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We need a new EU strategy for Mediterranean islands to build higher resilience to health and environmental crises  

​In this interview Francina Armengol (ES/PES), President of the Balearic Islands, answers six questions on the sustainable use of natural resources on Mediterranean islands. Francina Armengol calls on the European Commission to devise a new strategy that better aligns EU policies and funding mechanisms to the particularities of Mediterranean islands in order to build higher resilience to natural disasters and health crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic. These proposals are gathered in the CoR opinion 'Towards sustainable use of Natural Resources within the Mediterranean insular context' to be adopted during the plenary session on 12-14 October 2020.

Sustainability is a main element of the opinion you are preparing for the next plenary session of the European Committee of the Regions. In the context of the European Green Deal, what issues are particularly relevant for the Mediterranean islands?

I welcome the European Commission's initiative to move towards climate-neutrality through the Green Deal and through a fair transition framework that will make socioeconomic development of the Mediterranean islands possible and in line with the Sustainable Development Goals. The majority of the EU's island inhabitants live on Mediterranean islands. The exceptional richness of Mediterranean ecosystems and their particular vulnerability to socioeconomic development and climate change make the sustainable management of these islands' scarce natural resources a key challenge. It has to be noted that since the year 2000, the Balearic Islands have lost 22 points in terms of convergence toward the European average, measured in per capita GDP, despite the fact that during the same period the number of tourists has doubled. We have many more visitors and yet we are not more prosperous, which clearly shows that there is a structural problem in our model. We could partially solve this problem through higher environmental protection and structural reforms in order to increase the quality of our services and further diversify our economic activities.

The Balearic Islands are a frontrunner in terms of sustainability within the Mediterranean. Are regional authorities better positioned for the role of trendsetters than national governments are?

Absolutely. In fact, the Parliament of the Balearic Islands last year adopted two important laws that go in that direction. On one side, we have prohibited a wide range of single-use products through a new regional law on waste and contaminated soils that will have a deep impact on waste prevention. On another front, the new law on climate change and the energy transition should significantly accelerate the deployment of renewable-energy sources on our islands. We aim at fostering our role as trendsetters in close cooperation with other Mediterranean islands in order to exchange best practices and policies and to expand alliances such as the “Med Insulae partnership", which has been set up by Sardinia, Corsica, Gozo, and the Balearic Islands.

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly revealed weak points in our society. What has been its impact on the Balearic Islands so far?

The health crisis caused by the COVID-19 has brought to the fore the particular vulnerability of insular territories, whose resources are scarce. The global spread of COVID-19 is also deeply affecting Mediterranean economies, most of which are highly dependent on tourism and related services. In that sense, our high specialisation in the tourism sector makes our economy more fragile and vulnerable than mainland economies. In addition, COVID-19 has shown the vulnerability of our agrifood systems. We therefore urge the European Commission and the Member States to put forward new proposals and investments to make agrifood systems in Mediterranean islands more resilient and sovereign, so as to have sufficient food production to better cope with situations such as natural disasters, political and social conflicts and health crises such as COVID-19, where supplies cannot be delivered from outside.

Were you able to exchange best practices with other Mediterranean islands during the crisis and where do you see the role of the European Union in this process, especially in the context of a healthier and more sustainable future?

We consider it crucial to exchange information and best practices with our Mediterranean partners, and we are working in that direction in particular in the management of our transport and health sectors, among other areas. Furthermore, 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.

The Mediterranean islands are a tourist hotspot, and COVID-19 has shifted the focus from environmental sustainability to economic, social and health management issues related to the way our world functions. Where do you see the right balance and what should be the role of regional authorities?

It is clear that regional authorities need the support of the European institutions and, for that reason, we call on the European Commission to adopt a multiannual strategic plan for the sustainable economic, social and environmental development of the European islands in the Mediterranean.

What are your concrete proposals for the future of the Mediterranean islands, also in the context of the European Green Deal?

We urge the European Commission to devise a strategy for the Mediterranean islands in cooperation with Member States, Permanent Representations in Brussels and local and regional authorities. The strategy should apply properly and effectively Article 174 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), which stipulates that 'particular attention shall be paid to islands' when it comes to the EU's role in 'strengthening economic, social and territorial cohesion and in reducing disparities'. This strategy should include a better adjustment of the different EU policies and existing EU funding mechanisms to the actual circumstances of the Mediterranean islands in order to help them face unexpected situations, such as natural disasters and health crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. We believe that this new strategy for Mediterranean islands should incorporate specific action plans in key areas such as the agrifood sector and the improvement of our production structure, the improvement of sustainable fisheries management and the creation of new marine protected areas so as to protect biodiversity and increase the sustainability of the natural resources of the Mediterranean islands.

From the government of the Balearic Islands, we are fully aligned with the objectives of European Green Deal. In that sense, in 2018 we adopted a decree for the conservation of posidonia oceanica, which is a seagrass species that is endemic to the Mediterranean Sea (Decree 20/2018, of 27 July). The decree prohibits anchoring on the posidonia oceanica and bans any other activity that might damage it. It also regulates the use of dead seagrass and, to better target sustainability actions, it demarcates seagrass zones according to their state of conservation.

From the government of the Balearic Islands, we are committed to continuing to work to develop all measures necessary to support the Green Deal and contribute to reaching climate-neutrality by 2050.

Press Contact: pressecdr@cor.europa.eu