European Integration in the seventies and the first steps towards Regional Policy

the origins of a European Model of territorial Cohesion


Laura Grazi




Cohesion policy is at present one of the most important activities of the European Union (EU), commanding more than a third of its budget. EU Structural Funds aim to reduce economic and social disparities between the 271 European regions in order to achieve the objective of territorial cohesion as set out in the Lisbon Treaty. This policy, which originally occupied only a marginal place in the Treaties of Rome, has changed substantially over time due to the deepening of the European integration process, the impact of EEC/EU enlargements, and the inclusion of a territorial perspective in its regulatory design.

This paper focuses on how the slow but steady development of the EU regional policy was shaped by the gradual emergence of a territorial perspective in its strategic design. The EEC/EU is a political and institutional body sui generis that has participated in the formation of policies relating to territorial governance without adopting a proper planning system: the Common Agricultural Policy is a foremost example of such policies, as are generally all the development actions in the framework of regional, environmental and industrial policies launched by the EEC in the seventies.

With particular reference to regional policy, the EEC/EU has promoted territorial policies and initiatives of common interest that necessitate the involvement of EU Member States’ planning systems in order to be implemented. This “national” passage is explained by the fact that territory – an essential building block of the State, together with “people” and “sovereignty”– is an even more delicate institutional issue from an economic viewpoint, on which national governments are very reluctant to cede their powers.

But, a project of the scope of European integration must necessarily involve the aspect of territory and assess the impact on its equilibrium of measures such as the establishment of freedom of movement and the creation of a common market. Starting in the sixties it became evident that the creation of a common market, which modified the volume and flow of trade and the distribution of localization advantages, also affected the urban-rural balance and socio-economic situation of European regions (i.e. European integration had an immediate impact on transfrontier areas).

A set of concomitant factors boosted the EEC's motivation to deal with territorial issues (town and country planning): a) the meetings on town and country planning organized within the Council of Europe since the late Sixties; b) the relevance of new EEC policies (environmental, regional, social and industrial policies) launched after the Paris Summit of 1972 from the perspective of both territorial cohesion and the wellbeing of the population; c) the awareness of territorial issues evinced by many officers of the European Commission and by many experts convened by the Commission to study the impact of new EEC policies; d) last but not least, the “regions” created in many European States, which became an important point of reference for territorial governance.

In its first formulation EEC regional policy was implicit in that it was based on a number of exceptions to the general rule of non-intervention by Member States, to the benefit of southern Italy in particular. In the sixties treaty rules were a package deal to distribute losses and gains among Member States, not to redistribute resources between rich and poor regions. However, in this period a few people – experts working within EEC institutions and within the Council of Europe (CoE) – promoted the idea and vision of transnational spatial planning. In 1967 the Council of Europe published its first document stressing the need for European spatial planning. In 1970 the standing conference of ministers responsible for regional planning in the CoE Member States (CEMAT) was established. Several officers of the European Commission attended its meetings and took note of the intensity and vast territorial scale of the problems caused by increasing urbanization and pollution.

In this period, the European Commission maintained that a review of territorial management methods and instruments was essential; it addressed the question of town planning at the same time as it was taking its first steps in the field of environmental and regional policy. A special working group on town planning was formed in the framework of the PREST group, a body charged with comparing national programs in the field of scientific and technical research. Starting in 1971 a number of planning experts were called to Brussels by two EEC officers, Japik Terpstra and Louis Villecourt. The work done by this special working group was later continued by the new Scientific and Technical Research Committee (CREST) established in 1974 and presided by the Director General for Research, Science and Education, the German Günter Schuster, who had already presided the PREST subgroup on “Town Planning - Structure of the Habitat”. The studies of the two planning groups not only introduced the use of particular instruments such as expert groups to study emerging problems in the European context, but also established new themes in Community policies, drawing attention to the issue of territorial equilibrium and the emerging demands of European society.

With the accession of Great Britain, Ireland and Denmark, the EEC had to deal with a slightly wider range of regional problems. A number of new studies on the nature and intensity of these countries' territorial problems were commissioned and taken into consideration during enlargement negotiations with the three applicants. The European Commission recognized that  territorial issues needed to be studied jointly, as they had to be addressed in the framework of common policies.

The activities of the expert groups, the territorial studies relating to the first enlargement and the exchange of ideas within the PREST and the CREST groups on town and country planning contributed to a common European outlook on the equilibrium of the European region. However, the first concrete steps in the implementation of regional policy, with the creation of European Regional Development Funds (ERDF) in 1975, were rudimentary and guided by only a vague (if not altogether absent) vision of EEC territorial development. Indeed, the ERDF was mainly a means of compensating Britain for its poor return from the CAP.

Although the first steps of regional policy were mainly modeled after the bureaucratic pragmatism of day-to-day urban and rural development policies, the debate around their implementation sparked some changes. In the late seventies the EEC began to coordinate national governments’ regional aid schemes and dedicate more attention to the rich-poor divide. Despite Member States’ reluctance to cede their powers, the work done by the EEC in the seventies marked the beginning of innovation in the methods and content of regional policy, thus laying the foundations for the “cohesion policy” included in the Single European Act of the eighties and the EU's “territorial cohesion” model inaugurated at the start of the new millennium and recently included among the EU objectives set out in the Treaty of Lisbon.