EU funds for islands

A good opportunity for Greece to claim community funds and other measures for support of its islands has arisen with the new European policy on «territorial cohesion.» The concept was recently added to the European Constitution, in addition to economic and social cohesion, and incorporates the notion of «insularity,» i.e. the island character of certain regions, adding to the Greek government’s weapons just as the battle for funds from the Fourth Community Support Framework among old beneficiaries and the 10 new members begins: While the pie remains more or less the same, there is a greater number of claimants wanting a piece. Insularity problems stem from the comparative size of the islands, which is always smaller as regards the continental regions and means they have a limited range and quantity of natural resources, high transport costs, a small market and increased living expenses for their residents as well as higher operation expenses for businesses due to distances from decision-making centers and the reduced capacity of ecosystems to withstand intense pressure. A primary effort to lay the groundwork for this policy is being made this week at the informal council of ministers in Rotterdam focusing on territorial cohesion and urban policy. In the council meeting, which began yesterday and concludes today, Greece is represented by Aegean and Island Policy Minister Aristotelis Pavlidis and Deputy Economy and Finance Minister Christos Folias. The Dutch EU presidency has clarified that the debate would only be on the formation of general guidelines and principles and not on the distribution of funds as yet. In this framework, the Greek side intends to table the issue of insularity for the formation of territorial cohesion with Pavlidis’s proposition and the need to make new plans for the lagging regions of the EU as part of all policies, i.e. on competition, agriculture, employment, etc. After all, the very text of the European Constitution clearly mentions the need to promote territorial cohesion, along with the economic and social boosts, and refers specifically to the islands’ problems. Article III-220, as drafted following intervention by Greece as well, provides that «the Union particularly aims at narrowing the gap between the development levels of various regions and reducing the handicaps in the most lagging regions.» It concludes saying: «Among the said regions, particular attention is given to the agricultural ones, those with industrial transition and those suffering from permanent natural or demographic problems, such as the ultra-northern regions that are especially underpopulated and the island, border and mountainous regions.» Regarding negotiations for the next Community Support Framework (CSF), Greece will also argue the particular conditions of the Greek islands, which have multiple problems of isolation, reduction in population and even mountainous geography in some cases, which further justify their support, in addition to the gross domestic product (GDP) of the region to which they belong. For instance, while the southern Aegean’s GDP appears above 75 percent of the EU average, the threshold for Objective 1, this is only nominal as it is due to the high per capita income of four islands (Santorini, Myconos, Rhodes and Kos), while other islands are particularly handicapped. For the same reasons, insularity ought to become a criterion for planning state support for the period after 2006, when Brussels may limit it considerably. Especially in the case of an archipelagos such as the Aegean, there is «double insularity,» as certain islands are isolated not only from continental regions but also from the islands that are the local administrative or economic center, where the need for special measures in all the sectors mentioned above is obviously greater. With Greek islands being as recognizable as they are, their importance both for Greece and Europe as well as their hardships are understood. Nevertheless, according to the secretary-general of the Ministry for the Aegean and Island Policy, Dimitris Kourkoumelis, most continental countries that do not have similar problems often appear disinterested or negative in negotiations. Islands are not the sole handicapped regions in the EU and cohesion policy has to deal with multiple problems of distant, mountainous and underpopulated regions, especially after enlargement. For Greece, then, the issue can be handled on three different levels: First, as a priority issue for Athens’s policy in the EU with repeated interventions, proposals, debates in community bodies and in cooperation with other island countries; secondly, by claiming more support from CSFIV for island regions and provisions for special support for islands; and thirdly, by maintaining state support limits as high as possible for the period after 2006. The road to hammering out territorial cohesion policy is just beginning and will be long and strenuous, but at the same time it will open new doors for the convergence of Greek island regions through the use of existing EU means, and even possibly with the drafting of new special policies.