Life no paradise in EU’s outer regions

June 4, 2010

The Caribbean island of St. Martin, a member of the European UnionTimes are hard in distant corners of the European Union, even when the sun is shining and the euro zone’s debt problems are thousands of miles away.

Leaders of nine regions on the edges of the EU are asking the rest of the 27-country bloc to pay more attention to their needs and shape investment policies better to their problems, exacerbated in some cases by the global economic crisis.

“Poverty in the sunshine is no easier than poverty in the snow”, said Frantz Gumbs, leader of the small French community on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin.

“We’re not asking for more and more”, he told a conference in Brussels. “We’re asking for better.”

The voices of territories as far away as the Indian Ocean and South America are rarely heard at the heart of the EU. So leaders from these regions, the most distant of which was the island of Reunion, a French territory about 9,000 km (5,640 miles) from Brussels, took the chance offered by the first Forum for Outermost Europe.

The leaders said EU support should be better tailored to their specific needs and their efforts to strengthen their traditional economic sectors, boost competitiveness and develop entrepreneurship.

The French community of Saint Martin makes up just under half of the about 75,000 population of the island, half of which is French and half of which is part of the Netherlands’ Antilles.

Gumbs says it needs EU support for inter-island trade and the promotion of tourism from mainland Europe, rather than more funding. Services, mainly related to tourism, make up 84 percent of Saint Martin’s gross domestic product, the size which is only about 62 percent of the EU average.

Similar pleas came from leaders of the other territories, five of which were French — Guadeloupe, Martinique, Reunion, French Guiana and Saint Barthelemy — as well as the Portuguese autonomous regions of Madeira and the Azores, and the Spanish autonomous community of the Canary Islands. From 2007 to 2013, the outermost regions will receive 7.8 billion euros through various EU funds, but the problems of some of them have been exacerbated by the economic crisis.

Rather than demanding more funding, they want more flexible and better targeted funding to suit the problems they face such as remoteness, insularity, small size, difficult topography and climate, and economic dependence on a few products.

They at least received soothing words. Internal Market Commissioner Michel Barnier said the outermost regions were important parts of the EU, despite their distance from mainland Europe. “A united Europe is not a uniform Europe”, Barnier said.

Regional Policy Commissioner Johannes Hahn promised targeted and flexible investments for the regions.

“I hope that this day marks a turning point in the evolution of the relationship between the EU and these regions, which are still perhaps too unknown and misunderstood on the European continent”,  he said.

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Some of the Greek islands in the Aegaean or even the Ionian Archipelago suffer.

I know of at least one such place of exile called Icaria in the Icarian Pelago opposite Samos, Patmos (of St John and the Apocalypse revelations fame)and Chios, where air travel couriers and boat ferrys are receiving government subsidies and still fail to call every week day except in the summer season. Where ‘tourism’ is a mean 3-month affair and those who service have to multidextrous to survive turning their hands to many trades for every season. Where migrant labour is exploited because its the only affordable form by small holders, middle class aparatchiks and others. No wonder that in its three municipallities they all voted for Communist Mayors.

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