sense. It does however provide a strategic policy framework and represents a high level European commitment to the balanced regional development and place-based approaches to policy. Based on the experience of previous European spatial policy documents such as the European Spatial Development perspective, the impact of the Territorial Agenda may be significant albeit not always directly visible!