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One of the lesser known agencies of the European Union is the European Observation Network on Territorial Development and Cohesion (ESPON), which analyses and reports on trends in territorial development across the continent. As a geographical observatory, it does the job pioneered by Patrick Geddes at his Outlook Tower in Edinburgh across a European canvas.

The data which ESPON collects and maps help us to understand the geographical dimension of the forces driving change in Europe and where Scotland sits within the wider picture.

Map 1

A recent ESPON briefing paper looks at the progress European territories are making towards the achievement of the targets for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth set out in the Europe 2020 Strategy. The analysis shows that performance in relation to the targets is strongest in Central and Northern Europe, with Scotland sitting alongside top-performing countries such as Finland, Sweden, Ireland and Estonia. The paper also highlights the fact that countries exposed to the Atlantic Ocean have strong unrealised potential for harnessing wave power.

Map 3

ESPON analysis of economic welfare and unemployment shows that GDP is above the European average and unemployment below the European average in much of Eastern Scotland, but that there are black-spots of poorer economic performance and higher unemployment in Glasgow and the Clyde Valley, the Western Isles, Angus and Fife.

Economic Welfare & Unemployment

Another briefing paper identifies quality of place and the capacity for strategic governance as key factors in the success of Europe’s “second tier cities”. It identifies Glasgow and Edinburgh as two of the UK cities which have been most successful in creating new jobs and notes that Edinburgh outperforms London in terms of the proportion of the population with higher education degrees.  It argues that increasing the strategic capacity to deliver place-based policies at city and regional level is the way forward.

A third briefing paper examines migration trends in Europe in the aftermath of the economic crisis and this was an important focus of an ESPON seminar in Vilnius in December 2013. The analysis showed that the recession has had a major impact on migration flows in Europe, exacerbating the loss of population from countries in Eastern Europe, and reversing recent migration trends in Spain, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Ireland and Iceland.  The economic and social consequences of the loss of skilled workers is a major concern for politicians and policy-makers in countries such as Lithuania, Latvia and Romania.

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ESPON’s quiet mapping of the socio-economic and environmental challenges we face as Europeans may have less lounge bar appeal than the dog-whistle slogans of Nigel Farage, but in pointing to an agenda for collaboration towards a better future it offers something much more positive, purposeful and exciting than UKIP’s remedy of neoliberal economics and political isolation.

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