Claude Valentin Marie

tells us about demographic trends in EU Outermost Regions and their effects

INED - Colette Confortès

Claude-Valentin Marie, a sociologist and demographer, former Vice-President of the HALDE (Haute Autorité de Lutte contre les Discriminations et pour l’Égalité, an independent anti-discrimination authority) and advisor to INED directors on France’s overseas departments and territories, is in charge (together with J.L. Rallu) of a study on demographic and migration trends in Outermost Regions (ORs) commissioned by the European Commission.

He is also scientific director of the "Migrations, Famille et Vieillissement" survey (MVF) being conducted by INED and INSEE in France’s overseas departments.

(Interview from July 2012)

What are Outermost Regions and what does this status cover?

The Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) currently recognizes the existence of eight EU "Outermost Regions": four French overseas departments and regions (Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Martinique and Reunion) and one French overseas collectivity (Saint Martin); two autonomous Portuguese regions (the Azores and Madeira) and one autonomous Spanish community (Canary Islands).
The "Outermost Region" notion was originally aimed at reconciling two demands: full EU membership for these regions, and recognition of their structural disadvantages, both geographic and economic. In 1997, the Treaty of Amsterdam expressly described these territories as isolated from the central mass of the Union (Article 299-2 of the European Community Treaty). That article constitutes the legal grounds for implementing specific policies and allotting considerable structural funds. The emergence in the late 2000s of a new paradigm in which ORs were designated "Regions of Opportunity" marked a turning point in European Union policy; the emphasis shifted to these regions’ endogenous development potential and the assets they represented for the EU (geostrategic locations, abundant ocean environment and resources, biodiversity, resources for astrophysics, biomedicine, etc.).

What is the current economic and social situation of the ORs?

In the current context of worldwide crisis, the overall economic performance of the ORs has been disappointing in recent years. Social and economic indicators show that we are far from having overcome the disadvantages that justified the special aid programs. This applies to scholastic performance, workforce skills, employment rates, per capita GNP; also healthcare and the environment. By some criteria, the ORs are among the ten EU regions farthest from meeting "Europe 2020" strategic objectives (EU 2020).
It seems quite unrealistic to hope those objectives will be reached in the allotted time.

What are some of the foreseeable effects of demographic forecasts for 2020 and 2030?

For most ORs, the coming decades will be ones of accelerated demographic ageing. By 2020 the French Caribbean islands, the Canaries and Madeira will have more old persons than young; the Azores will be in the same situation by 2025. In 2030, more than a third of the population in the French Caribbean will be over 60, a situation that implies increased medical needs and welfare costs.
Guiana and Saint Martin, on the other hand, will be faced with rapid population growth due to a high birth rate and sustained immigration. The majority of the population will be under 20, increasing needs in the areas of perinatal health and education.
Reunion is a rare example of a demographic dynamic that combines rapid ageing and a steady birth rate; it will have to meet both sets of needs just mentioned.
Altogether, the major challenge for the ORs of the eastern Atlantic and the French Caribbean will be to develop a new model of growth and social cohesion adapted to their rapidly ageing populations. In Guiana and Saint Martin the situation is totally different: with their strong demographic growth, they will have to find ways and means to develop economically and to integrate their new populations.

What potential risks do these forecasts imply?

Population ageing and youth unemployment or inactivity represent a dual challenge. The risk of having young people confined to the margins of the working world is continued erosion of their personal social status, a problem that could lead high numbers of young people into a cycle of violence implying a break with society. This state of non-employment, combined with accelerated ageing, would increase "effective dependency rates," that is, the burden on the employed. If present employment rates do not change, the French ORs will have nearly 300 older persons for one working person by 2030. At this level of dependency, social welfare policy viability would be threatened, a situation that would have serious socio-political consequences in a context of stagnating (and possibly reduced) funding and subsidies from the central state.

Are there any reasons for optimism?

Guiana The challenges facing ORs should be thought of as opportunities for defining a new development model and new public policies and programs. Population ageing should lead to finding new ways of meeting the needs of older persons, modernizing and revaluing the service activities involved in their care, improving the skills of people who do this work while making the most of the local cultural heritage, traditions and practical knowledge. At a broader level, the magnitude of health needs should lead to completely restructuring and modernizing medical facilities, with a real concern to achieve economies of scale. Telemedicine seems a particularly relevant approach in territories where small populations and/or marked population dispersion (as in Guiana and the Canary archipelago) make it impossible to provide classic care to all. The considerable investments required for carrying out an ambitious program of training medical personnel in technological innovations such as telemedicine and e-medicine could be handled by the European Social Fund (ESF). Public transportation policy, often extremely inadequate in ORs, should be rethought so as to prevent isolation of old people, facilitate young people’s access to training and employment, and reduce consumption of imported fossil fuels. Housing demand should lead to major changes in the construction industry, so as to integrate energy efficiency and environmental conservation criteria while facilitating employment and improving worker skills. Rising energy demands should work to open up new avenues of research and innovation, and therefore to create skilled jobs in the renewable energies and energy efficiency sectors. The same applies to prevention of natural risks and increased value-added agricultural production and fish farming.
All in all, the challenges I have been enumerating should offer an opportunity to turn the EU’s Outermost Regions into "Regions of Excellence" for research and innovation in high-potential areas (energy efficiency, biodiversity, renewable energies, etc.), something like new technological research and application laboratories in tropical environments. Skills, know-how, services and new high value-added products could then be exported to countries in the same geographical zones facing similar realities.

What should we expect from the EU and its upcoming program of objectives?

To attain the desired cohesion, ORs will be needing considerable financial investment in the coming years, in fundamental areas like education, employment, health and environmental goals. Substantial funding will have to be granted for these efforts. Our study shows that the challenges are even greater for French ORs. The recommendations in our report focused on four priority areas:

  • Education and training, to improve qualification levels and employment rates;
  • Investment in R&D for the priority targets of securing food and energy resources;
  • Healthcare, so as to provide care adapted to the specific needs and realities of these regions (particular pathologies, equal access to care), service development and modernization, an ambitious program to prevent the risks associated with ageing;
  • Integration of immigrants, in the interests of internal social cohesion, particularly in regions where immigrants represent a considerable proportion of the population.