While it is easy to think of the European Union as just the territory encompassed in the continent, a substantial part of our population still lives on the European islands of the Atlantic Ocean, the Baltic and North Sea, the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea. Out of all of the European islanders, 95% of them live on islands located in the Mediterranean Sea. These islands also receive a large amount of tourists from across Europe and from the rest of the world on a yearly basis and their marine biodiversity is one of the most diverse in our continent. However, there is no specific European strategy for these islands, nor for their development or for the use of their natural resources.
Due to their geographic situation, they find themselves in a position that could be compared to that of the outermost regions in terms of the lack of direct access to the mainland's resources and of the amount of needed imports in order to sustain their economies and their infrastructures. The main difference with the outermost regions is that islands are still in close proximity to the continent and that the natural resources they foster are richer and could be an essential part of the green recovery if there were enough resources and specific policies targeted towards them. Unfortunately, this is not the case so far and the COVID-19 crisis has only highlighted the needs and unused potential of these regions.
The pandemic has only highlighted some of the existing difficulties that these regions face
The global pandemic has put the whole world on hold and this has had a particular effect on the tourism sector, which has seen its revenues substantially decrease due to the measures taken to minimise the expansion of the virus. These measures, whilst needed and globally supported due the nature of the pandemic, have had a significant effect on cities and regions that rely on tourism to sustain themselves. This includes the Mediterranean islands that particularly depend on tourism.
However, as necessary as the tourism industry is for these islands, it has also become a double-edged sword. Their biodiversity and natural resources are in direct relation with their beauty and their climate that, in turn, reflect in the number of tourists visiting them. Given the economic importance of this industry, substantial changes have been made to the infrastructure of the islands in order to accommodate the millions of yearly visits. This has also resulted in a loss of space for natural resources that has been allocated to the tourism industry (e.g. hotels and restaurants).
However, Mediterranean insular territories have had to take this decision in order for their economies to survive throughout the last decades. It is harder for them to be self-sufficient by developing their own industries or to access the resources that are available to us in mainland Europe because of their geographical position. These difficulties have been put to manifest by the COVID-19 crisis and it is now time to ensure that the Mediterranean territories move towards more sustainable economies (which also include a more sustainable way of tourism), especially given the potential of their natural resources.
What needs to happen from now on?
The Mediterranean islands need a European strategy that will effectively apply Article 174 of the TFEU and that includes a better adjustment of the EU policies and funding mechanisms to the current situation of the Mediterranean islands.
With the EU Green Deal being one of the pillars of the recovery and of the future of the European Union, and with the already-existing communication on the Blue Economy, it is only natural to take the following step in order to ensure that all territories are included in the present and future of the green recovery of the EU. This is especially significant for the Mediterranean islands, considering that they are affected by climate change more than other European territories. Just as an example, the water of the Mediterranean Sea heats up to 20% more than the rest of Europe, making it significantly important to have measures in place to protect its ecosystem. This is so much so because the Posidonia oceania, the type of seagrass found in the Mediterranean and declared a UNESCO Heritage Site, starts to die once the temperature of the water reaches 28º. The Government of the Balearic Islands had already implemented a decree for the conservation and protection of the Posidonia in 2018, but this should also be reflected at a European level, especially considering that seagrass can store up to 20 times more carbon than the same area of a terrestrial forest.
The PES Group tabled an own-initiative opinion led by the President of the Balearic Islands, Francina Armengol, which was adopted during the October plenary session for the sustainable use of natural resources within the Mediterranean insular context. This opinion came about for three different but significant reasons: cohesion, borders and the climatic vulnerability of the Mediterranean. Because they are far from the mainland, it is harder for the Mediterranean insular territories to have access to the cohesion funds and to benefit from the Cohesion Policy. These islands are also at the border of their own countries and of the EU's borders with third parties. Finally, as we have already mentioned before, the situation of the Mediterranean is particularly vulnerable when it comes to climate change and to the protection of its natural resources and biodiversity.
In her interview with the European Committee of the Regions, President Armengol highlighted that ‘we would like the European Commission to devise a strategy for the Mediterranean islands that caters for their specific features and vulnerabilities and to develop a stronger partnership between these regions, the Member States and the EU through specific and coordinated measures’.
When presenting the opinion at the October plenary session, our member Antoni Vicens Vicens stressed that ‘the opinion focuses on asking the European institutions that we move towards a EU Strategy for the Mediterranean so we can access EU resources to face the vulnerability of our islands’.
"We need to take into account 3 main pillars:
lack of cohesion with our countries and the
we are in the periphery of our countries and of the
environmental and climatic vulnerability of the Mediterranean, reflected in our #islands." @Antoni_Vicens #CoRPlenary pic.twitter.com/F7fNXYuw4w
— PES Group Committee of the Regions (@PES_CoR) October 13, 2020
The EU is taking the necessary steps towards a sustainable future, making sure the economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis is green and inclusive, but that inclusivity cannot be limited to the continent. Mediterranean islands might not be part of the mainland but they are one of the richest ecosystems in the EU and their territories can foster initiatives and projects that will help towards the green reconstruction. There needs to be a European strategy put into place to help these regions both in financial and environmental terms. If we are serious about our recovery, we need to make sure that every city and region in Europe is included in the project. The Mediterranean islands are currently in a vulnerable position and steps need to be taken to protect them in order to leave no one behind.