There is nothing like a European spatial planning system or a designated actor responsible for European spatial planning.
In many cases spatial planning – although there is no generally agreed definition – challenges the understanding of planning focusing merely on land-use planning and on blueprints. Indeed, spatial planning connotes strategy building and is closely intertwined with amongst others regional and environmental policies. Even the term European spatial planning is ambiguous and probably best to be understood as territorial policy-making at European level.
Looking at the sphere of actors in this field four major groups with three different geographical settings can be distinguished.
Focusing at Europe in terms of the European Union the two main actors are the European Commission, mostly represented by the Directorate General for Regional Policies (DG Regio), and the intergovernmental co-operation where the Member States come together to shape policies. Both actors have been active in territorial policy-making at European level for a long time.
Enlarging the geographical scope, CEMAT, the European Conference of Ministers responsible for Regional Planning, is an obvious actor at the pan-European level. As the CEMAT is part of the Council of Europe framework it covers not only the 27 EU Member States but in total 47 countries. The CEMAT can also be considered as a form of intergovernmental co-operation.
In addition to these there are various trans-national spatial planning or territorial policy making processes which often (but not always) are carried out under the framework of INTERREG, e.g. such as the Visions and Strategies around the Baltic Sea (VASAB) in the Baltic Sea Region.
Today all of these actor groups plus various other actors are in one way or the other active in shaping territorial policies for Europe. Each of them has a different understanding on what territorial policies or spatial planning at European level is. Furthermore, each of them has different intentions and means.
Generally, the actors at European level are weak when it comes to means and instruments to exercise territorial policies. The competence and means for real action lie with the Member States, regions and local actors. Therefore, most “European actors” can only take influence via non-binding guidelines, convincing arguments and discourses. The European Commission has furthermore the possibility to influence via funding schemes, such as the Structural Funds and in particular INTERREG or via regulations. However, there is no regulatory power in the field of spatial planning or territorial policies at European level. Thus the regulatory influence comes via other policy sectors which – mostly unintentionally – influence territorial development and spatial planning.