3. Europe makes a difference

Whereas the impacts of territorial policies at European level are debatable, it has to be acknowledged that a wide range of other EU policies actually influence European territorial development via regulations and financial means etc.

The degree to which EU policies, e.g. in the field of competition, environment, transportation or regional policy, influence decisions at lower levels varies greatly.

A study on the EU influence on spatial development in the Netherlands with the telling title “Unseen Europe” (Ravesteyn & Evers, 2004) gives first insights. This study shows how EU policies influence spatial development both directly and indirectly. The influence on actual territorial development certainly also implies – albeit sometimes indirectly – an influence on spatial planning.

The following examples from this Dutch study show, e.g. European cohesion policy influencing through its various forms of co-financing of infrastructure structural change in rural areas and cities. Furthermore, it exercises influence through network building and governance processes which are supported by the EU. European transport policy requires national governments to pre-select lines for high-speed trains which affects the location of the lines and the selection of cities and stations at which high-speed trains will stop. Through this policy, it improves accessibility for some cities, whereas others will find it difficult to plug into the international high-speed rail-system. The European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has clear territorial effects, too, e.g. through supporting the concentration of intensive cattle farming in certain areas. European competition regulations and policy affect territorial development, e.g. via the liberalisation of the energy-market or the open sky policy in the field of air-transport. Indeed, the liberalisation of the air-transport sector made the success of low-budget airlines possible. Competition policy, which deals amongst others with state aid and procurement, can even restrict options for public authorities to grant economic support. European environmental policy intervenes directly in territorial development and spatial planning, e.g. via Natura 2000, the Habitat and Water Framework directives, but also through the requirement for Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEA).

What is true for the Netherlands is also true for other parts of Europe. Policies such as the ones above influence, be it directly or in more subtle ways, territorial development. Moreover, they do not only influence spatial development but also spatial planning policies and the way spatial planning decisions are taken at any given administrative level. The exact way and the degree of impact differ greatly throughout the EU, due to the great variety of spatial conditions, governance systems and because of the variety of ways in which Member States transpose EU sector policies into national legislation.

As regards spatial preconditions, it is interesting to note the ESPON studies on territorial effects of EU sector policies in Europe which provide first comparative insights into what kinds of effects these policies have in what kinds of areas. The particular EU policy fields assessed were the Common Agricultural, Energy, Environment, Fishery, Pre-Accession Aid, Research & Development, Structural Funds and Transports Policies.

It has to be mentioned that most of the studies concentrated on ex-post assessments of the territorial impacts of the respective policies. Indeed, only the study on transport policies approached an ex-ante assessment.

In the following we focus on some key findings on three selected policy fields.

  • Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)

Summing-up, the territorial impacts of the CAP are largely unsupportive of territorial cohesion in Europe, although there is scope in the given instruments to do more in that direction. Furthermore, one has to consider that the analysis of the instruments and expenditures of the CAP excludes the largest component of the support received by EU farmers in the form of the higher prices paid by consumers within the EU. This support is estimated by the OECD to amount to 56 billion Euro. (University of Aberdeen/ESPON 2.1.3 2005)

  • Structural Funds

The main objectives of the EU Structural Funds 1994-1999 were thus to reduce disparities in GDP and unemployment between regions. In doing so, they contributed to territorial cohesion by stimulating regional and local innovation and development. However, they did so less consistently than might have been anticipated. The assessment revealed a complex picture where the overall picture shows that money went to less-favored parts of the EU, whereas differences between regions within a country were left largely untouched or even accentuated. Furthermore, there is evidence that the funds have boosted competitiveness through leverage effects on national policies and by empowering local and regional levels of governance, resulted in innovations, strategic planning, new partnerships etc. (Nordregio/ESPON 2.2.1 2006)

  • European Transport Policies

In general European transport investments do contribute to cohesion in relative terms, although they may actually widen the absolute economic gap between regions. The TEN transport infrastructure projects planned for the period up to 2020 have a decentralising effect, and so favor peripheral regions. Infrastructure policies have larger effects than pricing policies, and the magnitude of the effect is related to the number and size of projects. However, even large increases in regional accessibility produce only small benefits in terms of regional economic activity. Generally, the overall effects of transport infrastructure investments and other transport policies are small as compared to those of socio-economic and technical macro trends. (Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel/ESPON 2.1.1 2005)

The same is true for all policies reviewed by ESPON. Compared to larger socio-economic trends such as globalisation, increasing competition between cities and regions, the aging of the population, shifting labour force participation and increases in labour productivity, the effects of the policies reviewed remain rather small.

Certainly the reflections provided above can only be single highlights of a few aspects where European territorial policies affect spatial planning and development. A comprehensive review would be a research programme of its own.



The European level exercises a lot of influence on spatial planning and territorial development. This is mainly done unintentionally and via different sector policies.

The picture depicts the main sphere of European influence on planning in Europe and which processes are related to them. Planning for Europe regards here territorial policies at European level and territorial co-operation is mainly focused on INTERREG.

 Europeanization of planning

 (Böhme & Waterhout 2007)


Summing-up this short paper shows that territorial policies at European level have been around for some decades. There are various actors driving this policy field and all of them have different interests, different legal statuses, geographical coverage and different means and interests. Generally, the powerful instruments for spatial planning and territorial policies lie – depending on the country in question – with the state, regions or local authorities. Thus actors at European level have very little direct means and count mainly on their good arguments. One exception might be the European Commission which – although there is no formal competence in the field – has a few instruments interlinked with the territorial development and spatial planning. An important mean in the field is indeed the informal co-operation. This regards both the co-operation between Member States but also between regional and local authorities.