Member of the European Commission responsible for Regional
Seminar Cooperation across the EU’s Eastern External Borderline: the
Launch of the Network of Eastern External Border Regions
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to thank you for inviting me here today to speak to you at the launch of the Network of Eastern External Border Regions – or NEEBOR for short. I understand that NEEBOR is actually the Scottish word for “Neighbour”. This seems to me to be a very good example of an acronym having a direct link with its subject matter – an occurrence which is all too rare unfortunately!
I am particularly pleased to be here today because it is important to underline that border regions are one of the key groups of actors in the European Union’s regional policy. They play a crucial role in linking countries together, in developing innovative solutions to economic and social development issues, and are often at the forefront of integration and advances in co-operation.
And yet, this is despite the fact that, in some ways, borders within the Union are becoming less visible. The Schengen agreement has created a huge area where people speed effortlessly down wide motorways, or along gleaming railway tracks, and across borders with barely a glance at the signs indicating “Welcome to ...” whichever country it is.
Such travellers perhaps no longer reflect much on the impact borders have on our everyday lives. Yet even a single step across a border, even where there is no border control, or customs, or security checks, fundamentally changes the situation we find ourselves in. With that one step, we are in a different legal environment, a different administrative culture, and very often in a different language area. Business, social, cultural and personal relations are all affected by this change in circumstance.
Geography also imposes difficulties. Border regions are frequently peripheral within their own country, far from the capital city and from economic development poles. Transport solutions are often created with the aim of getting across border regions, rather than linking them with other parts of the country, or with their neighbours.
Of course, the regions located along the external borders of the European Union face all of these challenges and much more besides. Here, the full weight of border controls and visa requirements – necessary tools of course in maintaining security and fighting against criminality – create important additional complications and problems. Eurozone countries may already be forgetting about how different currencies on each side of a border constitute a barrier to trade and co-operation, but from personal experience, I know very well that the regions along the eastern border of the Union are fully aware of this issue.
After enlargement, there is a range of very different borders in the east:
• Borders between Member States and newly independent countries such as Ukraine;
• borders which were internal borders only 15 years ago (for example: Estonia-Russia);
• and borders which have been almost impermeable barriers in very recent memory (for example: Poland – Russia (Kaliningrad)).
All of the elements I have just outlined can have a very negative effect on the economic development of border regions. If it is difficult to work with regions in neighbouring countries – sometimes even to meet them – then the full potential of these areas will not be realised. This background explains very clearly, I believe, why the Commission created the INTERREG Community Initiative as far back as 1990 to help border regions address these challenges and to assist them in working together on a wide range of issues of mutual interest.
INTERREG and cross-border co-operation have come a long way in the last 15 years. Two enlargements processes in 1995 and 2004 have dramatically widened the range and scope of co-operation. The budget for co-operation has increased by a factor of 6 since that time, evidence enough of the strong political support that co-operation receives. Cross-border co-operation programmes are operating now in every part of Europe and we have seen a huge upsurge in interest in Member States and in neighbouring countries. The content of programmes has become more sophisticated, with subjects such as conditions for cross-border workers, and social and health care issues frequently dealt with. Very practical but resource-saving topics are covered too – fire brigade and ambulance co-operation, co-ordination of public transport services, co-ordination of on-call doctors. Often the projects can be quite small, but difficult to set in motion and the INTERREG programmes and the financing they provide act as a catalyst to address this.
Even within the co-operation programmes supported by the EU, the external border regions have faced additional challenges. The integration of EU funding for Member States and non-Member States was less than perfect in the past, and this is something that the Commission has taken very seriously. The Neighbourhood Programmes which were introduced last year are based on the INTERREG approach to co-operation. They are a direct result of our efforts to offer a better solution for cross-border co-operation along the external border of the Union. They have been well supported, and offer a unique combination of INTERREG funding for Member States and EU external funding for the non-Member States organised in a coherent, streamlined manner with joint procedures.
Even in the very short period of time that they have been operating, the Neighbourhood Programmes have proved enormously successful. It is normal, when co-operation programmes start, for co-operation to be built up over time. Structures must be created, information provided to project partners, project ideas discussed and developed. All of this has happened in a remarkably short space of time in the case of the Neighbourhood Programmes.
Let me give you some figures to illustrate this. The programme between Slovenia, Hungary and Croatia has already attracted over 200 project applications; the programme between Hungary, Slovakia and Ukraine has attracted over 300 applications; and the programme involving Poland, Ukraine and Belarus has received over 500 applications! And all of this within 12 months. The programme authorities concerned have evidently been delighted by this, but almost overwhelmed in some programmes, and the project selection process has had to be extended to cope with the influx of projects.
This is not to say, of course, that all the project proposals will be good enough to receive funding. The quality thresholds are high, and some applicants will be disappointed. However, I have also been pleased to note that the programmes have systems in place to provide advice and assistance in addressing weaknesses in applications, and this will hopefully bring success in future. Nevertheless, it is beyond all doubt that there is a clear and unambiguous demand for co-operation along the external borders of the Union and that the co-operation must continue after 2006.
Such a continuation of cross-border co-operation is naturally what the Commission has proposed for the future. Building on the success of the Neighbourhood Programmes, the Commission has proposed that cross-border co-operation along the eastern borders of the Union after 2007 should be fully supported by the new European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument, under the responsibility of my colleague Benita Ferrero-Waldner, while cooperation along the EU borders with candidate and other Western Balkan countries will be supported by the new Instrument for Pre-accession under the responsibility of Olli Rehn.
The ENPI – you will notice that we in the Commission are unfortunately not as clever with our acronyms as you are! – intends to provide a coherent approach to cross-border co-operation along the eastern and southern borders of the Union. The aim is to achieve a full integration of funding and contracting in these regions. Cross-border co-operation across the internal borders of the Union will continue to be supported under the new European Territorial Co-operation Objective of the Structural Funds.
The new ENPI programmes will be managed by a Managing Authority in the EU Member State, and the partners on each side of the border will be jointly responsible for selecting projects. The project partners and ultimately the Managing Authority will be answerable for the financial management of the funds along with audit and financial control matters. Ultimately, the managing authority will, via the usual reporting, have to explain what has been done and not done, why this is so, and what steps will be taken to continue or correct matters.
There has been concern that the creation of such integrated programmes over a relatively short period of time may prove difficult and that much time might be lost in negotiating content and agreements. Establishing the different agreements among the Commission and the participating countries and obtaining their formal approval; fixing the arrangements for certifying and controlling expenditure; and agreeing public procurement systems and respect for environmental and competition rules will all take time. The Commission is aware of this, as are the Member States. The United Kingdom Presidency has actually addressed this very point in the latest draft of the ENPI regulation, offering the possibility of a transition phase prior to a fully integrated approach. It would be interesting to hear from the NEEBOR network whether this additional element inside the ENPI meets with your needs.
I must at this point underline that the start-up and implementation of the ENPI, and the Structural Funds as well, is dependent on an urgent approval of the financial perspectives and finalisation of the text of the various regulations.
We quickly realise just how important an agreement on the financial perspectives next week is from a technical point of view, not to mention the wider political reasons. Even with an agreement next week, it will be extremely difficult to avoid delays in implementation as of 2007 – without an agreement, it becomes close to impossible.
Therefore, I would like to stress how important it is that the programming preparation exercise for future co-operation programmes must start now. I know that some programmes have already started this work based on the draft regulations. This allows discussion and planning to move ahead on issues such as programme content and management arrangements, although I recognise in the context of the ENPI that the Commission’s implementing regulation will be required as well before programme drafting can be further advanced. I would urge you to pass this message on to your regions and your capitals.
Turning to the financial package for co-operation actions, we have seen, within the negotiations on the financial perspectives, the proposed budget for co-operation activities being reduced quite considerably thus far compared to the Commission’s original proposal. This is extremely disappointing, and does not, in my opinion, reflect the actual needs for co-operation or the level of support for co-operation across Europe. However, I am pleased by the strong support shown for the new European Territorial Co-operation objective by the European Parliament and the Committee of the Regions. We must await the finalisation of the financial perspectives to see the total funding package available for co-operation from 2007.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to finish by addressing the networking dimension of today’s event. As you know, there are hundreds of regions, and thousands of other actors involved in regional development and Structural Funds implementation nowadays. It becomes more difficult to get your voice heard, to communicate one’s point of view, to ensure key elements are taken into account in policy discussions and legislation.
Networks provide an opportunity to address this overload of actors and positions by allowing regions facing common challenges to come together and to offer a louder, more direct, and perhaps more coherent response as a group, rather than as individuals. We have seen such networks develop in response to many issues – industrial regions, peripheral regions, and mountain regions all have well-known associations protecting their interests. Border regions have been involved too, and the Association of European Border Regions, whose Secretary General (Mr. Jens Gabbe) you will hear from later, has a long and distinguished history representing the border regions of Europe. Such networks can have a significant voice and a great potential for promoting exchanges of experience among their members.
In conclusion, I would like to congratulate all the regions who have taken the initiative to create NEEBOR and to wish you all well in the future. I hope you will continue to build on the good co-operation that has been established under the INTERREG and Neighbourhood Programmes and that you will take this co-operation forward to face the new challenges that await you after 2006.
Thank you very much.