The Azores, the Canary Islands, Madeira, Mayotte, Réunion, Saint Martin, Guadeloupe, Martinique and French Guyana: nine beautiful regions scattered across the Caribbean Sea, the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and off the coast of South America, thousands of kilometres away from continental Europe with inhabitants speaking Portuguese, French and Spanish, form a unique group in the European Union: the Outermost Regions (ORs).
They provide the European Union with distinctive assets: ranging from their unique biodiversity, their diverse marine ecosystems and renewable energy sources, to their strategic location and proximity to other continents, each of them greatly contributing to the richness of our Union.
United in remoteness
A place called home for approximately 4.8 million citizens, these regions face particular challenges due to their remoteness insularity, small size, difficult topography, restrained mobility and climate. The EU helps them with specific measures and programmes, supporting their efforts to boost innovation and jobs (in particular in the fisheries and agriculture sectors) and diversify into new sectors such as the circular economy. Between 2014 and 2020, the EU has allocated some EUR 13.8 billion to the Outermost Regions via the cohesion policy as well as the agriculture and fisheries funds.
The Outermost Regions also take part in territorial cooperation programs (INTERREG), which provide them with an essential tool to strengthen their regional integration and deepen their cooperation with neighbouring countries. A good example is the Hexagone project, led by the Canary Islands and involving Madeira and the Azores, which, among other things, fosters cooperation in the field of sustainable development.
Despite their remoteness, the COVID-19 pandemic did not stop at the Outermost Regions' coasts. On the contrary, it highlighted their vulnerability. Solidarity with the EU but also amongst them has consequently become more important than ever, in particular in the field of healthcare services and of the sharing of medical expertise (as a project co-financed by INTERREG European funds in Réunion carried out during the first wave of the pandemic, showcases).
Looking ahead, the question is crystal clear: will Europe support these regions in closing the inequality gaps with the rest of the EU and help them develop their full potential on the long-run, or will they be forgotten?
Waving to the centre
"Outermost regions are far from continental Europe, but still part of it. Our territories have been hit hard by the pandemic, which continues to have devastating effects on our labour markets, especially in the tourism sector ", emphasises PES member Ángel Víctor Torres Pérez, President of the Canary Islands, who is one of the three members representing the Outermost Regions in the European Committee of the Regions.
Almost 40% of the GDP of the Canary Islands depends on tourism. The abrupt decline in tourism due to the coronavirus pandemic has thus put the economic potential of the region on hold, leading to an unprecedented social threat with a likely lasting impact on big parts of its population.
The challenges of the coronavirus pandemic on Outermost Regions need to be duly taken into account in the debate about the European Commission's report on the implementation of the renewed strategic partnership with the EU's outermost regions, published in March this year, and on which the President of the Canary islands is leading with an opinion in the European Committee of the Regions.
"The vision of our lives has changed due to the pandemic. We need to build resilient and independent economies.
— PES Group Committee of the Regions (@PES_CoR) December 9, 2020
"The proposal by the European Commission is a missed opportunity to make the necessary changes in European policies, and break the isolation of outermost regions", stresses Ángel Torres Pérez, calling for the strategy to place growth and employment at its heart. "The future EU budget and Recovery Fund need to provide for targeted investments that respond to the region's specific needs, be it in connectivity, the green and blue economy, sustainable agriculture or skill development", he urges.
"We need now a swift implementation of the new EU budget for 2021-2027. This is not a time for vetoes or for speculating on the lives of millions of Europeans", he added.
These key requests are echoed by Socialist MEP Sara Cerdas from Madeira (Portugal) who, ahead of the December European Council, calls for " a swift agreement on the EU budget, to allow for financial support for the Outermost Regions in the ecological transition that must not leave anyone behind."
Elisa Ferreira assegura a Sara Cerdas apoios às regiões ultraperiféricas: A eurodeputada do PS, Sara Cerdas, enviou uma missiva à Comissária Europeia Elisa Ferreira, com a pasta da Coesão, a questionar que medidas estão previstas para aplicação nas… https://t.co/F6FxqOdkue pic.twitter.com/Lls2KdywrQ
— dnoticias.pt (@dnoticiaspt) August 28, 2020
Far away, but not left behind: together for a sustainable future
In line with the objectives of the European Green Deal, the sustainable recovery of the Outermost Regions must build on their assets on the one hand by adapting to climate change and protecting biodiversity, strengthening circular economy, boosting renewable energies and developing a sustainable blue economy. On the other hand, their constraints must be better addressed by improving digital connectivity for example or by investing in research and innovation.
Equally important is the swift implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights that, as Ángel Víctor Torres Pérez stresses, "The needs to be adapted to the specific needs of Outermost Regions when it comes to promoting equal opportunities, access to the labour market, fair working conditions and social protection and inclusion."
Last but not least, he calls for support to the Outermost Regions to manage migration in a more sustainable way, urging the European Commission to develop a solidarity-based migration policy with specific measures through the Asylum and Migration Fund.
Making the most out of the Outermost
Things are slowly moving ahead. A step forward can be seen in the Socialist Commissioner in charge of Cohesion and Reforms', Elisa Ferreira, recall at the October Outermost Regions Forum, of the European Commission's commitment "to provide tailor-made support to the outermost regions across its various policies."
The current crisis is an opportunity to realise the #outermostregions potential
An opportunity to reinvent your economies, to lay the foundations of a sustainable, green, circular and digital economy that will bring jobs, growth&prosperity to the outermost regions#forumRUP2020 pic.twitter.com/Dcs6WpSdyx
— EUinmyRegion (@EUinmyRegion) October 13, 2020
In addition, in the field of agricultural policy, the European Parliament and the Council just agreed to maintain the current level of support for the outermost regions under the Program of options specifically relating to remoteness and insularity (POSEI) over the next two years.
— Azores EU Office (@AzoresEUoffice) November 27, 2020
However, as the President of the Canary Islands rightly points out, "the situation is still worrying for outermost islands, as its financing for the 2023-2027 period has not yet been guaranteed".
Even if there are first encouraging steps at European level, a more comprehensive assessment of the cooperation with the Outermost Regions (which can be the best laboratories for creating a future sustainable Europe) is still needed. As progressive cities and regions, we call for solidarity with these fascinating but vulnerable territories, and for concrete European measures that value their differences. Let's make sure that whether near or far, citizens can count on Europe!