Storylines on Territorial Cohesion

By Erik Gløersen and Kai Böhme

What role can researchers play in discussions on Territorial Cohesion? Policymakers and stakeholders with ambitions in Territorial Cohesion request statistical measures and maps that support its implementation in policy. Such evidence is needed, for example, in debates on the future of structural funds after 2013. The present article presents some reflections on the role that applied research may play in such a context, based on experience from the ongoing ESPON project 'Indicators of Territorial Cohesion' (ESPON INTERCO).

What is Territorial Cohesion?

Territorial Cohesion is a notion with a wide range of meanings and implications that are dependent on the policy agendas and analytical perspectives of those using it. Debates over its meaning and implications have gained momentum since the Treaty of Lisbon included it as one of the goals of the European Union (EU) in 2009. However, its introduction can be regarded as a way of further specifying the notion of 'harmonious development', one of the major initial ambitions of European cooperation. Its meaning has been progressively extended to incorporate an increasing number of policy fields. The Treaty of Rome that established the European Economic Community in 1957 refers to the "harmonious development of economic activities" (art. 2), "of the common market" (art. 128) and "of world trade" (art. 110). The social dimension is added by the Single European Act of 1986, according to which the promotion of "overall harmonious development" shall be based on "actions leading to the strengthening of Europe's economic and social cohesion" (art. 130a). In the meantime, establishment of the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) in 1975 reflected an increasing awareness that one cannot overlook territorial structures when seeking to achieve cohesion. The creation of the ERDF also reflected the conviction that a dialogue between the EU and the regions would be needed for this purpose. Since the enlargement of the EU from 15 Member States to 25 in 2004 and 27 in 2007, the European Commission has emphasised the objective of the regional policy to be promoting balanced, sustainable development through functional integration between territories and cross-sectoral policy coordination, and not merely facilitating integration in the European Single Market through increased economic and social convergence. Considering the disparities between the 'new' and 'old' Member States, this latter perspective would indeed have entailed regional policy measures merely concerning the 12 countries that joined in either 2004 or 2007. Avoiding a renationalisation of regional policy therefore necessitated revision and enlargement of its rationale (Begg, 2010). The inclusion of Territorial Cohesion as a shared competence of the EU and of the Member States in the Treaty of Lisbon also needs to be understood in this light.

The European Commission has so far chosen not to provide a definition of Territorial Cohesion, but has oriented debates through a series of suggestions on what this goal entails. In the third report on economic and social cohesion, the fact that "people should not be disadvantaged by wherever they happen to live or work in the Union" is presented as a justification for the inclusion of Territorial Cohesion in the Treaty as a policy goal (European Commission, 2004, p. 27). The European Commission's Green Paper on Territorial Cohesion, published in October 2008, emphasises that territorial analyses and territorial instruments better account for interactions between different policy fields in the design of more coordinated interventions. Thus, Territorial Cohesion can be understood as an inclusive principle that assists in targeting of policy interventions and supports the effectiveness of policymaking, rather than a strict definition that risks excluding certain stakeholder groups or alternative understandings (cf. Böhme et al., 2008). This argument in favour of a more inclusive approach is inspired by the concept of sustainable development, proponents of which traditionally focus on the need to combine economic, social and ecological sustainability. Using Territorial Cohesion as a principle for the coordination of sector policies is a popular idea within the circle of people working on territorial policy. Other actors consider either that this presupposes an unrealistic ascendancy of 'territorial policy' over other policy fields or seek to extend their own area of competence by incorporating the territorial dimension. The European Commission's Directorates General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (DG MARE) and for the Environment (DG ENV) have, for example, launched initiatives in favour of Maritime Spatial Planning (MSP) and Integrated Coastal Zones Management (ICZM). The Directorate General for Agriculture and Rural Development (DG AGRI) similarly seeks to demonstrate that Territorial Cohesion policies in rural areas would belong within its area of competence.

Other documents suggest that Territorial Cohesion could be an instrument for improving the economic and social performance of Europe. In its background document to the Conference on Cohesion Policy and Territorial Development in December 2009 (European Commission, 2009), the European Commission focused on the need for a 'Local Development Methodology' that would be a component of cohesion policy. 'Unleashing the territorial potential' is, from this perspective, the motto of cohesion policy. The underlying rationale is that the market does not automatically exploit the possibilities for economic development equally in all European territories. The European Treaty gives some indication of the areas that would be concerned, and specifies that "particular attention shall be paid to rural areas, areas affected by industrial transition, and regions which suffer from severe and permanent natural or demographic handicaps such as the northernmost regions with very low population density and island, cross-border and mountain regions" (art. 174). In the Europe 2020 strategy formulated by the European Commission in March 2010, Territorial Cohesion is associated with the objective of 'inclusive growth'. It is closely associated with the objectives of a 'high-employment economy' and 'social cohesion' and of sharing the benefits of growth and employment more widely (European Commission 2010).

How to measure Territorial Cohesion

The researcher must employ diverse approaches in attempting to construct indicators of Territorial Cohesion (cf. e.g. Hamez, 2005). Such indicators can be constructed from data in EU documents regarding Territorial Cohesion, together with additional territorial structures and trends considered relevant in other policy documents or by stakeholders. However, this selection, the multivariate statistical methods used to combine them and the scale of analysis used necessarily presuppose a large number of choices. In practice, this implies that the construction of indicators of Territorial Cohesion is necessarily linked to the position taken within debates on Territorial Cohesion. One example is the linking of policy processes and scientific evidence in the form of indicators and maps by the Polish EU Presidency in pursuing its ambitions of implementing the Territorial Agenda (cf. Böhme et al., 2011).

In its attempts to produce indicators of Territorial Cohesion for the European Commission and the Member States and as part of the ESPON programme, the ESPON INTERCO transnational project group therefore first decided to address this difficulty through a series of workshops with stakeholders, practitioners and other researchers in the territorial policy field. As a starting point for the analysis, a series of 'storylines' of Territorial Cohesion were proposed. These initial storylines not only described the main objectives different groups of actors referred to when discussing Territorial Cohesion, but also purported to synthesise the causal processes that these actors would presume to be initiated by the types of actions they promote.

The formulation and description of the storylines is an iterative process, whereby an initial list based on policy documents, academic articles and ongoing debates would be progressively amended in the workshops. The list of storylines would also be modified by, for example, adding a storyline on the environmental dimension, or by merging storylines dealing with local development and geographically specific areas. As a result of this process, six storylines were proposed:

  • The storyline 'Smart growth in a competitive and polycentric Europe' focuses on the contribution of Territorial Cohesion to the achievement of the aims of Europe 2020, particularly higher economic growth and improved European competitiveness. This implies a focus on territorial potentials, on the support of smart growth and on the connectivity of Europe's economic centres in a polycentric system of cooperation and integration. The short- to medium-term policy ambition is to maximise growth in the strongest nodes by drawing on factors such as a highly educated workforce, excellent infrastructure and agglomeration economies to generate highly innovative and competitive activities and substantial income. Balanced and harmonious territorial development would subsequently be achieved on the basis of diffusion processes.
  • 'Governance, coordination of policies and territorial impacts' is a storyline that emphasises the importance of dialogue and integration to strengthen Territorial Cohesion. Key concerns are with improved use of synergies between different policies (vertical and horizontal coordination) as well as the actual costs of non-coordination. According to this approach, Territorial Cohesion can result from a combination of more developed horizontal exchanges between actors from different sectors and vertical processes in which the design and implementation of policy is coordinated at the local, regional, national and European levels and based on subsidiarity. Particular emphasis is therefore placed on the need for a dialogue on Territorial Cohesion with 'non-believers'.
  • If territory is considered an interface between human activities and the physical environment, Territorial Cohesion can be an instrument for achieving sustainable economic, social and ecological development. The storyline 'Environmental dimension and sustainable development' stresses this aspect of Territorial Cohesion debates. From this perspective, the hallmark of Territorial Cohesion would be the capacity to deliver sustainable development. Policies based on a territorial approach would take into account interactions among a diversity of issues. Economic development measures and welfare policies would incorporate long-term strategies to meet key challenges such as biodiversity preservation, climate change adaptation and reducing environmental impacts of manufacturing and transport.
  • The storyline 'Local development conditions' considers Territorial Cohesion as place-based policymaking. It goes below the regional level to focus on local development conditions and the comparative advantages of places. This includes factors such as tacit knowledge, local networks and access to economic centres. Different local areas react differently to sector policies. Achieving Territorial Cohesion therefore requires adapting these policies to different geographical contexts.
  • The storyline 'Geographical specificities' draws on the previously mentioned article 174 of the Treaty. It commits the EU to paying particular attention to certain categories of areas, including those that 'suffer from permanent natural or demographic handicaps', for example, mountains, islands and sparsely populated areas. The limited demographic and economic functional mass in most of these areas is a key challenge. It leads to higher costs for service provision, limited access to transport infrastructure and few possibilities for benefiting from economies of agglomeration. Additionally, the ecosystems in many cases present specific forms of vulnerability, requiring adapted policies and dedicated innovation policies to preserve long-term sustainable development perspectives while improving their economic performance. Policies preserving settlement patterns in geographically specific areas may not be justified from a narrow economic point of view, insofar as their overall productivity is lower than in more central areas with fewer constraints. However, the cost–benefit ratio of these policies may appear more favourable if the strategic importance of outputs of some of these areas, such as natural resource exploitation and opportunities for leisure activities, are taken into account.
  • Finally, the storyline 'Inclusive, balanced development, and fair access to services' was inspired by the Third Cohesion Report definition of Territorial Cohesion, which states that "people should not be disadvantaged by wherever they happen to live or work in the Union". A key issue in this respect is defining minimum levels of service provision across the European Territory, which some use to invoke the notion of a European model of society. However, the demands and expectations of European citizens in terms of service provision vary significantly across regions. The idea of 'equal' or fair development opportunities in all areas is widely supported. However, the need for European settlement patterns to adapt to a changing economic framework also needs to be considered. The challenge is to organise demographic decline in a socially and ecologically responsible way in areas where it is considered unavoidable. Reflections on how modes of service delivery may be adapted to Europe's diverse territorial contexts are also needed.

Indicators may be elaborated on the basis of such storylines, since they are progressively amended through interactions with stakeholders. On this basis, researchers may produce quantitative analyses that guide the formulation of Territorial Cohesion strategies within a given policy framework. The data, scale and statistical tools that are used can then be justified on the basis of the strategic priorities and underlying hypotheses of stakeholders referring to Territorial Cohesion, rather than being an arbitrary choice of the researcher.

During the series of workshops that were organised as part of the ESPON INTERCO, many stakeholders insisted that, irrespective of storylines, only analyses based on functional areas would provide evidence of direct usefulness in debates on Territorial Cohesion. Constructing traditional indicators is complicated. While the scale and delimitation of 'functional regions' is specific to each policy issue, Territorial Cohesion purports to be a 'bridging concept' encouraging coordinated cross-sectoral measures and initiatives. An alternative objective may be to formulate a more precise 'territorial method' in the analysis of various sectoral issues, and to combine findings from these separate analyses in a more qualitative way.


Territorial Cohesion is a good example of the difficulties of producing scientifically sound evidence related to a concept that is, fundamentally, of a political nature. The 'storylines' that capture prevailing types of thinking linked to this notion are one way of acknowledging it as a political construct, while allowing for further analyses that would support policy debates. By operating with multiple parallel definitions of Territorial Cohesion, as we have done in the six storylines, we take into account the ways in which stakeholders in policy debates have sought to use the notion as an instrument to promote their respective agendas. Admittedly, multiple definitions of specific concepts and notions also occur in scientific debates where they are operationalised in different models of social and natural processes. However, while the heuristic value of concepts is considered in scientific debates, policy stakeholders focus on the efficiency of the explanatory and predictive power of the models built around them in reaching certain goals. The synthesis of differing conceptual approaches is generally possible from a scientific point of view, at least within the context of a given study or analysis. However, it is difficult to envisage the same process for diverging understandings of policy notions insofar as it would presuppose a political legitimacy that the researcher does not possess.

Operationalising Territorial Cohesion as a scientific concept in a project seeking to support policy debates is therefore not an option. The scientific enquiry on this subject is nonetheless possible, but needs to be based on the synthesis and critical analysis of policy discourses referring to Territorial Cohesion. The formulation of storylines is a first step in this process. It offers a snap-shot of currently prevailing policy approaches and a translation of the various lines of argument into hypothetical causal processes. While, as Böhme and Schön (2006: 61) put it, "the story of European spatial development policy is at the same time also the story of the search for evidence on European spatial development", these two parallel processes advance along different and partly contradictory lines of logic. The 'storylines' are part of an attempt at bridging this gap.

Back to Nordregio News Issue 1, 2011