Original publication: February 2016
Authors: Spatial Foresight: Erik Gløersen Centre for Mountain Studies, Perth College, University of the Highlands and Islands: Martin F. Price University of Maribor, Faculty of Agriculture and Life Sciences: Andreja Borec Bundesanstalt für Bergbauernfragen: Thomas Dax University of Liverpool: Benito Giordano
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Article 174 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union describes mountainousness as a “severe and permanent natural […] handicap”. This understanding of mountainous regions is outdated. Mountainous terrain creates obvious challenges, but also generates development opportunities. Cohesion policy should approach mountain regions as specific territories, e.g. in terms of the possibilities they offer, their ecological vulnerability and biodiversity, and the challenges for agriculture and forestry.


Few NUTS 2 regions are entirely mountainous. Most mountain ranges (‘massifs’) cross regional and national borders. There are extensive overlaps between mountain areas and other geographically specific areas, e.g. islands, Outermost Regions, sparsely populated areas. Issues of development in mountainous regions are therefore a component of a wider agenda addressing territorial diversity in Europe.

Current development patterns, trends and perspectives in mountain regions

Population trends in mountain areas are dynamic. There is no general trend of depopulation. As the main demographic challenges are at the sub-regional level, NUTS 2 and NUTS 3 statistics may hide significant polarising trends. Contrasts between urban and rural areas within mountain massifs are increasing strongly. In-migration to mountain areas perceived as attractive living environments is also increasing.

Mountain areas are at different stages of economic development. Their agricultural production systems have not been modernised as much as in lowland areas and they have, to varying degrees, gone through phases of industrial development and shifts towards more service-oriented economies. However, as such processes have occurred, and are occurring, at different rates and times, static comparisons of indicators at one time give little insight into their specificities. Transfers of experience and good practice between massifs should consider such time differentials.

Mountain farming faces permanent difficulties that cannot be mitigated or ‘improved’ by adaptation measures. The policy approach to address these issues is evolving and is now more integrated, cross-sectoral, and multi-level. Agricultural policy cannot be addressed in isolation, but must consider actions to promote integrated value-chains, including efforts to provide adequate infrastructure and encourage entrepreneurship, innovation in manufacturing, and targeted education and training programmes.

Adapted farming and forestry practices have critical influences on the provision of ‘public goods’. These should therefore be considered when evaluating the ‘cost-benefit ratio’ of individual Structural Funds actions.

Income generated by secondary houses, retirees, and long-distance commuters can compensate for a lack of export-oriented economic activities. A focus on residential economy may therefore ensure the long-term security of certain attractive mountain areas. Yet such a strategy can be considered problematic from national and European perspectives, as it implies fewer income-generating export activities in mountain areas.

Tourism is the main source of income in some mountain regions, but some forms of tourism have negative environmental impacts. Despite numerous initiatives to promote more sustainable modes of tourism, reforming established practices at a wider scale is difficult.

Insufficient economic diversification generates fragile labour markets that may fail to provide opportunities for local youth, leading to depopulation and reducing resilience to external economic shocks. ‘Asset-based’ development strategies can contribute to diversification, but must include continual efforts to identify ‘assets’ and develop the associated activities. Mountain areas have long traditions of economic diversification, and many good practices can be identified.

Teleworking can contribute to economic diversification. However, different forms of teleworking co-exist, each with specific requirements in terms of accessibility, social environment, and service offer. Strategies aiming to use teleworking as a lever of development must consider emerging trends, as well as differences between European countries with regard to flexible working arrangements.

Policies to support mountain areas must consider not only the economic returns of individual projects, but their contribution to the balanced development of communities and regions. The notion of ‘public goods’ is important in this respect. To enhance the capacity of Structural Funds to support development in mountain areas, individual initiatives should internalise their social, ecological and economic costs and benefits.

Preconditions for further development: accessibility, transport and service provision

There has traditionally been an over-emphasis on ‘hard infrastructure’ interventions to improve accessibility. Structural Funds have promoted ‘softer’ business, enterprise and innovation projects. These efforts need to be pursued, while acknowledging that some investments in hard infrastructure are justified.

Infrastructure facilitates, but does not constitute, sustainable economic development. Improved infrastructure may improve connectivity and facilitate increased exports, but can also open local markets up to greater competition.

Broadband access can be promoted more widely through public-private partnerships (PPPs), as the regulatory framework for Structural Funds support to PPPs has been improved for the 2014-2020 programming period. Expanded broadband access can support economic development, education and governance.

Challenges relating to the provision of services of general interest (SGIs) in remote mountain areas are similar to those for small islands and sparsely populated regions. Profitability in these areas is often too low for private actors to spontaneously provide SGIs, and costs for their public provision are high because of the lack of economies of scale. Strategic options to address these challenges must encourage alternative and innovative solutions. Pursuing ‘equal access to SGIs’ is not a viable option; tailor-made solutions adapted to local and regional needs and possibilities must be developed.

Addressing climate change and nature protection

Climate change will have particularly important consequences in mountain areas. Studies on these issues have mainly focused on the Alps. Projects in other massifs are essential, and should capitalise on the outcomes of successful projects across Europe.

Holistic strategies are needed to address the potentially dramatic increase in natural hazards resulting from climate change. Yet climate change may also bring benefits, which need to be considered in integrated planning and management.

‘Hotspots’ of biodiversity and protected areas are concentrated in mountains. The management of these sites, and the provision of recreation, tourism, education and research associated with them, provide employment, often in remote areas with few other opportunities. Cohesion policy can contribute to fostering regional approaches to sustainable development, including collaborative management.

Possible roles for cohesion policy

A dedicated Structural Funds programme for mountain regions after 2020 would not address the diverse challenges. The objective should be to provide frameworks to help regional and national programmes to address development opportunities and challenges in mountainous areas, and to encourage cooperation between programmes that operate in particular mountain ranges. Such approaches to action and cooperation can be elaborated within the framework of ‘place-based policies’. A standardised multiscalar stepwise characterisation model for mountain areas is presented to contribute to this process.

More integrated approaches are needed to address demographic, economic and ecological challenges in mountain areas and should utilise frameworks for inter-sectoral policy coordination. Cohesion policy can gain in efficiency by better recognising the specificities of mountain areas at each step of relevant programming processes. From the beginning of planning for a new programme period, partnerships should be encouraged to carefully consider how sub-regions with distinctive geographical features are represented and how their views on an appropriate strategic approach are built into each Operational Programme.

Link to the full study: http://bit.ly/573-420

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