Unequal Europe: Tackling regional disparities in the EU

The European Union is not only fraught by social and economic inequality between the member states, but member states themselves show stark socioeconomic spatial disparities.

Spatial socioeconomic polarization has emerged between Europe’s economically developed population centres and their outlying regions right across the continent. These spatial differences are not only fuelled by external factors such as structural change, globalisation, or severe economic crises; they are also a result of prevailing economic and regional policies.

The study Unequal Europe – Tackling regional disparities in the EU uses a multidimensional approach in order to analyse how and where  economic, social, and territorial inequality occurs in the EU. Here, reference is made to studies focused on Finland, Germany, Estonia, Spain, Finland, France, Italy, Romania, and Sweden. The study summarises the findings of the individual country studies, compares these findings, and considers them against the background of the European multi-level system, which has revealed the following insights:

– Upon examination of the district or municipal data in all the countries studied, what becomes clear is a pattern of social and economic differences that cumulate into spatial disparities. Stark differences in economic structure, local labour markets and social development become apparent between central growth regions and peripheral regions. This polarization between population centres and peripheral areas occurs both socially and spatially.

– While the growth poles in and around metropolises are integrated into global value chains, outlying regions either struggle with structural change and deindustrialisation or are largely rural and strongly characterised by agriculture. These economically isolated areas are also socially characterised by, among other things, higher unemployment, the risk of poverty, or an ageing society.

– Although external factors such as structural change and economic crises that have contributed to and deepened spatial inequality, differences within the regions have been exacerbated by a virtually monolithic and largely neglected economic policy since the 1990s. Over the course of time, regions with favourable starting conditions have continued to prosper and left regions with disadvantageous starting conditions behind.

– In order to counter the uneven and crisis-ridden course of the European economic and development model, it is necessary to shift the existing competition and growth paradigm to an integrated European economic and social policy specifically aimed at attaining more equitable living conditions. This is an essential protective buffer in the face of global challenges such as pandemics and climate change, as well as the emerging industrial transformations to mitigate these crises.

The study was written by Professor Björn Hacker (HTW – Berlin) as part of a research project by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and Foundation for European Progressive Studies. Kalevi Sorsa Foundation collaborated on the report on Finland.

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