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Socio-economic and Political Responses to Regional Polarisation in Central and Eastern Europe

Final Report Summary - REGPOL² (Socio-economic and Political Responses to Regional Polarisation in Central and Eastern Europe)

From January 2014 to December 2017, the ITN “Socio-economic and Political Responses to Regional Polarisation in Central and Eastern Europe” (RegPol²) worked on issues of regional polarisation and socio-spatial peripheralisation training at the same time 16 young researchers for careers in academia, public administration, NGOs and the private sector.

The project centred on new patterns of regional disparities between metropolised core regions and the remaining parts of Central and Eastern European countries, which emerged during the last decades. While metropolitan areas are considerably growing and portrayed as the current hot spots of economy, culture and innovation, the regions outside big urban agglomerations lose momentum or are even facing stigmatisation and decline. This has been considerably visible since the financial crisis in 2008 by which the CEE countries have been particularly affected and even more in the now following period of recovery in which especially the centres are supported in their supposed role as growth engines. At the same time, the assumed spill-over effects cannot level the increasing disparities. Despite the emphasis of European Regional Policy on territorial cohesion and a balanced spatial development, the huge investments from the EU structural funds could not essentially reverse the trend of increasing regional disparities within Europe. In contrary, the socio-spatial polarisation brings new tensions to local and regional policy and bears the risk to lose social stability within the EU.

The ESRs and ERs researched these polarisation processes from different perspectives and on different scales in a comparative way. Their projects were organised in 3 interlinked work packages dealing with (1) the evolution, reproduction and persistence of centrality and peripherality, (2) the governance of core-periphery relations and (3) forms of socio-economic adaptation and strategies as well as the potentials to overcome states of peripherality.
All fellows have worked on practice-oriented questions, which allowed them to gain a better understanding of regional polarisation, and interrelated policymaking processes in different contexts. To achieve this goal they used a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods from cartographic and statistical data analysis to interviews and ethnographic methods.

During four years of intense work, the researchers identified the following issues causing regional polarisation in Europe and particularly in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe:
- In the strategic documents of the European Union (Lisbon Agenda and Europe 2020), the priorities for interventions changed from “social
issues” and “employment” to “growth” and “innovation” with the ultimate goal to strengthen the competitiveness of Europe in a global context.
- Consequently, cohesion policy is focussing today mainly on growth leading to increasing regional inequalities although it was originally
introduced as an instrument for the redistribution of resources in order to diminish regional disparities.
- Lacking infrastructures and personal capacities as well as inflexible central decision-making mechanisms and the limited influence of regional
institutions are hindering innovative and experimental solutions in the field of regional development in peripheral regions and especially in
Central and Eastern Europe.
- Structurally weak rural areas are supposed to have less innovation capacities because of their lower institutional thickness. The neoliberal
thinking also regards regions to be solely responsible for success or failure of their development without taking into account possible
structural disadvantages.
- In general, regional development is not understood in a holistic and societal sense but is only focussing on economic productivity.
- For example in the case of Hungary, concrete inequalities, e.g. on the housing market, are the results of divergent polities. On one hand, they
are promoting home-ownership based on private depths whereas, on the other hand, the social housing sector for lower classes is supported
only on a very low level.

A joint effort of politics, economy and civil society is necessary to stop this development of increasing regional polarisation. Several recommendations can be derived from the results of the project such as:
- The regions, especially in the centrally governed countries in CEE, should be strengthened in the decision-making processes.
- Each region has its own strengths and characteristics. There is no one-size-fits-all-solution for all regions.
- Cohesion policy should refocus on its traditional fields like infrastructure for less developed regions, social issues or environmental protection.
The economic development of the European countries should be addressed by innovation policies.
- Civil society initiatives should be stronger involved in regional development and regional policies.
- Regions outside of the metropolitan areas should be perceived as “spaces for innovation” where enterprises with specific internal knowledge
and widespread knowledge networks operate.
- Regulations should be interpreted in a flexible manner and the self-responsibility of the regions supported by local or regional budgets.
- As local and regional administrations in structurally weak regions suffer from lacking personal and financial capacities they should be
supported in developing capacities for project management and application writing and identifying alternative development potentials.
- Charismatic leaders and active place-making can be a chance to overcome stigmatisation and marginalisation.

The fellows’ projects, results and recommendations were discussed during eight internal project meetings, six national workshops and the final conference from 27 to 29 September 2017 in Leipzig. These events brought together renowned scientists in the fields of regional development, polarisation and regional inequalities, early stage researchers, civil society organisations and political decision-makers. Particularly, the involvement of three private project partners, the collaboration with policymakers for the national workshops as well as the wide-spread invitation to the final conference proved to be good instruments to raise awareness of the topic in a non-academic field. Already now, it is visible that there is a growing interest in the so-called peripheral areas and processes of polarisation and peripheralisation in academia as well as media and policymaking. Future collaborations between some of the partners and fellows are already on the way to be realised.

Up to now, the results of the project are published in 23 journal articles and 16 other contributions (working papers, conference proceedings, edited volumes), 3 completed doctoral theses and presented at 74 conferences and events. Furthermore, fellows and senior researchers participated in 48 additional workshops and events. Through all these events, the fellows and senior researchers were able to build an extended network that will be fruitful for future collaborations.

It is expected that nine fellows will finish their PhD during the following year. The project work will lead to a joint publication of an edited volume in the series “New Geographies of Europe” with Palgrave Macmillan in the following year.

More information on the project is available on our website or via our newsletter.

Contact details:
Project Coordinator
Dr. Thilo Lang (Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography)

Project Manager
Franziska Görmar (Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography)