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Stakeholder Conference "Europe's Special Areas?"
8 December 2011, Brussels

The stakeholder conference "Europe's Special Areas?" took place on 8 December 2011 in Brussels, with participants representing the different types of geographic specificities across Europe (programme). We thank all participants for a lively and informative discussion.

The presentations held during the day can be accessed here:

Group discussions formed an important part of the day. The stakeholders present at the conference discussed a number of different points. A brief summary is provided below:

How to address GEOSPECS areas in EU policymaking?

The group discussions in the morning of the day concentrated on commonalities and differences of the GEOSPECS categories. This immediately initiated a debate about policy options for these areas.

All categories were deemed to require specific policy approaches, but not all to the same extent. One group in particular concluded that a common feature of all GEOSPECS categories is the "need to resolve market failures"; but since economic competitiveness and attractiveness of the regions differ, the policy "recipes" vary as well.

The question of whether GEOSPECS categories should be addressed individually or jointly recurred in several forms.

Some stakeholders defended the view that the current approach of EU Cohesion Policy is flawed since it applies a one-size-fits-all approach that is not adequate for the diverse characteristics of the different GEOSPECS categories. An approach that is adapted to the individual GEOSPECS categories would therefore be necessary (i.e. introducing a policy or programme line for mountain areas, one for islands, and so on).

On the other hand, some stakeholders were concerned about the implementation of individualized policies at the local and regional level: They underlined that geographic specificities frequently overlap in the regions. Subdividing Europe into too many different categories would thus lead to an unmanageable confusion of policies at the regional level.

Lastly, it was highlighted that there are also significant differences within GEOSPECS categories (for instance, Scandinavian islands face different challenges than Mediterranean islands). This also makes the case for "policies per GEOSPECS category" less strong.

With which geographic focus?

At what geographical scale should policymakers address geographic specificities? Is the current NUTS 3 approach adequate, i.e. a focus on large administrative regions? Or are other scales more likely to capture the characteristics of GEOSPECS areas?

It was put forward that the main advantage of a regions-based approach is that NUTS 3 delineations exist already, and data are already collected at this level, so that effects can be measured easily. On the other hand, geographic specificities rarely correspond to NUTS 3 delineations.

As an alternative (positive) example, the case of France was mentioned, where mountain areas are grouped into "massifs", each with a dedicated institution.

Another group strongly insisted on the use of macro-regions (such as the "Baltic Sea" macro region - this concept could be applied to entities of geographic specificities). The same group suggested a matrix approach , in which each region would receive individual consideration. Since many areas are faced with multiple problems that reinforce each other, the matrix approach would allow the study of the potentials and needs of each region.

The future of Cohesion Policy

In the afternoon, the discussions concentrated on policy options for GEOSPECS areas, particularly against the backdrop of the next programming period of EU Cohesion Policy (2014-2020). A representative from the European Commission explained the proposed legislative package, with the ideas of using a Common Strategic Framework for all funds (Structural Funds, as well as those under Rural Development and fisheries policy), and Partnership Contracts for each Member State.

The stakeholders gathered again in groups to express their views on the proposals. Many generally welcomed the proposal, particularly the notion of community-led local development, but some details remain controversial.

The role of GEOSPECS areas in the Commission proposal

It was noted that Outermost Regions and Sparsely Populated Areas are the only GEOSPECS categories that receive earmarked funds, which raised the question why other areas do not deserve a special allocation.

Some stakeholders also questioned why urban areas have been allocated a certain share of the cohesion policy package, even though they do not have a legal basis in the treaties (whereas many geographic specificities are directly mentioned in the treaty, but do not receive an earmarked allocation).

How to use the funds

While there was a general agreement that EU funds should be used with a view to a long-term, European-wide perspective (instead of focusing on isolated local problems), the question of whether to focus on handicaps or opportunities raised more debate.

Some stakeholders insisted that there is more merit to channeling resources towards opportunities than to "funding problems", as the harnessing of opportunities leads to growth. Others pointed out that some handicaps will always remain challenges (an island that is situated far away from the mainland will always face higher transport costs). In this way, it will be more onerous for some areas than for others to achieve the same goal, and funding should reflect this.

Vertical coordination

Many stakeholders commented on coordination issues, pointing to missing links between the different levels. For instance, the "partnership contract" approach suggested by the Commission was criticized for only linking the European to the national level, while leaving aside the interests of the regional level. The debate on territorial diversity, has, however, mainly been between the EU and regional level so far, with Member States having relatively little input. Therefore, stakeholders demanded a say for regional and local authorities in the process. The national level should be committed to take into account the view of the regional authorities, and the funds intended for the regions should not be diverted to national problems/ national priorities via the partnership contracts.

Practicality of the Commission proposal

The Commission calls the proposed legislative package a "simplification" of funding programmes, but some stakeholders questioned whether this was actually true, since there are still hundreds of pages to read and complicated procedures to follow in order to receive funding from the EU.

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