17th Jul 2019

EU's remote islands slam Brussels for ignoring their problems

  • Tourism in the Canary islands has gone down due to the economic crisis (Photo: einaros)

The EU's 'outermost' islands in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans say the policies decided in Brussels concerning free trade, agriculture or fisheries take too little consideration of their interests and economic problems.

"The EU's free-trade agreements with countries in our region often jeopardise our own small producers, who are dependent on a few crops. We need pragmatic policies to make it through until 2014 [when the new multi-annual EU budget starts]," Paulino Rivero Baute, the president of the regional government in the Canary islands said on Thursday (27 May).

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He was speaking in Brussels at the "Forum for outermost Europe 2010," hosted by the European Commission and featuring representatives of territories belonging to France, Spain and Portugal, from the time when they were colonial powers.

The EU's nine "outermost regions" are part of the internal market, the eurozone and they hold elections for the European Parliament. France is the governor of the bulk of this grouping with the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint-Martin and Saint-Barthelemy, along with Reunion island in the Indian Ocean and French Guyana, a territory bordering Brazil and Suriname. Spain's Canary islands and Portugal's Azores and Madeira in the Atlantic Ocean are also part of the grouping.

Under a special provision in the Lisbon Treaty, these regions can apply for special exemptions from some policy areas that may impact their economy.

Dwindling revenues from tourism, unemployment rates above 25 percent and difficulties in competing with Latin American, Asian and Pacific producers of the same agricultural products are all part of a gloomy mix in the insular communities.

"We have to ask ourselves if it is fair in these big agreements not to make special arrangements for the outermost regions, if it is fair to have the same market conditions for us and for huge competitive territories," Mr Baute asked, referring to the free-trade agreement the EU has with many countries beyond the bloc.

Didier Robert of Reunion said that his island, affected by free-trade agreements with Asian and Pacific countries, did not want to "fall a victim to the external policies of the EU." He also urged Brussels to take into account the "special marine space" available to Reunion when reforming the common fisheries policy.

With small, scattered communities, specialised in tourism services and agriculture, but with high transport costs due to their remoteness, most of the islands have a difficult time coping with the effects of the economic crisis.

"We suffer from poverty too. It is not easier in the sunshine than it is in the snow," Frantz Gumbs, president of territorial council of Saint Martin told the audience. His Carribean island, with some 75,000 inhabitants, suffers from a "double insularity", he explained, as it is divided between a French authority in the north and Dutch rule in the south. Only the French part has an EU "outermost region" status, including the euro as currency, while the Dutch part is using Antillean guilders.

The Dutch half may however join the EU grouping, as it is part of the Dutch Antilles, which in October are expected to ask the Hague for a different constitutional status. According to the Lisbon Treaty, Denmark, the Netherlands and France have reserved their right to add other territories to the "outermost regions" list, pending approval of all EU member states.

Great Britain has not signaled interest in such an arrangement for its overseas territories.

French lobby

France's EU commissioner, Michel Barnier, currently in charge of internal market and financial services, also spoke at the event, in his capacity as a former regional affairs commissioner between 1999 and 2004.

He made a point of addressing every regional leader by name and spoke about the difficulty of advancing the cause of the outermost regions in a commission where only three countries out of 27 have such territories.

"With three out of 27 it is quite different than with three out of 15, as it was last time around I was commissioner," Mr Barnier said, in reference to Spanish commissioner Joaquin Almunia (competition) and the commission's own chief Jose Manuel Barroso from Portugal.

He said the current regional affairs commissioner, Johannes Hahn from Austria, is a strong advocate of the cause. Agriculture commissioner Dacian Ciolos is also seen as open to the islands' plight for his "impact assessments" of the common agricultural policy on the EU's outermost regions, in terms of the economic, social, and monetary effects.


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