Soft spaces across the Fehmarnbelt: Territorial Re-shaping and Cross-border Region-building

The following abstract was submitted to the Regional Studies Association European Conference: Shape and be Shaped: The Future Dynamics of Regional Development, Tampere, Finland, May 2013:

Soft spaces across the Fehmarnbelt: Territorial Re-shaping and Cross-border Region-building 

This paper examines the role of soft and hard spaces in processes of region-building across the Fehmarn Belt between northern Germany and Denmark. Recent contributions to the spatial planning and new regionalism literatures highlight the role of non-statutory, soft spatialities and unusual geographies in processes of sub-national and transnational regionalisation in Europe. Indeed, the recent promotion of transnational regional spaces in Europe may be interpreted in terms of the emergence of a qualitatively distinct aspirational territoriality based on explicitly European normative objectives and policy aspirations. Territorialist spatial imaginaries, nevertheless, continue to inform the politics underlying processes of soft space strategy-making and governance at multiple scales, potentially undermining their capacity to break of existing state-centric, ‘container space’ metageographies. From a critical perspective, however, transnational soft spaces raise significant accountability and legitimacy issues and highlight the need to reconsider contemporary models of democratic governance and their application in post-national contexts where the traditional, spatial congruence of state, society and economy no longer holds.

According to its promoters, the Fehmarnbelt fixed link, scheduled to be operational from 2021, will provide a critical impulse for cross-border regional development with potential game-changing significance for the economic geography of northern Europe. This expectation and positive interpretation is, however, not shared by all interested parties and critical uncertainties and value judgements regarding environmental costs and the balance between local, regional and European costs and benefits make any objective economic evaluation difficult. At the local level negative impacts are anticipated as other trade and passenger routes become less competitive and potentially cease operation. There are also serious environmental concerns relating to the ecology of the Fehmarnbelt (an important meeting point between the Baltic and North Seas) and the impacts of the proposed transport connections in Northern Germany. Within this context, cross-border cooperation initiatives involving political, administrative and business actors in various constellations are concerned with the development of the ‘mental bridges’ required for the formation of a new cross-border region.

This meta-regional cooperation space, stretching from Hamburg to Copenhagen and Öresund is characterised by a plurality of soft spatial concepts at multiple scales and with variable boundaries, constructed through elements of territorial, scalar, network and place-based geographies. Drawing on the analysis of qualitative interview data and policy documentation, the paper will examine the soft spaces of cross-border cooperation, as one element of a complex spatial governance landscape where territorial and relational, hard and soft forms of space interact in the socio-political construction of the cross-border region at multiple scales. The paper will furthermore critically examine the (post)politics of this transnational regional-building process, and in particular, the pervasive influence of dominant neoliberal discourses of international competitiveness.

The paper is co-authored with Marta Jacuniak-Suda, Frank Othengrafen and Jörg Knieling (all HafenCity University Hamburg) and draws on case study research conducted under the Soft Spaces, Spatial Planning and Territorial Management in Europe research project. It will hopefully be presented under Gateway G: Territorial Politics and Policy, chaired by Gordon Macleod and John Harrison.

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Territorial Cohesion and Inter-regional Financial Transfer Payments

A system of  financial transfer payments is employed in the Federal Republic of Germany as a means of compensating for substantial differences in the financial power of the federal states (Länder). For the year 2012, only three federal states, all located in southern Germany were net contributors while the remaining thirteen states were net recipients of funds under this mechanism. Two of the contributor states (Geberländer), Bavaria and Hessen have announced their intention to mount a consitutional challenge, arguing that the receiving states are not doing enough to cut back on public expenditure. This assertion is of course viewed very critically by the other state governments making it a topic of heated debate.

Länderfinanzausgleich

(source: Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk 5.02.2013, Notes: Federal states shaded ‘red’ are receivers of funds under this mechanism whereas those in blue are contributors. Mio = million, Mrd = thousand million – German Milliarden)

This debate raises issues of inter-regional solidarity and unity -what at the European level is referred to as territorial cohesion. Perhaps, not surprisingly, however, the current debate in Germany does not make reference to the concept of territorial cohesion and employs predominantly simplistic state-centric concepts of spatiality in its discourse. The prime minister of Saxony-Anhalt, however, pointed to the methodological territorialism of the current debate, noting that the simple black/white binary of contributing and receiving states obscured the reality of economic flows, which are substantially influenced by cross-boundary commuting flows (in different words, of course).

There has, been signficant debate and policy development within specific academic and policy communities on the role of spatial policy and planning in contributing to territorial cohesion and the German constitutional principle of equality of living conditions. Here, the concept of supra-regional partnerships of responsibility introduced in 2006 is particularly noteworthy. These large-scale cooperation areas,  each cross the boundaries of a number of federal states and are in part an attempt to identify functional partnership areas of cooperative responsibility or solidarity. Indeed, they may be viewed as counterbalance to the previously dominant focus in German spatial policy on metropolitan regions as the motors for economic growth and regional development. John Harrison and Anna Growe provide a detailed English-language account of these specific elements of federal spatial policy in Germany, focussing on the extent to which they embrace relational concepts of place.

German metropolitan regions and to a lesser extent supra-regional partnerships include some financial measures, often in the form of development funds which can support the development of infrastructure or networking capacity development projects. These measures focussed on cooperative regional development and in effect, territorial cohesion, in recent years have tended to play a secondary role, in comparison with the dominant economic profiling and competitiveness agendas of the metropolitan regions.

It is evident that mainstream debates concerning inter-regional financial statements lack spatial nuance and suffer from (federal)state-centric methodological territorialism.  The concept of territorial cohesion, has influenced federal spatial policy but the link with debates and policies regarding imbalances in the economic strength of German regions and federal states and associated compensatory financial transfers, appears to be missing.

The Territorial Agenda of the European Union

First published on Ireland After Nama

At a time when the financial crisis in the Eurozone is seen to cast doubts on the extent to which European institutions act in the collective interests of Europe, it is perhaps instructive to consider the question of the territorial agenda of the European Union. To what extent does the EU have a coherent spatial policy or agenda or do individual sectoral policies have uncoordinated and even contradictory effects?

This is a question which European spatial policy initiatives have sought to address, particularly since the publication of the European Spatial Development Perspective in 1999.

Yesterday (19th May) at a meeting of the Ministers of EU member states responsible for spatial planning and territorial development in the town of Gödöllő, Hungary a new Territorial Agenda for the European Union was agreed upon. With the title ‘Territorial Agenda of the European Union 2020: Towards an Inclusive, Smart and Sustainable Europe of Diverse Regions’ the document follows on from a previous Territorial Agenda published in 2007. In light of the lead role of the Hungarian Presidency, the new Territorial Agenda has been expected to place a renewed emphasis on reducing disparities between Western and Eastern Europe and the particular development challenges faced by Eastern member states. The document supports the principle of ‘territorial cohesion’ which may be interpreted as balanced regional development at the European level:

We believe that territorial cohesion is a set of principles for harmonious, balanced, efficient, sustainable territorial development. It enables equal opportunities for citizens and enterprises, wherever they are located, to make the most of their territorial potentials. Territorial cohesion reinforces the principle of solidarity to promote convergence between the economies of better-off territories and those whose development is lagging behind.

It is further stated that ‘development opportunities are best tailored to the specificities of an area’ indicating that territory matters and regional development policies need to take account of the specific characteristics and diversity of individual regions. This echoes recent arguments for a ‘place-based’ approach to regional development policy rather than a reliance on ‘spatially-blind’ sectoral approaches (such as the Common Agricultural Policy). Suggesting continued support for an interventionist approach it is noted that ‘Regions might need external support to find their own paths to sustainable development, with particular attention to those lagging behind’.

Drawing on an evidenced-based ‘Territorial State and Perspectives’ background document (as yet not in the public domain) the Territorial Agenda identifies 6 main territorial challenges facing the European Union:

  1.   Increased exposure to globalisation: structural changes after the global economic crisis;
  2.  Challenges of EU integration and the growing interdependences of regions;
  3. Territorially diverse demographic and social challenges, segregation of vulnerable groups;
  4. Climate change and environmental risks: geographically diverse impacts;
  5. Energy challenges come to the fore and threaten regional competitiveness;
  6.  Loss of biodiversity, vulnerable natural, landscape and cultural heritage

 

Informal meeting of Ministers responsible for territorial development and spatial planning, Gödöllő, 19th May

The challenges outlined serve to highlight that regions in Europe face distinct sets of challenges but that there also significant commonalities. In particular the impacts of demographic and climate change are recognised to vary significantly across the European territory. It may be noted that development disparities between East and West (or urban and rural regions) are not specifically mentioned.

The document subsequently identifies six ‘Territorial Priorities’ for the EU, for the purpose of responding the challenges outlined above:

1. Promote polycentric and balanced territorial development

2. Encouraging integrated development in cities, rural and specific regions

3. Territorial integration in cross-border and transnational functional regions

4. Ensuring global competitiveness of the regions based on strong local economies

5. Improving territorial connectivity for individuals, communities and enterprises

6. Managing and connecting ecological, landscape and cultural values of regions

The concepts of polycentric development and integrated development of urban and rural regions are themes which have featured centrally in European spatial policy since the 1990s; although it may be argued that they still require clarification in terms of their intended operationalisation. The identification of territorial integration in cross-border and transnational functional regions reflects a particular commitment in EU regional development policy to reduce border effects and improve cooperation, particularly through the INTERREG programme from which Ireland has benefited significantly. In total, approximately 40% of the territory of the EU is located within border regions.

Implementation of the Territorial Agenda of the European Union is dependent on EU institutions such as the European Commission taking its messages on board as well as actions by member states, regional and local authorities. The ESPON Programme (see also ESPON Ireland website) receives specific mention in relation to its central role in providing the evidence base for European territorial development and cohesion policy. The new Territorial Agenda places particular emphasis, however, on actions by member states. In Ireland, the National Spatial Strategy and National Development are the principal policy mechanisms in this regard. As the EU does not have any competence in spatial planning, the Territorial Agenda therefore does not represent a binding spatial plan for the EU in any sense. It does however provide a strategic policy framework and represents a high level European commitment to the balanced regional development and place-based approaches to policy. Based on the experience of previous European spatial policy documents such as the European Spatial Development perspective, the impact of the Territorial Agenda may be significant albeit not always directly visible!