The Territorial Agenda of the European Union 2020 – A turning point in striving for Territorial Cohesion?

By Peter Schmitt

The Territorial Agenda of the European Union 2020 (TA 2020) is the most recent informal strategic policy paper concerned with Territorial Cohesion in Europe. The ministers responsible for Spatial Planning and Territorial Development under the Hungarian Presidency approved it in May 2011. This paper joins a tradition of informal joint efforts by the same group of authors to emphasise the need and potential for an integrated spatial or, as it is has come to be termed in recent years, territorial perspective on strategic transnational policymaking. This article sheds some light on the specific context and complex policy framework in which the TA 2020 is embedded, the key messages this policy paper communicates, and how it approaches Territorial Cohesion as a joint EU policy target. In doing so, it also paves the way for the two other contributions to this newsletter that tackle more specific related issues.

Background and context of the TA 2020

The starting point for this sequence of strategic transnational policy papers has undoubtedly been the European Spatial Development Perspective (ESDP), which was agreed upon in 1999 by the ministers of the Member States of the European Union responsible for spatial planning and development. The ESDP has certainly not developed out of thin air, having been in gestation for almost a decade. During this time, it has coined specific normative notions such as urban–rural partnerships and polycentric development that have since then trickled down into various transnational, national and even regional policy documents. In addition, the 'INTERREG programme' (since 2007 labelled as 'European Territorial Cooperation programme'), which aims at fostering cross-border and transnational cooperation, has been a vital instrument in applying most of the policy options suggested in the ESDP. The ESDP (1999) has not explicitly delineated the concept of Territorial Cohesion. A relatively similar notion that is very central to the ESDP, namely polycentric development, is claimed to stimulate economic growth, be more environmentally sustainable and support territorial 'coherence'.

Exactly eight years later, a follow-up document was adopted by the same group of stakeholders who elaborated and agreed upon the ESDP. The 'Territorial Agenda' (TA 2007), or, as it is named in the sub-title, 'Towards a more competitive and sustainable Europe of diverse regions', is more abstract and less detailed than the ESDP concerning the number and level of its policy messages. Of most note is that it declares the normative notion of Territorial Cohesion the most prominent task of territorial policies. This notion had only been touched upon so far by other policy papers, such as the Cohesion Reports issued by the European Commission. A central motivation appears to lie in better exploiting existing territorial diversity within the EU. The concept of polycentric development is addressed, but apparently it has been downgraded to a kind of subcomponent of a striving for Territorial Cohesion.

The recent Territorial Agenda, the TA 2020, has been adapted to the Europe 2020 strategy. The latter was launched by the European Commission in March 2010 and approved by the Heads of States and Governments of EU countries in June 2010. It can be seen as the general road map of EU policy targets within this decade in regards to central policy fields (employment, energy, education and innovation). It can also be understood in this light as a central plank in the future alignment of EU Cohesion policies between 2014 and 2020.

Consequently, the TA 2020 takes up the 'policy triad' proposed by the Europe 2020 strategy—namely, smart, sustainable and inclusive growth—and rephrases it in its sub-title "Towards an Inclusive, Smart and Sustainable Europe of Diverse Regions". It appears that in doing so, the authors of the TA 2020, as the ministers responsible for spatial planning and development of the Member States of the European Union, are exploiting a window of opportunity as Territorial Cohesion has become a shared competence of the EU and its Member States in the 'Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union' of December, 2009. That is, in the TA 2020, this 'specific group' claims in a very pronounced way to incorporate the territorial dimension as an integral part of economic and social cohesion policy undertaken by the EU.

Coping with fuzziness and complexity

Before examining the contents of the TA 2020, some further, partly tricky, aspects need to be taken into account. Firstly, the nature of transnational territorial strategic policy papers such as the TA 2020 and its forerunners the ESDP and the TA 2007 must be qualified. They are elaborated on and disseminated by a very specific epistemic community, referred to by Sverker Lindblad in his article in this issue, as a group of 'true believers', who propose a very distinct language of fuzzy normative constructs.

However, constructs such as Territorial Cohesion do not stem from the statute book where it is defined, and what it should do, what its limits are, etc. Indeed, the Green Paper on Territorial Cohesion issued by the European Commission (DG Regio) in 2008 was an attempt to achieve a shared and mutually agreeable definition of Territorial Cohesion and, more importantly, the implications for policy. Although hundreds of contributions from national governments, local and regional authorities, EU institutions, economic and social partners, civil society organisations, academics and citizens were submitted in response to the 'open consultation process', a synthesised report including a more narrow definition has not yet been released.

This task appears to have been left to the scientific and policy advisory communities. Most notably, the ESPON (European Observation Network for Territorial Development and Cohesion) programme is the nucleus of knowledge, applicability and identification of policy options of territorially relevant policy notions. The concept of Territorial Cohesion remains the focus of several transnational research projects that aim to deconstruct its potential components and principles and decode its meanings in different territorial contexts. In addition, and perhaps most importantly in the world of policymaking, ESPON shall help to develop scientifically robust and at best quantifiable indicators for measuring the impacts of policies of Territorial Cohesion (cf. the contribution by Erik Gløersen and Kai Böhme in this issue).

The authors of the TA 2020 also deserve a comment. The ministers responsible for spatial planning and development of the Member States of the European Union are generally not supported by any established sectors with strong political influence and/or financial resources. Because of the coordinating function of what is termed here 'spatial planning and development', the tone in such transnational strategic policy papers is normally suggestive rather than straightforward, and the messages rather strategic and programmatic. This means that they do not contain very specific guidelines on the 'what' and the 'how', nor are they explicit about the 'who' of their intended audience. In addition, they are process oriented, which implies that they try to identify promising avenues for coordination between different sectors, and make suggestions for improving cooperation between territories and their associated stakeholders by emphasising the strength and necessity of improved multilevel territorial governance.

Towards Territorial Cohesion? – Key messages of the TA 2020

Before lamenting further on fuzziness and complexity in these territorial policy papers, some crucial questions remain: what is in the TA 2020; how is Territorial Cohesion addressed and to what extent is it framed as a central, relevant new dimension in cohesion policy; and finally, what can be expected in terms of policy implementation and delivery?

The TA 2020 is more assertive in tone than the TA 2007. Its very first paragraph emphasises that the ministers responsible for spatial planning and territorial development, in cooperation with the European Commission and with the endorsement of the Committee of the Regions, are seizing the moment to point out some major avenues in which to use their shared competence in Territorial Cohesion. In doing so, they are setting out a so-called 'action oriented policy framework' with a time horizon of 2020 which should initially integrate the territorial dimension within different policies at all levels of governance. Here, the effective coordination of different (sectoral) policies, instruments and competences is a central issue as regards its application. Consequently, robust and efficient modes of multilevel territorial governance are demanded for the challenging task of organising the interplay of different political bodies (e.g. the EU and the Member States), regional and local authorities and private actors, with their inherently different territorial interests and logics ultimately traceable to their institutional affiliations.

A central concern of the TA 2020 is to ensure implementation of the Europe 2020 strategy. It states that the key objectives of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth can only be achieved by taking into account variations in the territorial dimension such as different development opportunities of the different regions in Europe. However, this should be done according to 'territorial cohesion principles'. The reference to 'principles' here indicates this paper does not intend to make any further attempts to clarify this policy, which is apparently a mission impossible. Consequently, in paragraphs (8) and (9), some of the statements regarding these principles as suggested in the EU Green Paper are rephrased: "We believe that territorial cohesion is a set of principles for harmonious, balanced, efficient, sustainable territorial development. It enables equal opportunities for citizens and enterprises, wherever they are located, to make the most of their territorial potentials. Territorial cohesion reinforces the principle of solidarity to promote convergence between the economies of better-off territories and those whose development is lagging behind.(...) Regional interdependencies are increasingly important, which calls for continued networking, cooperation and integration between various regions of the EU at all relevant territorial levels."

As suggested in the so-called Barca Report (2009), this 'place-based approach' to policymaking and delivery is considered to be particularly aligned with principles of Territorial Cohesion, resting as it does on horizontal coordination, evidence-based policymaking, and integrated functional area development. Finally, it is argued that a place-based approach should assist in implementation of the subsidiarity principle through a multilevel governance approach.

The TA 2020 identifies some key challenges and potentials for territorial development. These include increased exposure to globalisation, demographic changes, social and economic exclusion, climate change, and loss of biodiversity. It also addresses six so-called territorial priorities for the development of the European Union. However, these will not be discussed here in greater detail. Nevertheless, the appearance of polycentric development as a key element in achieving Territorial Cohesion is noteworthy: "Where the most developed cities and regions within Europe cooperate as parts of a polycentric pattern they add value and act as centres contributing to the development of their wider regions. (...) Polycentric territorial development policy should foster the territorial competitiveness of the EU territory also outside the core 'Pentagon area'. We encourage cities to form networks in an innovative manner, which may allow them to improve their performance in European and global competition and promote economic prosperity towards sustainable development."

In addition, a number of mechanisms are identified in the TA 2020 that should help in implementing Territorial Cohesion on different spatial scales. At the EU level, it claims that a more territorially integrated perspective would improve the monitoring system of EU policies generally and implementation of the Europe 2020 strategy in particular. This would also guarantee a closer consideration of the existing diversity of territories and their specific development potentials and distinct identities. It also argues that programmes such as the current transnational cooperation programmes (formerly INTERREG strand B), macro-regional strategies (such as those adopted for the Baltic Sea region and the Danube region) or instruments, such as the European Grouping for Territorial Cooperation (EGTC), can be better utilised for Territorial Cohesion through, for instance, monitoring and evaluation of their benefits. What is perhaps most remarkable here is that the TA 2020 also addresses the Member States: "To integrate the principles of territorial cohesion into their own national sectoral and integrated development policies and spatial planning mechanisms" as well as the "regions and cities to develop and adopt integrated strategies and spatial plans as appropriate to increase the efficiency of all interventions in the given territory". In other words, the authors of the TA 2020 demand a further harmonisation and trickling down of central territorial policy concepts that stem from the relevant prevailing EU policy discourse.

Taking the TA 2020 further

Nevertheless, the section of the TA 2020 entitled 'Making EU territorial cohesion a reality' may be criticised for not being as far-reaching as it could be. A more distinct road map for further implementation would have been more desirable than merely asking the future EU Presidencies or other EU bodies and institutions to support the implementation or to carry out evaluations. More detailed examples of how future cohesion policies could be designed to better integrate a territorial perspective would also have been helpful in this respect. It can certainly be positively noted that the current Polish EU Presidency in the second half of 2011 has reacted immediately by commissioning a group of consultants to write a report identifying further options for strengthening the territorial dimension of future EU (cohesion) policies. Most importantly in this respect, it also asks for answers to the question of how Territorial Cohesion can be enhanced within the given policy frameworks (cf. Böhme et al., 2011). The extent to which the proposals and advice it offers are taken up or even incorporated in future policy packages remains to be seen. However, time is running out fast before the next period of EU (cohesion) policies, as the elaboration process is already underway.

Back to Nordregio News Issue 1, 2011