Development plans to include exploiting local potential for environmental research and pharmaceuticals.
Réunion, Martinique, Madeira ... names that conjure up visions of swaying palm trees, secluded beaches and rolling waves – not exactly images usually associated with the EU.
And yet the three islands have a long history in Europe, as do the four other remote places that make up the EU’s outermost regions - French Guiana, Guadeloupe, the Azores and the Canary Islands.
These regions are all islands or groups of islands except for French Guiana, which is on the northern coast of South America. The Canary Islands are part of Spain, the Azores and Madeira belong to Portugal and the four others are French departments. Tea, wine, rum, fruit, flowers and ornamental plants are some of their traditional products.
While they may seem like a paradise, these regions struggle with severe economic handicaps: small size, remoteness and difficult topography and climate. Farming, fishing and tourism supply most of the jobs for the regions’ population of roughly 4 million.
Recognising these limitations, the EU has tailored its regional policy to meet their specific needs. In the past, the main priorities were to improve access, competitiveness and regional ties. Now the commission wants to go further and foster development that would benefit the rest of the EU, not just the regions themselves. The idea is to generate wider interest in the regions and, hopefully, turn their handicaps into assets.
For example, the outermost regions have geographical and geological characteristics that make them excellent laboratories for research in a number of fields, including climate change. And their biodiversity and exceptional marine ecosystems hold great promise for innovation in pharmaceuticals and agronomy.
The EU plans to spend €7.8bn on the regions between 2007 and 2013. Numerous EU-funded projects have already shown that the regions can make an important contribution to Europe. These include a multi-purpose power station in Madeira and a project in Réunion to make the Indian Ocean island self-sufficient in energy.