Towards an ESPON Programme for 2014-2020

By Peter Mehlbye

Preparing the continuation of ESPON has been part of the European cooperation process for quite some time. The general opinion has been very clear that Europe needs territorial evidence to progress territorial cohesion, implement place-based approaches, enhance the territorial dimension in policy, and focus on integrated approaches to territorial development.

The Europe 2020 Strategy calling for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth has a clear territorial dimension inherent in the diversity of regions and cities around Europe. This was demonstrated for a wider audience in the recent ESPON Atlas on the territorial dimension of the Europe 2020 strategy. As regions and cities are key contributors for achieving the strategy, the need for evidence on the territorial dimension is in growing demand by policy makers. This is also related to the current scarcer resources that make it even more important that resources are used as efficiently as possible.

The future European Structural Investment Funds 2014-2020 shall support the Europe 2020 Strategy in creating smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. The focus is on 11 themes to be considered by programmes as their priorities for investments. This also creates demand for territorial evidence to support the choice of priorities that should be considered as the most promising opportunities and most demanding challenges that the programme area entails, also in relation to other regions and cities in Europe.

The European cooperation has also established the Territorial Agenda 2020 for the European Territory. This policy document includes a number of policy orientations for territorial development related to urban systems, infrastructures and natural assets, among other elements. Monitoring the implementation of these policy orientations, and at a later moment updating the Territorial Agenda, are other processes where ESPON territorial evidence is meeting demands.

The need to include the larger territorial context in today's strategic considerations and policy development is a logical consequence of the ever increasing globalisation, connecting the world much closer than before and creating new markets for Europe. The growth potentials for Europe, its regions and cities, will increasingly be related to places outside Europe. This brings in a need for evidence, better understanding opportunities in the international competition, flows of goods and people, necessary transport connections and for benchmarking European territories, regions and cities in relation to trends and dynamics outside Europe.

Process towards a renewed programme

In this policy context, the process of shaping the third generation of ESPON has started and reached a first level of maturity. However, there are still important discussions ahead and consensus to be shaped among the 32 countries that currently are involved (28 EU member states and 4 partner states, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland).

This process is being carried forward by a Joint Working Group (JWG) involving all of the abovementioned countries, with the mandate to elaborate the Operational Programme for the ESPON Programme covering 2014-2020.

Basic directions for this process have been set at the level of General Directors. The line of thinking is not just to continue as before, but to renew ESPON to become more efficient, better known and recognised as a provider of European territorial evidence, as a European Territorial Observation Network, that policy development at all administrative levels may benefit from.

The renewal shall of course improve elements of the current ESPON 2013 Programme that could work better. Moreover, it shall build on the experience and substantial achievements in terms of European territorial evidence that have been gained since the start of ESPON in 2002.

The key strands that the JWG is working along in order to renew ESPON include the following:

  1. Strengthening the outreach and knowledge transfer of the territorial evidence being produced, in order for this evidence to be used to a larger extent than today by policy makers at different administrative levels, as well as in other programmes funded by the European Structural Investment Funds.
  2. Ensuring faster delivery of evidence to ongoing policy processes for ESPON to contribute in time when evidence is needed to nourish policy development and/or programme implementation. This activity shall capitalise on the knowledge base built up by ESPON and will require more in-house scientific, policy advisory and communication capacity than in the current Coordination Unit to become feasible and efficient.
  3. Defining an ESPON operation with leaner administrative burden than today, as the current administrative system is generally seen as a major disadvantage for the ESPON 2013 programme due to the amount of financial control, certification of costs, etc. The answer seems to be a transfer to using service contracts only, which for research institutions and experts developing new ESPON territorial evidence would imply a much simpler process in relation to the payment for services rendered.
  4. Adapting the institutional setup of ESPON, contributing to more efficiency and delivery in line with the envisaged renewal. Here a major change is in discussion. The idea is to create an ESPON EGTC (European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation) that could act as a single beneficiary of the ESPON post 2013 Operational Programme. The ESPON EGTC would be contracted by the Monitoring Committee to implement all actions decided by the Monitoring Committee on the content side and deliver the European territorial evidence envisaged. Such a transformation requires, of course, a thorough debate in understanding the detailed modalities of the change, and this is still ongoing in the JWG.

Indicative time frame for the programme

The timing of when an ESPON Programme for 2014-2020 will become operational and start launching calls for tenders currently depends on when the EC Legislative Framework is decided and made public. Currently, the JWG is basing its work on draft versions of different upcoming regulations. Also, European decisions on the final Multiannual Financial Framework for the EU and its break down, including a budget for ESPON for 2014-2020 are currently pending. Therefore, budget issues including national contributions and budget allocations to programme priority axes and actions are not yet under discussion in the JWG.

The current expectations on the timing are that the EC Legislative Framework and other related formalities will be decided and become official by November-December 2013. Only then is it possible for the JWG to finalise the proposal for the ESPON Operational Programme for 2014-2020 and to reach a final agreement among all 32 countries involved on its submission to the European Commission.

The moment of submission of the Operational Programme is indicatively scheduled for beginning of 2014. The European Commission should then be issuing their approval of the new programme by July-August 2014, taking for granted that no loss of momentum will occur due to the European level elections in May 2014.

After the approval by the European Commission, some time will still be needed to get the new programme in motion, including the changes decided for the organisational set up. Against this backdrop, it still remains to be seen whether the first call for tender of ESPON post 2013 can be opened in 2014. However, this is for sure the ambition.

Back to Nordregio News Issue 4, 2013