What’s new is that it contains seven ‘flagship initiatives’ to point the way ahead. These are:
- Innovation Union;
- Youth on the move;
- A digital agenda for Europe;
- Resource efficient Europe;
- An industrial policy for a globalised era;
- An agenda for new skills and jobs;
- European platform against poverty.
These add up to a strategy styled as ‘Smart, Sustainable and Inclusive Growth’. It is possible to debate whether this amounts to anything more than rhetoric. Cynics might point to the tensions that the problems of Greece have created for a Europe committed to ‘solidarity’ and ‘cohesion’ amidst ‘diversity’. It seems that Germany decided there were limits to such abstract nouns when it came to paying out to sustain the early retirement age and other perks enjoyed by civil servants on Aegean beaches. But that is another story. For a moment, let us assume that everyone will pull together, as they are being exhorted to do, and that the strategy is indeed implemented.
The idea of territorial cohesion is mentioned several times in Europe 2020. However, what the document fails to do is to explain how the regions can contribute to implementing the strategy. For more on this see my article on www.espon.org.uk. Europe2020 also says nothing about how Europe might look if the strategy works. Which regions will change and how? While every region needs to make its own distinctive contribution to recovery and to sustainable development, the main thrusts of the strategy are questionable from the perspective of the kind of regions that are in the Innovation Circle network.
About a quarter of Europe’s regions have to cope with population decline. The problem is particularly severe in peripheral areas in the east, in parts of Germany and Italy and in the far north. The ESPON project called DEMIFER spells out the challenges. Its report can be downloaded from www.espon.eu. Europe 2020 recognises demographic aging as a problem, but it sees it as a problem for welfare and labour supply rather than for rural regions. Thus it calls on member states to promote ‘active aging policies’. That means you will have to wait longer to get your pension. In addition the strategy aims to ‘facilitate and promote intra-EU labour mobility’ and to promote a ‘labour migration policy which would respond in a flexible way to the priorities and needs of labour markets.’
So where will the main increase in demand for labour be in this reviving Europe? The emphasis on innovation and the knowledge economy seems likely to mean that the growth will be in the metropolitan areas unless some innovative regional strategies can be developed to include rural regions. So the logic of the calls for people to move to the jobs is that out-migration from less accessible rural regions could get worse rather than better.
Similarly, the Flagship initiative ‘Youth on the Move’ seeks to promote student mobility and trainees’ mobility as well as mobility programmes for young professionals. These are worthwhile goals in themselves, but they have a spatial impact. They seem likely to accelerate the drift of young and skilled people away from rural areas and towards the life of mobile urban professionals. As well as affecting the rural areas the likely effect will be to ratchet up the competition between cities as they try to capture and retain ‘the creative class’. Look out for more gentrification and wine bars and café culture in the cities – and displacement of traditional residents unable to afford rising house prices in favoured urban enclaves.
Laudable attempts to increase education levels also pose problems for the countryside. Yes, the promotion of tourism may create new rural jobs, but jobs in that industry are typically low skill and low pay. One reason why remoter rural areas often lose educated young people is because their local labour markets do not contain enough jobs to match the qualifications that people have worked hard to achieve. So if more rural young people get better qualifications, but the job pool remains tied to lower qualification needs, then out-migration of qualified young people will rise. Public sector jobs are important in sustaining professional-level opportunities and consumption in more rural regions. Yet such jobs are under threat as drastic budget reductions are demanded to repay borrowing taken out to save urban-based banks.
These comments just sketch some of the possible impacts that Europe 2020 could have. This analysis could easily be extended and made more robust. The call to member states to ‘focus on the urban dimension of transport’ so as to tackle emissions and pollution makes sense. However, if successful, it would make cities nicer places to live, without doing much for rural regions. The aim to improve transport networks to international markets will again increase the relative attraction of urban over rural locations, as access to such markets cannot possibly be achieved evenly across the whole of Europe.
Two things are needed. First, there should be a full analysis of the likely territorial impacts of Europe 2020. It deserves more than these wittering of a blogger. Second, we need to think through what kind of future rural regions aspire to. Do they want to be like the urban areas, following the same market-led policies? Or do they want to concentrate on offering a real alternative, based on a set of values where GDP is not the only key indicator? In the end Europe 2020 , like its Lisbon predecessor, is just words. What matters is what the politicians, the professionals and the people in regions like those in the Innovation Circle decide to make of the places where they live.