Jean-Didier Hache

Islands, Fixed Links, and The European Union – Jean-Didier Hache

Being a large landmass surrounded by various seas or oceans, Europe is surrounded by some 300 inhabited islands, which vary considerably in land area, size of population, remoteness and political status. These figures covers only those islands with a minimum permanent population of 50; but there are also hundreds of smaller ones, including those which are permanently or generally uninhabited. EU territory also includes far-flung islands such as Martinique, Guadeloupe, Réunion, Azores, Madeira or the Canaries, located in the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean or in the middle of the Atlantic, and which face transportation and accessibility challenges of a totally different scale.Population wise, the imbalance between islands and mainlands in Europe is substantial. By comparison with the 450 million people of the EU 25 Member States, the islands represent roughly just 4.6% of the total EU population, with close to 21 million people. Out of this, the island states of Malta, Cyprus and Ireland (but also including Northern Ireland) total 6.7 million people. The rest of the islanders, numbering around 14 million ( 3% of the EU25), mainly live on one of 24 island regional authorities, while some 400,000 live on one of the hundreds of smaller inshore islands which are part of a neighbouring mainland administrative structure.

Yet, in the early 1990’s, on a EU15 basis (when the total EU population was 380 million), that proportion of island populations to the grand EU total was over 20%, not only because the Union was smaller, but mostly because most of Great Britain and Eastern Denmark still geographically qualified as islands. When the Channel tunnel (1994) established a fixed link between France and Britain, and when the bridges and tunnel of the Great Belt (1997), followed by the Øresund link (2000), inter-connected Jutland, Zealand and Sweden, over 60 million EU citizens ceased to be permanently isolated by the sea. As a result, the percentage of Europeans living on an island went down to less than a quarter of its original proportion. The issue of fixed links across the sea has not been an insignificant matter for the European Union.

Nor will it become so in the near future, for a few other EU islands still have the potential to be linked to the nearest land, should there be the political will and the funding to proceed. The prospects of linking the Isle of Wight with Hampshire in England, Saaremaa and Hiumaa with the mainland in Estonia, Gozo with Malta, Rødby in Denmark with Puttgarden in Germany across the Fehmarn Strait, and Sicily to the rest of Italy across the Straits of Messina, have all been contemplated. While some of these projects are mere technical possibilities, which have not gone much further than the debating stage, others are effective proposals. Such is the case of both the Fehmarn link, and of the bridge to Sicily. If the authorities keep to their plans, both infrastructures should be completed by 2015. While the Danish island is already linked to the Great Belt / Øresund network, the construction of a 3.4 km road and rail bridge across the Straits of Messina would mean that Sicily would cease to qualify as an island. This would reduce the number of EU islanders by a further 5 million people, down to only 3.5% of EU 25 population (and below 2% if one leaves out those Member States which qualify as islands).