Panorama 67: Cohesion Policy support for mountains, islands and sparsely populated areas

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Cohesion Policy pays particular attention to regions which suffer from severe and permanent natural or demographic handicaps, such as mountains, islands and sparsely populated areas (Article 174 TFEU).

The ESIF regulatory framework for 2014-2020 lays down provisions, such as the derogation to thematic concentration or adjustment of the co-financing rate and offers several possibilities to better address the needs of these areas and support their potential.

In 2014-2020, 15 Member States highlighted in their programming documents (Partnership Agreements) the challenges they face due to their insular, mountainous or sparsely populated characteristics. DG REGIO commissioned an expert analysis to gain an in-depth knowledge on how these Member States are using the possibilities for supporting and strengthening the development of islands, mountains and sparsely populated areas through EU Cohesion Policy in the 2014-2020 programming period.

Gilda Carbone talks about the main findings of her research, presented at the European Week of Regions and Cities, Brussels 2018. 

  • What approach did Member States take to deal with territories with geographical specificities?

We did a survey with the relevant managing authorities in the different Member States and found different approaches and perceptions among them. Each country dealt differently with territories with geographical specificities: dedicated Operational Programmes (OP) (e.g. the South Aegean Islands’ regional programme in Greece or the Balearic Islands OP in Spain) or part of a broader programme area (e.g. the Lorraine and Vosges Massif OP in France).

Although not always expressly mentioned in the dedicated section of the Partnership Agreements and OP, the specific needs of these territories have generally been considered and addressed in the programming documents and, in some cases, integrated territorial tools have been used.

  • What main challenges have been identified in relation to mountains, islands and sparsely populated areas?

Preservation and protection of the environment is generally a key priority for areas with geographical specificities. One of the main challenges is to find a good balance between environmental and resource efficiency, on the one hand, and socio-economic factors for growth and development, on the other hand.

Other important sectors of interventions are connectivity, both physical and digital, better access to public services, and renewable energies.

  • How have Member States used the possibilities offered by the 2014-2020 regulatory framework for Cohesion Policy?

There was a low take-up of the possibilities offered by the 2014-2020 ESIF Regulations (i.e. derogation to thematic concentration, adjustments to co-financing rate, etc.). These provisions were used to a very limited extent and seemed unnecessary (i.e. increased co-financing rates lead to smaller overall national public investment).

The attention to territories with geographical specificities was somewhat assured in the implementation phase through other means, such as attributing additional points to projects targeting these areas in the selection phase (i.e. Italy, OP Friuli Venezia Giulia). We also identified some good examples of setting up dedicated financial instruments (e.g. a national FI set up for Bornholm Island in Denmark or an FI managed by Almi Invest in Sweden) and designing integrated local strategies targeting specific issues also connected to the insular, mountainous or sparsely populated character of territories (e.g. Provere strategy in Portugal or the Inner Areas strategy in Italy).

  • Is there continuity and consistency between programming and implementation in the current programming period?

There is sufficient continuity and consistency from planning in the Partnership Agreement with programming in the OP, but there is scope for improvement, especially when it comes to concrete implementation and launching dedicated calls for targeted projects for these areas.

The expert analysis also identified good practice projects for each category of territories (mountain, islands and sparsely populated areas), selected from all the very valid projects reported by the Managing Authorities of the selected OPs.

  • What are the key messages for a Cohesion Policy 2021-2027 close to territories with geographical specificities?

Cohesion Policy should continue to play an important role in supporting mountains, islands and sparsely populated areas. Territories with geographical specificities are not one single block, thus the place-based approach definitely contributes to the territorial cohesion of territories with geographical specificities as it is based on local and regional needs, builds on the specific strengths of these territories and aims to disclose the related potential. 

Future regulations should provide a flexible, simple and enabling environment to address the needs and challenges of territories with geographical specificities. There are multiple ways to serve the needs of these areas (integrated territorial investments, community local led development, financial engineering instruments, attributing additional points to projects in areas with geographical specificities in the selection phase, etc.). Where there is a need there is a way!

  • Based on your long experience in regional policy issues, what do you consider are the essential issues to help the potential of these areas?

The integrated approach is essential, especially in territories with geographical specificities; interventions may have a greater impact if they focus on different but interlinked sectors.

The exchange of good practices and knowledge among countries and regions facing similar challenges (i.e. insular or mountainous, etc.) could facilitate and increase the setting up of targeted integrated territorial strategies and financial instruments. Learning from peers is essential.

Furthermore, the European Territorial Cooperation programmes and Macro-Regional Strategies play an important role because many of these territories are right on the borders of EU countries which means a coordinated approach could definitely bring value added.