The significance of “left behind places” has become increasingly prominent in English-speaking academic debates on territorial inequalities and EU policy discourses. This concept gained particular attention following the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Today, the EXIT consortium is pleased to present the first results of its first stage of research, which has aimed at “Problematizing Left Behind”. EXIT is a European research initiative aiming to explore the manifestations, root causes and implications of socioeconomic inequalities within and between areas that are often referred to as “left behind”.
The project – involving seven universities and four civil society organisations from eight countries – will propose ways to tackle such territorial inequalities through a rigorous action-research programme of cross-disciplinary and multi-sited research with communities on the ground. Its initial analysis delves into the usage of the “left behind” concept in research, policy, and political discourse to define specific areas facing territorial inequality. By critically examining existing literature, it offers valuable insights and presents a comprehensive analysis of eight national contexts and their respective debates surrounding territories framed as marginal or peripheral within Europe. The findings contribute to a critical reevaluation of the concept and pave the way for further research within the EXIT project. The research highlights key conclusions drawn from the different national contexts.
While there exists a wide variety of concepts used to describe marginalised areas in the context of territorial inequalities, it is noteworthy that the term “left behind” is not translated or used beyond the United Kingdom. Rather, it serves as a placeholder for the diverse forms of territorial inequalities identified in other national contexts. The research employs the term to signify various processes of peripheralisation and the construction of places as marginal within the context of territorial inequality. Although terminologies and conceptualisations differ among countries, similar criteria can be identified, assigning “left behindness” to specific places within each national context.
The EXIT research further reveals that the discourses in the various countries generally follow similar patterns, albeit with spatial variations. These differences can be attributed to factors such as varying levels of spatial inequalities, country size, topography, and governmental structures. National policies addressing territorial inequality exhibit connections to EU policy discourses and funding schemes, with some countries embracing a neoliberal growth paradigm, while others adopt a place-based approach focused on reducing regional disparities and strengthening weaker regions. One crucial finding is the existence of “national dispositives” in each country, encompassing narratives, institutional settings, and terms that address specific regions, areas, or locations.
These dispositives shape the connotations, indicators, and proposed solutions associated with addressing these places, often incorporating strong imaginaries and stigmatisations that may obscure the actual challenges faced by these regions. To illustrate, Greece frames structurally deprived areas in terms of remoteness, isolation, and economic factors. Serbia emphasises both underdeveloped and “devastated” areas. Austria characterises remote areas based on mountainous topography or their proximity to state borders, which were historically part of the iron curtain. Spain evokes the image of an “emptied” Spain with depopulated and uninhabited land, while Italy focuses on “inner areas” situated within the country’s center rather than its borders. Denmark employs a derogative dispositive called “the Rotten Banana,” which describes certain rural areas that resemble the shape of a banana running along the country. Belgium‘s notion of territorial inequality is less developed but centers around conflict lines between regions, often stereotyping poor Wallonia. In the UK, the dispositive of “left behind places” primarily frames former industrial areas with a white working-class population that has experienced unemployment.