Islands demand an ‘insular’ dimension in EU policies

The government of the Balearic islands has recently presented a Declaration called ‘Proposals for improving the way island territories are dealt with by European Regional Policy’. The document came in the form of a Final Declaration after the conclusion of the Summit on the recognition of insularity in the European Regional Policy that took place in Palma de Mallorca on 26th April. The Summit was attended by a large number of elected officials and civil servants, mainly from islands of the EU territory.

It is a fact that islands – in general being small entities – constitute the ‘weakest link’ in the EU. Many of them are located on the periphery of the EU, far from metropolitan regions and/or urban centres. They are characterised by sensitive environmental, social and economic structures. They are underepresented in the Brussels-based lobbies. Many EU islands are close to conflict zones and are exposed to clandestine immigration or other kinds of trafficking. They are vulnerable to accidental or deliberate marine pollution. For all these reasons, islands require special attention by the EU.

The Summit Declaration claims that a better assessment of the impact of insularity is necessary and that various insular conditions should be taken into account in the framing of EU policies. It also states that particular attention should be paid to islands when considering policies aimed at reducing the backwardness of the least favoured regions. This demand is in accordance with the Lisbon Treaty which recognises that islands suffer from a severe, and permanent, natural handicap.

According to the Declaration, GDP per region has been one of the main indicators in the shaping of European Cohesion policy. However, new social and environmental indicators must be used in the case of islands, in order to assess the state of insularity. Importation of goods or services, the absence of scale economies and the geographical handicaps that characterise many of the EU islands generally imply higher costs when it comes to policy implementation. Besides the mere acknowledgment of insularity, the EU should recognise that the resulting insularity handicaps have a cost. As the implementation of EU policies is more costly in an insular territory, the EU should therefore bear the extra costs. This recognition should lead to a better use of resources available in proportion to the severity of the particular disadvantages of each island.

Nevertheless, implementing an EU insular dimension is not an easy task. Measures and solutions cannot be uniformly applied to all EU islands without taking their diversity into account. The complex conditions of islands (archipelagos, mountainous islands with low density population, off-shore islands) should be taken into account. Particular care should be taken in order to avoid a situation where islands situated geographically close to a mainland are included in a larger statistical unit at Nuts 2 level, thus losing various benefits.

The Declarations suggest that at the EU level, a first step towards such an integrated approach would be the setting up of an “inter-services” group within the European Commission with responsibility for the islands, or more generally for all territories which suffer from severe and permanent natural or demographic handicaps.

Some issues related to insularity have been already integrated in the field of maritime transport policy. However, a coordinating ‘all inclusive’ approach is necessary to cover other policy fields such as transport, education, research, the environment, agriculture/fisheries, health care, migration and culture. Such a practice would facilitate a better implementation of EU policies and would limit the side effects of damaging economic factors on insular territories. It would also lead to a better synergy and efficiency among different EU policy tools.

Overall, the Summit Declaration is a well-written and self-explanatory document. It provides various sound policy suggestions that should be taken into account by the EU. The Declaration constitutes a positive contribution on how EU Regional Policy can become more effective vis-à-vis insular territories. EU islands possess considerable potential for growth which remains underexplored. The Declaration makes some practical recommendations which, if implemented, will ensure that insularity becomes less of a handicap.

It is now up to the EU to adopt the ideas proposed in the Declaration so that the insular dimension can be fully incorporated within EU policies. Adopting an EU insular approach will improve the public image of the EU and will be seen as a proof that the EU is taking the specific peculiarities of its island territories into account and working to resolve the difficulties that its inhabitants are facing in their daily lives.