KREMER May 2020

For Europe’s future, territory matters

For 70 years, the gradual process of ever-stronger interdependence, integration, and ‘give and take’ collaboration, the essence of the European project, has evolved and developed constructively, dealing with the considerable turns of history which have occurred in this period.


However, recently, this process has started to falter. The EU faces its biggest crisis. The support for Eurosceptic parties across the Union has doubled in the last two decades. One in every three voters vote for a Eurosceptic party. The UK has left the EU. Europe currently does not live in the hearts and minds of many of its citizens and is seen by many as a far away, rather bureaucratic structure of the political elite. The present, far-reaching “turn of history” – the eminently borderless corona virus – has only laid bare, even accentuated this situation. North and South Eurozone countries squabbled over the EU response to financing the crisis. The reflexive reaction of most member states to the corona crisis was to re-establish for this particular problem their national borders. This lack of joint European initiative and cross-border solutions in the face of such reflexive national solutions has certainly not contributed to a more favourable appreciation of the added value of the European project.


Yet, despite this situation, the recognition of the benefits of a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable Union is, paradoxically, as high as it was in the 1980s, especially amongst the younger generations. So, the present crisis represents both a challenge and a great opportunity for the European idea. The question is, how do we embrace the opportunity and adapt the EU to face the post-crisis period and bring Europe more into the hearts and minds of the majority of its citizens?


The key is territory. Europe has to recognise that people are essentially territorial. As well as the indisputable national identity, people do tend also to identify themselves strongly with their ‘own place’, smaller or larger town, countryside or region. Although a European identity is definitely present, certainly when global issues or comparisons are at play, it is not widely discernible. Therefore, to gain the hearts and minds of its citizens, Europe needs to explicitly recognize and identify with this local and regional identity. Doing so means acknowledging the high level of territorial diversity within Europe: geographical, climatic, economic, social and cultural.


To address this challenge and embrace the opportunity, two fundamental things have to change:

  • EU policies need to become ‘place-sensitive’, i.e. they need to get away from ‘one-size-fits-all’ and take on board the specificities of the areas/regions they are directed towards in a broader territorial perspective;
  • EU governance has to involve local and regional authorities more directly.


On the policy side, most European policies already have a territorial dimension, with their main impacts on certain areas and regions of our continent. Many, such as regional and urban policy, environment, transport, agriculture, are territorial by their very nature; others, such as energy, climate action, employment, social affairs, maritime affairs, have considerable territorial impacts and implications, more than is generally recognized.


We need new policy paradigms that recognise more explicitly the diversity of European territory and the territorial impacts of European policies within the framework of longer-term strategic goals for the development of the European territory. Local and regional areas need to be at the heart of European policies and policy-making to bring Europe closer to the people.


Of the many aspects of diversity, economic diversity is of overriding importance. Territorial inequality is an important cause of the present crisis. A major source of populism and Euroscepticism is the present unacceptable level of divergence between regions with development potential and regions with little or limited development potential. It has been shown beyond doubt, that anti-European sentiment is related to a poorer quality of life and the feeling of one’s hometown or region being ‘left behind’.


This divergence needs now to be addressed and taken seriously. The considerable EU policy investments should be spent according to the diversity of places instead of using just standard criteria. There is a need to help regions left behind to help themselves. European investment has to be used as trigger-money for wider national, regional and local investments. Unless investment resources are pooled, their impact will not be optimised. It is impossible to reverse territorial inequalities with EU money alone.


Moreover, future European investments need to be made conditional on ensuring that the recipient places and areas not only pool their resources but actually cooperate one with another. Instead of being a marginal, stand-alone programme, territorial cooperation between local and regional authorities must become a fundamental building stone and an inherent, cross-cutting objective of future European policy and investment. “Place sensitivity” is also about the way in which the many territorially relevant policies are implemented. It is vital that they are not simply directed only towards disadvantaged / poorer regions themselves, but that they also explicitly take on board their wider territorial implications. It is about releasing local potential, energy and actors and substantially encouraging and enhancing cooperation between places and areas within the European territory.


What then remains is the all-important question of governance. Despite the fact that most EU policies are fundamentally territorial, it is above all the member states, the national governments, that implement EU policies and thus decide where their territorial impacts play out. Of course, most member states have national procedures to involve their own local and regional authorities in determining their input into EU policy-making, but there needs to be a far more direct and therefore effective role for local and regional authorities in European decision-making than what they have at present. Existing institutional arrangements that bring a regional viewpoint into EU decision-making, like the Committee of the Regions, are not sufficient. In support of place-sensitive policies, new institutional provisions are needed.


There are different possibilities to strengthen a place-based dimension in the institutional set up of Europe. Three possibilities are suggested here, the one politically easier to implement than the other. Each is worth looking into.

  • Establish a “Citizens’ Assembly” for which people are picked across the union to sit on for a certain period and reinforce the citizens’ perspective. This would link those governing and those governed, thereby helping to bridge the distance between EU policy-making and EU citizens.
  • Develop the European Committee of the Regions, joining forces with the European Economic and Social Committee, towards a stronger “Local and Regional Council”. This would strengthen the multi-level governance perspective and anticipate the coordination needs of municipalities and regions in all policy implementation phases.
  • Regionalise the European Parliament by dividing it into two Chambers, a Senate where national parties per member state would be represented and a ‘House of Communities’ where members are elected on a regional basis.


To sum up, the EU faces a threefold task ahead:

  • Acknowledge that territory and the territorial diversity of Europe matters in order to bring Europe closer to its citizens.
  • Integrate territorial diversity into European policy with mandatory place-sensitive policies in order, above all, to reduce the present levels of territorial inequality and increase territorial cooperation between local and regional authorities.
  • Give European citizens via their local and regional authorities a more direct voice in EU governance structures so that they get the feeling they are heard.