In an exploratory opinion requested by the French presidency to the Council of the EU and adopted in January 2021, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) calls on the European Commission (EC) to consider the substantial benefits that the outermost regions (ORs) can bring to the future of Europe. The EC should also take appropriate measures to ensure that the ORs don't miss the post-COVID recovery, and don't fall behind in terms of the climate, social and digital transitions.
With almost five million inhabitants, the outermost regions provide the European Union with multiple geostrategic assets. They contribute to Europe's international influence and offer unique potential for implementing solutions to the challenges facing the EU. But the ORs also face the many challenges of the transition, which are magnified by their unique geographical and socio-economic conditions. In this opinion the EESC proposes new measures for food and energy autonomy in the ORs, the green transition, sustainable tourism, social inclusion, the involvement of civil society, skilling, and the problem of water and sanitation.
Rapporteur Joël Destom says:
These territories should be considered as test beds for promoting progress on a global scale, and can become models that can be replicated in the areas in which they are located. But the efforts to reduce inequalities in the ORs have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and the EESC calls for a strong reaction.
Co-rapporteur Gonçalo Lobo Xavier adds:
The Committee also calls for measures to be taken to ensure digital access in the ORs, and for the establishment of a major project for access to water and sanitation in the next operational programmes of the outermost regions. Access to drinking water and sanitation is inextricably linked to the right to life and human dignity and to the need for an adequate standard of living.
Food and energy
European policy must promote food autonomy for ORs, so that they can act as trailblazers for the EU and as role models for the surrounding regions. The EESC calls on the EC to take into account the specific nature of the ORs in its Farm to Fork Strategy, and to ensure that the Programme of Options Specifically Relating to Remoteness and Insularity (POSEI) complies with the key objectives of promoting sustainable agriculture.
Energy costs are generally higher in these regions, making the ORs ideal test beds as Europe strives to achieve energy autonomy. The EU should help identify locally-generated, sustainable and affordable sources of energy, to show that the ORs are capable of developing systems based on renewable energy. The EESC asks the EC to ensure that the Renewable Energy Directive is implemented and that Article 29 (13) thereof is deleted, because the EU cannot subsidise the energy transition in the ORs while contributing to deforestation in non-EU countries.
Industry and skills
The European industrial transition to 2030, and beyond to climate neutrality, will only be achieved in a collective and inclusive effort. The ORs' specific industrial ecosystem must be included in the EC's updated 2020 Industrial Strategy, but in the form of a well-defined pathway to accelerate and benefit from the ecological and digital transitions.
The EC must also establish a skills pact for the ORs. The green transition can only succeed if these regions have the skilled workforce they need to stay competitive. The EESC believes that the ORs must be fully integrated into the European Skills Agenda, through the establishment of a specific work programme.
Climate change, post-COVID recovery and tourism
The ORs are the first to suffer the consequences of climate change because of their geographical characteristics. They must therefore prepare for a successful transition towards sustainable development. To achieve this and reach the objectives of the Fit for 55 package, the ORs will need more support and financial resources in the context of post-COVID recovery.
In addition, tourism is vital to development in the ORs, and the recovery plans in these regions should take the sector's specific characteristics into consideration. A change of scale is needed, integrating sustainability principles into all activities, for all occupations. Sustainable tourism that ensures the quality of jobs and trade balances, must become the hallmark of the OR identity.
The ORs need to anticipate the total transformation of their economies in order to meet future demands while paying utmost attention to the social impact of these transitions. As many people as possible from all communities, including the most vulnerable, should be involved in this shift. Civil society must be genuinely involved in shaping EU programmes, in direct cooperation with local and regional stakeholders. The EESC considers it essential for a contact point to be established at the EC that civil society can contact directly.
Water and sanitation
In the French ORs, people do not have access to drinking water and the sanitation system is often inadequate. The EESC calls on the Commission to launch a major water and sanitation access project in the upcoming operational programmes for the ORs. These major projects should be directly managed by the European Commission.
The EESC recognizes that despite the thousands of kilometers separating them from the European continent, the outermost regions (ORs) are an integral part of the EU. The outermost regions (ORs) are islands, archipelagos and one land territory (French Guiana).
Nine of these regions are located in the western Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean basin, the Amazon forest and the Indian Ocean:
1. France: French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint-Martin, Reunion Island, Mayotte
2. Portugal: the Azores and Madeira
3. Spain: the Canary Islands
The ORs have almost five million inhabitants. The EESC stresses that ORs represent Europe on a global level and provide Europe with a maritime area unmatched by any other power, and multiple geostrategic assets.