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EUROPEAN UNION: A Move in Defence of Overseas Territories

Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, May 5 2003 (IPS) - France, Portugal and Spain resolved Monday to demand that the European Union’s new constitution include a provision ensuring continued special development aid to their overseas territories, which lag far behind the Europeans in terms of economic production and employment.

The E.U. funds earmarked for those territories grew from 2.45 billion euros (2.76 billion dollars) in the 1989-1993 period to 4.8 billion euros (5.4 billion dollars) in 1994-1999. Of that total, nearly 40 percent went to Spain’s Canary Islands.

The decision to press for the inclusion of aid in the E.U. constitution – currently being drafted – was taken in a Lisbon meeting of French Overseas Minister Brigitte Girardin, Spain’s Secretary for European Affairs Ramón de Miguel, and Portuguese Deputy Foreign Minister Carlos da Costa Neves.

The existing E.U. Treaty recognises as Ultra-Peripheral Regions (UPR) the Portuguese islands of Azores and Madeira and Spain’s Canary Islands in the Atlantic, and the French island possessions of Guadalupe and Martinique, in the Caribbean, and Reunion, in the Indian Ocean, as well as the continental Guyana in South America.

Denmark, Britain and Netherlands, which also have overseas territories, do not form part of the group because, as De Miguel explained to IPS, "those possessions are not considered regions of those countries, but colonies."

The inhabitants of Greenland, a Danish territory, were consulted in a 1987 referendum, and "they decided to remain outside the E.U. Curacao and Aruba are Dutch colonies in the Antilles, while Britain has, for example, with its far-flung Malvinas (Falkland Islands) in the South Atlantic and with Gibraltar, a colony embedded in Spanish-speaking areas," noted the official.

When asked about the cases of Ceuta and Melilla, two Spanish city enclaves on the Moroccan coast, De Miguel told IPS that they are not considered UPRs "because they are part of Andalusia (one of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities) and are not far from the rest of the mainland, as is the case of the Canary Islands."

France’s Girardin underscored that the purpose of the Lisbon meeting was to study the "situation for the drafting of a memorandum that Portugal, Spain and France will sign on Jun. 2 in Martinique, which currently presides over the UPR conference."

The three countries will then present the Martinique document as their common position on UPRs to the Thessaloniki Summit Jun. 20-21, when Greece will hand over the six-month rotating E.U. presidency to Italy.

At the E.U. Summit in the northern Greek city, former French president Valery Giscard d’Estaign will present a draft of the Constitutional Treaty, which he is preparing as head of the bloc’s constitutional convention.

The memorandum sponsored by France, Portugal and Spain is intended to "reaffirm the need to maintain the special status of the UPRs under the community’s existing laws and also in the future European constitution to come out of the convention’s efforts," commented Girardin.

The UPRs "should be covered in the most favourable terms by the provisions of E.U. regional policy, considering the ongoing disadvantages they suffer in development processes," particularly in infrastructure, technology, roads and farm and fishing modernisation, added the French overseas minister.

The overseas possessions of the three countries represented at the Lisbon meeting are home to 3.7 million people, just under one percent of the E.U. population.

Per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of the UPRs stands at 59 percent of the E.U. average. The highest per capita GDP amongst the UPRs is reported in the Canary Islands (75 percent of the E.U. average), and the lowest in Guyana (45 percent).

Furthermore, unemployment in the overseas regions can be as high as double the E.U. average of 7.9 percent of the economically active population, according to figures from the Statistical Office of the European Communities.

The basic principles established in the E.U. Treaty in force guarantee equality and equal opportunity for all its citizens, which govern the concession of special assistance to the UPRs, which are disadvantaged by their distance and their generally limited economic development.

Portugal’s deputy minister Costa Neves noted that "the essential principle of equality among all E.U. citizens was reaffirmed once again at the Seville Summit," which in December marked the end of Spain’s turn in the revolving E.U. presidency.

"We are going to send a clear message (to the E.U. constitutional convention) about the importance of UPR development, particularly in the agricultural sector, where we must maintain particular attention. It is a philosophy of building horizontal ties between these regions and the rest of Europe," he added.

De Miguel ruled out a future reduction of funds for the regions once the E.U. is expanded from 15 to 25 members in May 2004.

The expansion could affect Spain and Portugal, which are themselves recipients of E.U. aid, unlike France, which is a net donor.

The admission of Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia next year "does not pose a threat to the UPR, but rather a competitive challenge for the economies of Portugal and Spain," commented De Miguel.

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