Areas that are ‘left behind’? Territorial Inequalities in eight European Countries
The EXIT research project aims to explore the causes and implications of socio-economic inequalities from a territorial perspective, proposing ways to address these inequalities through action research using an interdisciplinary and multisite approach, with the participation of communities on the ground. The project is driven by the concept of ‘left-behind’ places, which gained special attention after the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump in 2016. This concept has become increasingly prominent in English-speaking academic debates on territorial inequalities and EU political discourses. In this way, EXIT seeks to problematize this concept and its uses, as well as to explore the manifestations of these territorial inequalities in eight European countries.
In the first stage of research, EXIT delves into the discourses surrounding the ‘left-behind’ concept and analyzes its relationship with other concepts used in national and local contexts, research, public policies, and political discourses to define territorial inequality. With this critical approach, EXIT provides a comprehensive analysis of territorial inequality and its conceptualization in eight national contexts. The findings contribute to a reevaluation of the conceptual framework of territorial inequality and lay the foundation for the rest of the project’s research.
The term ‘left-behind’ is not translated or used outside the Anglo-Saxon context. Within the European Union, it rather serves as a discursive vehicle to refer to various forms of territorial inequalities identified in the different national contexts studied. Thus, in the participating states, a wide variety of concepts are used to describe territorial inequality. Although terminologies and conceptualizations differ, there are shared characteristics in the discourse on territorial inequality, and similar patterns are revealed, albeit with some spatial variations. Differences can be attributed to factors such as varying levels of economic inequality, the size of the country, topography, or governmental structures. Similarities emerge in national policies addressing territorial inequality, showing connections to political discourses and EU funding schemes. Some countries adopt a neoliberal growth paradigm to address these differences, suggesting policies that promote tourism growth or other industries, while others take a territory-based approach, focusing more on reducing regional disparities and strengthening weaker regions.
These national approaches to territorial inequality can be understood as “devices” that include narratives, institutional frameworks, and terminology, shaping assumptions, indicators, and solutions for addressing territorial inequality. Often, such devices incorporate imaginaries and stigmatizations that can obscure the real challenges faced by these regions.
In the Spanish context, the discourse on territorial inequality has recently coalesced around the idea of a “hollowed out” Spain [España vaciada]. This concept is widely used by the media and academics to describe interior areas that have experienced significant depopulation processes. The discourse about “hollowed out” areas illustrates an unequal and dialectical relationship with urban areas, where the interior regions have been emptied in favor of the economic progress of the capitals. Thus, “hollowed out” Spain has been recognized as a predominantly rural demographic issue. However, territorial inequality also affects post-industrial and urban areas.
Due to this focus, the political and academic orientations of depopulation often characterize post-industrial areas as uniformly rural, overlooking the fact that a significant number of these areas are or contain former industrial areas, and depopulation processes are intrinsically linked to deindustrialization. Urban peripheries, on the other hand, present different characteristics (high population density and a large proportion of young, migrant, and/or minority populations), leading to a different type of differentiated territorial inequality, which has often been understood in terms of urban segregation and vulnerability. Thus, in the upcoming stages of research in Spain, EXIT will include case studies illustrating this diversity in territorial inequality, including rural, post-industrial, and metropolitan periphery cases. Through this local and territory-based approach, the project aims to provide a broader understanding of geographical inequalities in Spain beyond rural areas.
The research project is coordinated by Olga Jubany from the Department of Anthropology at the Universitat de Barcelona and involves partners from eight countries, including six universities and four civil society organizations. Among the partners are the European Network for the Fight against Poverty and Social Exclusion in the Spanish State and the Regional Economic Analysis Laboratory of the Universidad de Oviedo. The project is funded by the Horizon Europe program of the European Union.