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In view of the current challenges, the spatial development policy should take up a common position!

Dr. Karl Peter Schön about origins, trend and future of the European spatial development policy

Eschau (© Leonid Andronov,

How and why have Interreg and ESPON arisen? In how far did the EU’s foundation further the emergence of the European spatial development policy? And why are territorial future visions nowadays more important than ever before? Starting from 1992, the year which marks both the foundation of the "Spatial planning in Europe" division in the predecessor institution of the present BBSR and the time of birth of the European spatial development policy, Dr. Karl Peter Schön analyses its origins, trend and future. As head of division, he himself witnessed and shaped the whole development from the beginning. In autumn 2017, he retired after 25 years of having been in office.

25 years of Maastricht Treaty

25 years ago, on 9 February 1992, the European Council signed the Treaty on European Union (TEU) in Maastricht thus establishing the European Union. The Treaty laid down the creation of an area without internal borders, the strengthening of economic and social cohesion and the establishment of a European economic and monetary union. The EU's competences were extended and it received financial resources for a number of new policies, among them those with large impacts on the European spatial development, e.g. the European regional and structural policy, the transport policy and the Trans-European Networks, the environmental and the agricultural policy.

Time of birth of the European spatial development policy

This was the time of birth of the European spatial development policy because the national spatial development ministers did not feel enough involved in these processes. They feared, and not without good reason, that the EU might considerably influence the spatial development in Europe and its subareas via spatially relevant sector policies. This is why they demanded possibilities of having a say and being active or even to have a leading position in shaping the European territory with a European spatial development policy.

Establishment of the BBSR’s predecessor institution

Right in that year, in summer 1992, the “Spatial Planning in Europe” division was founded in the Federal Research Institute for Regional Geography and Regional Planning (BfLR), the predecessor institute of the present Federal Institute for Research on Building, Urban Affairs and Spatial Development. At the same time, a similar division was founded at the then Federal Ministry for Regional Planning, Building and Urban Development so that in Germany politics (at the Ministry) and scientific political support (at the Research Institute), from the beginning, went hand in hand. The reason for the European spatial development divisions to be established – and thus their original task – was the above-described discussion about the necessity of a European spatial development policy which had arisen in Germany and Europe since the end of the 80s. So it was nothing less than the foundation of the European Union and of the economic and monetary union and the resulting increasing competences of the EU which made the establishment of a European spatial development policy necessary – both in terms of contents and institutions.

Development of the European Spatial Development Perspective (ESDP)

First of all, the ministers responsible for spatial development reaching an agreement about the contents of the new policy – trends, challenges and requirements for action on the European spatial development, procedure and institutionalisation of the policy, agreement upon objectives and concepts and on concrete steps of implementation - were in the centre of attention. The result was summarised in the European Spatial Development Perspective (ESDP) of 1999. With the ESDP, two flanking innovative instruments were created: On the one hand, an EU programme which has been supporting transnational cooperation (known as Interreg B) and implementing the policy since 1996. On the other hand, the ESPON European Spatial Planning Observation Network, which was to guarantee scientific support through spatial monitoring and research activities, was created in 2002.

Interreg and ESPON: from flanking instruments towards individual measures

Looking back at the development of the European spatial development policy, two main phases can be distinguished: the political invention and establishment of the new policy with its implementation instruments during the first decade (1992 to 2002) as well as their consolidation and perpetuation since then (2002 until today). Indeed did all important elements of the European spatial development policy already exist in 2002. During the consolidation phase, that means during the last 15 years, the Interreg B and ESPON programmes, which were formerly planned to be supporting measures, have become very dynamic, strong and successful. At the same time, they became increasingly independent and more and more institutionalised. With the establishment of Interreg B and ESPON, the ESDP became a permanently successful activity of the European spatial development policy.

The spatial development policy, that means the strategical and target-oriented cooperation of the ministers responsible for spatial development in the EU, was after the ESDP especially continued in the form of the two Territorial Agendas of 2007 (What do the Lisbon Treaty and the new "territorial cohesion" Community objective mean for the European spatial development policy?) and 2011 (TA2020 – How can the European spatial development policy contribute to a successful Europe 2020 Strategy?).However, beyond Interreg and ESPON, both Agendas had little impact and are widely unknown - except in very special expert circles.

ESDP and Territorial Agenda hardly visible

In the meantime, the ESPON and transnational cooperation implementation instruments have become largely independent from the strategical discussion about a member state-based European spatial development policy. The ESDP does not play a large role anymore in the current discussion about and thematic concentration of the transnational cooperation in Europe. Searching for the term "EUREK" (ESDP in German) on the website only shows one single result. It refers to the Interreg blog of Prof. Simin Davoudi of 8 March 2017 on the meaning of territorial cohesion, which, by the way, is worth reading. The same applies when searching for "Territoriale Agenda" (Territorial Agenda in German). Besides, the time horizon of the TA2020 and of the Europe 2020 strategy will be soon reached. So what shall happen with the European spatial development policy?

A recent initiative to discuss objectives and visions of spatial development in Europe politically was launched by the Luxemburgish EU Council Presidency in 2015. Prepared by a scientific workshop on the topic "Which European area do we want? Workshop preparing a political debate on Territorial Scenarios and Visions of Europe for 2050", the Ministers responsible for Spatial/Regional Planning discussed territorial scenarios and political visions of spatial development in Europe at their informal meeting on 26 November 2015 in Luxembourg. Whether and how these approaches will be continued and to which results they will lead, is presently open though.

Large number of strategical and visionary projects existing

The stagnation of the strategically oriented European spatial development policy does not mean that a variety of strategical, conceptional and visionary projects is missing. They include European strategies of the sector policies such as the Trans-European Networks (TEN), which are taken up by many Interreg projects in various corridors. Various projects on the future of the European territory are conducted in the context of ESPON like e.g. the above -mentioned project ET2050 "Territorial Scenarios and Visions for Europe 2050". Many subarea-related visions and concepts furthermore exist. In the Baltic Sea region, for example, a cooperation between the authorities responsible for spatial planning and development of the Baltic Sea states and their neighbouring countries has already established since 1994. It is based on the jointly elaborated spatial development concept "Vision and Strategies around the Baltic Sea 2010" and on the follow-up documents "VASAB 2010" and "VASAB 2010 Plus". And only recently, the Spatial Development Committee of the German-Polish Governmental Commission for Regional and Cross-Border Cooperation adopted the "Common Future Vision for the German-Polish Interaction Area - Horizon 2030".

The importance of these - and many other - activities cannot be overestimated as they considerably contribute to better understanding the European territory and to shaping cross-border and transnational areas and corridors. But has the political debate about the future of the European territory and its entirety and complexity become obsolete with regard to these scientific, policy- and subarea-oriented future and spatial development projects? In my opinion: No! And there are several reasons.

Interreg and ESPON: close relations to the European spatial development policy

With regard to their present form and institutionalisation, guided by the national spatial development ministries, Interreg B and ESPON are an inseparable part of a joint European spatial development policy. Without this reference, Interreg B would be a Structural Funds programme and ESPON a research programme among others. They would be negotiable with regard to their existence and movable between several political areas of responsibility. Interreg B and ESPON are only powerful in the context of territorial cohesion and as activities realising the European spatial development policy. They have to find an agreement on the territorial challenges, objectives, strategies, concepts and visions at European level.

Urban development: new arena of European and international cooperation

The strategical discussion about “place-based policies” is currently continued in other contexts. The European and international urban development cooperation, for example, reached a new peak in the last year. On the one hand, with the Urban Agenda for the EU, also known as Pact of Amsterdam, as it was adopted at the Informal Meeting of EU Ministers responsible for Urban Matters on 30 May 2016 in Amsterdam. On the other hand, with the New Urban Agenda signed by 193 UN member states in October 2016 in Quito. And the enlarged city term definitely includes large and small cities, suburban areas and the rural hinterland, that means it covers essential elements of spatial development.

Not ignoring North Africa

European spatial development policy must today – as already in 1992 – exceed the thinking within EU borders. Forming an opinion about Europe also means to consider Europe in a global context. Already the ESDP involved the (especially Eastern European) neighbouring countries in terms of concept and activities just as the enlarged cooperation within the Council of Europe's Conference of Ministers responsible for Spatial/Regional Planning (CEMAT). Spatial development in Germany has so far been especially obliged to integrating the eastern neighbours and put that into action through successful projects. It continues to be an important part of bi- and multilateral cooperation. Recently, the cooperation with Africa has increasingly gained importance. An appropriate understanding and commitment of the European spatial development sector regarding the neighbours in North Africa is, however, lacking. Even though it is a large and difficult challenge: The European spatial development policy should not ignore the Mediterranean and North Africa as neighbouring countries. In the same way, cooperation should not be a neighbourhood-specific matter of Spain, Italy or Greece alone. It is rather a European task and a task of the European spatial development policy.

Taking non-European influences on the spatial development into account

A relatively new trend is that non-European countries, at least partly, developed some strategical thinking about the European spatial development. Against the background of the Belt and Road Initiative, the Chinese government and major companies in the People’s Republic do not just think anymore about the importance of European ports like Athens, Venice and Rotterdam, inland ports like Duisburg and airports like Parchim and Hahn in the context of European and worldwide logistics. They rather contribute to the advancement of European logistics systems with billions of investments. It is thus not only European sector policies (Trans-European Networks TEN) but also external development strategies and investment decisions, which should be considered within future visions of a European spatial development policy.

New future visions of the European spatial development required

There are many reasons why the strategically oriented European spatial development policy stagnates. The neo-liberal and nationalist or regionalist trends in Europe, for example, do not provide the appropriate conditions for a European spatial development policy. And the national spatial planning policy is in many EU countries in a rather weak, defensive position. It presently does not seem as if a member state-based European spatial development policy could have the necessary power to launch new strategies and visions.

This is why the European Commission is all the more important, which, since the Treaty of Lisbon, holds a territorial cohesion competence (together with the member states) within the EU. It should increasingly use it and take the initiative within a large discussion process with the EU member states and all relevant stakeholders to develop a new future vision for Europe, also visions, objectives and strategies for the European territory. Spatial development policy-makers should pipe up against the background of the current territorial challenges and not leave these discussions and policies to sector policy-makers and other stakeholders. There are the same political-strategical arguments for this as 25 years ago, at the beginning of the European spatial development policy in 1992.

Dr. Karl Peter Schön led the European Spatial and Urban Development division at the Federal Institute for Research on Building, Urban Affairs and Spatial Development (BBSR) from 1992 to 2017. The division supports the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety with regard to its international urban development policy and the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure in implementing the European spatial development policy, especially the Interreg B and ESPON programmes. In autumn 2017, Dr Schön retired.