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The “lite” Europeanization of spatial development policies

University Center for International Studies – University of Pittsburgh – February 2004

During the 1990s the European Union consistently re-tuned its approach to the European territory by promoting new initiatives, policy networks and concepts. The concept of spatial development, a neologism, combines the German practice of regulatory planning of physical and environmental factors with the British concern for local economic development. However, spatial development may be regarded as a case of ‘lite’ Europeanization—an incremental construction of a European policy field beyond formal competencies and treaties.

Before describing the multi-tiered framework of European spatial policies, a few elements deserve some consideration.

Concern for European spatial development has existed for a long time. This development, a result of trilateral negotiations between the European Commission, member states and local authorities, has relevant international implications.

The European Commission has been increasingly involved with spatial issues since the 1970s. Even if Brussels had never been granted a competence, interest in territorial and urban issues would be spurred by its regional policy. The regional policy of the mid-70s was conceived to balance development disparities between countries.

Within the framework of the Structural Funds, the European Commission was entitled to experiment and to study the spatial impact of regional development. The first step was to study the spatial impacts of European Union policies, which were feared to be major constraints to social cohesion. The European Commission also compared and assessed member states’ national and local planning systems.

European policies increasingly focused upon the role of cities as a growth engine; for instance, in the 1998 program entitled “Framework for Action,” the European Commission committed itself to more ‘urban sensitive’ policies. Eventually, the idea of ‘territorial cohesion’ (that is, the idea of a minimum endowment with public services) was presented in the European Union’s 2003 constitutional draft, along with the established concern for competitiveness and social cohesion.

Evidence of trans-national impacts of European Union actions grew after the birth of a single European currency in 1993. Both agricultural and regional policies—which account for most of the European Union budget—presented striking territorial effects. Global economic development has entailed manifold processes of territorialization, as in the case of global cities or industrial districts, which are sometimes the cue for the economic growth of entire member states.

Even more so, one has to consider that spatial development issues, such as those concerning environmental impacts, development priorities, urban concentration, transborder duplication or conflicts and the knitting together of infrastructure networks, have relevant international implications. Finally, spatial development involves localities.

The jigsaw puzzle of local government is somewhat complicated in Europe; the control of spatial development changes depending on miscellaneous arrangements between tiers of government in central, regional and federal states. In order to be successful, however, spatial policies often imply a reshuffling of competencies among different tiers of government which affects all member states’ constitutional systems. Thus the European Commission embarked upon trilateral negotiations with states and localities. As a result of the complex web of local and global issues and the involvement of various levels of government, the framework of spatial development is somewhat complicated.

Spatial policies have come to bear a resemblance to a wedding cake with at least four different tiers. The foundation of this cake metaphorically represents regional policy; the second tier symbolizes infrastructure networks and trans-European cooperation; the third tier corresponds to urban initiatives and the last tier represents a spatial perspective.

The first tier, regional policy, has, since the 70s, been the main concern for regions experiencing industrial decline. This concern has recently been reframed to encompass other regional disparities. Regional funds account for an important and growing share of the whole European Union budget. However, the main outcome of regional policy is infrastructure financing: about 80% of regional funds until 1988 and 33% since then went to road and railway construction. The management of funds has changed several times.

Thus far, the European Commission has provided additional funds to the programs promoted by member states; however, the share of the regional funds in the European Union budget has been steadily growing.

The second tier, Interreg, is the European Community’s most consistent initiative started in the wake of the Structural Funds’ reform in the late 1980s. Its basic objective was to develop cooperation among bordering regions. Since 2000, Interreg has impacted the whole continent and has addressed the objective of balancing development through cross-border, trans-national and interregional cooperation. Interreg mainly addresses the spatial impacts of the main transnational infrastructures. Urban policy is the third tier. The European Community was specifically concerned with cities while developing anti-poverty policies. Through the 1989 Urban Pilot Projects and the 1994 Urban program, the European Commission focused upon the economic development of socially run-down areas. The first Urban program selected 118 medium-sized cities in Europe targeting approximately 3.2 million people. In 2000, 70 more cities and towns were added. Action programs were drawn up reflecting the specific problems of neighborhoods. Emphasis was put on local participation, the involvement of citizens in the design and implementation of specific projects.

On the top layer of the metaphorical cake, the European Spatial Development Perspective (ESDP) is a policy document that provides a ‘guide’ for the integrated strategies of territorial planning of member states. The idea of constructing a vision and a spatial perspective for the European territory actually originated in the Council of Europe as early as 1964.

Since 1989, however, several Conferences of Ministers for Territorial Planning and Regional Development took place, following the results of the trans-national studies of Europe 2000+, which is part of the legacy of former European Commission President Jacques Delors. The ESDP has three main objectives: polycentric and balanced sustainable development, integrated transport and communication and wise management of the natural and cultural heritage.

Polycentrism is a moderately compelling space formulation of the dynamics of development, indicating the need to balance the force of global concentration and the urban network. However, the ESDP would direct the preceding layers, namely regional policies; in practice, the cake would be turned on its head. Beyond the ESDP is grand rhetoric, a few policy corollaries are certainly influential. For example, the ESDP acknowledges that main urban regions will continue to account for the largest share of growth and innovation with the well being of the continent depending on the quality and balancing out of such urban regions.

In addition, the ESDP suggests that thickening the infrastructure network would enhance formation of ‘zones of global economic integration,’ somewhat expanding the urban spine that already stretches from London to Milan. Such zones would nourish the growth of Europe, similar to such zones as the Eastern Corridor and the Sun and Rust Belts in the United States. A few regions, such as the Mediterranean Arc from Barcelona to Marseille or the Baltic region, are currently credible candidates to become global zones. Territorial policies highlight some noteworthy corollaries of the Europeanization process. The European Commission pursues spatial policies because the European territory affects economic development and trans-national decisions impact localities.

This strengthens the networking of local authorities, who in turn easily adopt European models in the national arena. So far, the process has brought an expanding approach to the spatial organization of the whole continent, which implies a substantial renegotiation of regional policy. The future of spatial policy is blurred by the impact of concurrent pressures. On one hand, it is overloaded with expectations, addressing the dual problems of existing regional disparities and of the contradictory spatial effects of Community policies, while pursuing the challenging aim of “achieving a balanced and sustainable development, in particular by strengthening economic and social cohesion.” On the other hand, it encompasses the crucial relationship between state, region and localities, depending on how different government tiers are dealing with divergent aims such as competition, social cohesion, and sustainability. Even more so, the EDSP’s possible reframing of regional policies would require a strong agreement between member states, which is far from likely to happen in the actual political situation.

The Spatial Perspective is a quite fascinating area of European policy. In a way, it reflects the politics of Europe’s ‘nationalization,’ which bears some resemblance with the 1956 Eisenhower highway network. The United States highway network is a noteworthy example of the contribution that main infrastructures give to the political and economic integration of a large geographical area. It probably inspired Delors, when he remolded most of the territorial policies in 1985. Instead of highways, the grand European design insists upon a network of cities linked by high-speed trains.

The underlying promise is to spark development and to create sustainability—a valuable bet for a ‘lite’ policy.

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