Regional and local leaders from all across Europe met on 9 September in the Shetland islands (UK) to discuss the challenges faced by islands and remote communities and the opportunities offered by EU support strategies. The meeting was co-organized by Shetland Islands Council and the Commission for Territorial Cohesion Policy (COTER) of the European Committee of the Regions (CoR) – the EU's assembly of local and regional authorities.
“ It has always been difficult to explain to anyone from outwith the islands the unique circumstances that exist in Shetland; so I’m delighted that the COTER Commission of the Committee of the Regions agreed to hold this seminar here", said Cllr Gary Robinson, Leader of Shetland Islands Council, opening the debate, stressing that: " Not only have delegates from all across Europe had the chance to see at first hand the challenges that exist in one of Europe’s most remote archipelagoes, they could also share experiences and discuss how such barriers to economic development can be overcome. "
This point was shared by Mr Raffaele Cattaneo, COTER chair and President of the Lombardia Region Council (IT), who pointed out that: " Shetland’s experience shows that, in order to remove barriers to growth, all available tools provided by EU, national and local authorities must be integrated in a common strategy. Only real partnership work can deliver new opportunities for citizens and businesses. " According to Mr Cattaneo: " The focus on a strong territorial dimension to trigger bottom-up innovative and inclusive growth through participation and shared responsibility must remain a pillar of EU cohesion policy. There can be no doubt about the importance of support from the EU to remote European regions. Local and regional authorities, and in particular remote areas, need the financial and technical support offered by the EU. "
Local leaders exchanged views with representatives of local institutions, associations and universities, sharing first-hand information on the enablers and barriers that remote communities face in achieving sustainable economic development. They insisted on accessibility as a precondition that allows small island communities to develop. This is why COTER members are investing special effort to close missing links in small-scale infrastructure in Europe and on finding ways to finance them in the future In practice, a majority of EU and national funding is dedicated to trans-European core transport networks (TEN-T). However the need for comprehensive local and regional networks must not be overlooked, because territorial cohesion cannot happen if we have a core a European transport network that excludes remote areas.
A further key topic in the debate was the need to complement GDP as an indicator of local development and living conditions. An increase in GDP does not always mean a real and shared improvement in a local community's quality of life. This topic has recently been addressed by the CoR in a report calling for a stronger attention for the social and environmental dimensions.
Finally, the CoR delegation had the opportunity of a study visit to the Lerwick port area, to the custom-built facility of Ocean Kinetics, a local company at the forefront of engineering, with an extensive track record in fabrication, oil and gas, renewables, fishing and aquaculture, marine works and marine salvage. The second visit was to Shetland Composites, an innovative local company leading in the research, development, and manufacturing of products such as wind and wave/tidal prototype devices, navigation aids, and storage containers/waste solutions.