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European Commissioner for Regional Policy

"The Sea of Opportunity"

Conference on the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region
Rostock, 5 February 2009

Mr Chairman, Vice Minister-President, Honourable Ministers, elected representatives, Ladies and Gentlemen. Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak to you here at Rostock this afternoon. On our meeting earlier today Vice Minister-President said that this is the right place to be to finalise our debate. I hope that what you said reflects the position of all Länder. This region has the chance to be more attractive, especially for young people. Thank you for hosting us here and for what you have said.

Thank you to the organisers of this event, especially the Land of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Stakeholders’ conferences and round tables on the European Union Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region have been a very practical, and fruitful, demonstration of partnership between all of us involved in this work on Baltic Sea Strategy.

I am also particularly pleased that Christopher Beasley is here today: I would like to thank him for his support, and also say 'Thank you' through him to the other Members of the European Parliament in the Baltic Europe Intergroup.

And I am looking forward to listening to the ministers present with us here this afternoon: Minister Ušackas from Lithuania and Minister Malmstrøm from Sweden. We wouldn't be here without the commitment to partnership we find throughout this region.

We have come a long way since we met at Stockholm last September. A lot has been achieved in the four months since the first Stakeholders’ Conference but there is much still to do before this strategy becomes a reality.

Before I explain what we believe still has to be done, perhaps a few words to remind us of where we are. You know the region much better than me but it is worth getting an idea of the challenges facing us all.

  • The Baltic Sea Region comprises eight Member States as well as important neighbouring countries including Russia.
  • We have here nearly 100 million people which is around 20% of the European Union population.
  • The Baltic Sea is losing its quality and bio-diversity because of:
  1. excessive discharges of nitrates and phosphates – from agriculture, industry and household resources which are causing increasing eutrophication, and which are simply killing large areas of the sea every summer.
  • Interconnection of electricity supplies across borders is impeded by incompatible technical standards. And we also know that there are over 100 shipping collisions per year.

But at the same time we have here:

  • some of the most innovative regions in the world, and some of the most dynamic growth areas in the New Member States. Sweden, Finland, Germany and Denmark occupy the top four positions on the EU innovation scoreboard published last month. And they feature equally high on world scoreboards.
  • The Øresund and Haparanda-Tornio regions are models of productive cross-border cooperation.
  • But also 15% of the world’s cargo, which is 2000 ships, is in the Baltic at any one time.
  • And of course the region is a world leader in mobile telecommunications

So there is a lot to do – the region has the resources and the potential to succeed in the challenges facing it.

Since we met at Stockholm conference the clouds of economic uncertainty then appearing have become a storm. And I am sure we all agree that we can't let the financial and economic crisis push us off course. The needs of the region have not changed, and nor have the skills and resources here. The European Union – both Commission and Member States – are taking the decisions necessary at this time. And our focus here is on a longer time-scale and we will not let the current turmoil distract us. On the contrary, the obvious economic problems make cooperation around a well thought-out strategy more essential than ever. And the business opportunities that must be exploited are also present.

The same applies to the energy crisis many Member States and neighbours have been living through. I am not here to blame any side, but what is absolutely clear is that dependence on a single source of power and energy is dangerous. A key feature of the Baltic strategy will be immediate actions to improve inter-connections across the region, especially in the three Baltic States, and the establishment of a real cross-border market for electricity and gas.

We are now at the end of the ‘consultation phase’. Of course, the Commission will not stop listening, or talking, to you but it is time for us to finalise the proposal to the European Council. To get to this point:

  • We have received contributions from over one hundred sources
  1. Member States
  2. Regions
  3. Non-governmental and international organisations
  4. The Stockholm conference and the four Round Tables of Kaunas, Gdansk, Copenhagen and Helsinki
  5. The Hamburg Youth Conference which concluded yesterday
  6. Almost one hundred organisations and individuals who responded to the on-line consultation.

I am very pleased that representatives from all these groups are here with us today. Thank you very much for your efforts.

Your messages have been very clear, and we have taken full account of them. Let me mention just some of them:

  • Firstly, a real need for a strategy: the problems are serious, that's the point you have underlined strongly, but the opportunities are waiting to be grasped.
  • Secondly, an integrated approach to overcome the obstacles. There are already good ideas and initiatives under way in different fields but without a basis in an integrated strategy these initiatives are struggling to make the required impact.
  • Thirdly, an important rôle for the Commission in setting objectives and prioritising actions as well as its central rôle in monitoring and coordinating the many partners active in the field.
  • Fourthly, ensuring that any actions proposed MUST have an impact on the ground. The time has now come to launch real, concrete and visible actions.

There are also some things people do NOT want to see, and let me mention just two of them:

  • No new institutions: there are plenty of organisations out there, and adding to their number risks increasing duplication and confusion more than improving effectiveness. So we must be prudent in institutional arrangements.
  • No empty declarations without assigned actions to back them up within specific deadlines.

The Commission has taken careful note and agrees with all these points.

This conference gives us the opportunity to start the move from words to actions. In the workshops today and tomorrow, I hope to hear your views on the possible key, flagship, projects that we can propose to the Council as first steps to implement the strategy.

Of course we can’t, and most likely won’t, specify right now every action necessary to create a region worthy of the capacities of its citizens. That will be a longer job and your participation, through different channels, will be essential in the future. In the strategy we will indicate examples of the main potential actions to be carried out as soon as possible. Let me now, though, just mention a very few that will give you an idea of the direction in which we think the strategy should go.

For a sustainable environment let’s start by:

  • removing phosphates from detergents where this has not yet been done. This could reduce phosphorus inputs to the Baltic by about a quarter, with obvious effect on algal blooms.
  • And also implementing the Waterpraxis project which has already been approved by the Baltic Sea Region Territorial Cooperation Programme, to reduce nutrient loads by improving water management practices in the Region.

To increase prosperity, especially in the poorer parts of the region, we recommend:

  • Joint actions leading to better increase of the efficiency of the service sector throughout the region. Promoting business opportunities should have a prominent role in our actions, that's why we have to fully implement the Services Directive in a co-ordinated way. In general the Single Market legislation could and should be implemented in ways that better promote trade and efficiency – especially removing barriers and creating opportunities for SMEs.
  • We must focus more strongly on creating business opportunities in environmental technology by bringing together the existing expertise in the field. This will create a critical mass that offers a competitive advantage to the region’s companies, especially SMEs. And that is exactly what Europe should do now.
  • And thirdly, creating an ‘Ivy League’ of Baltic Universities by supporting complementary faculties and departments across the region, ensuring that the quality is accessible throughout. We must also encourage the so-called ‘Fifth Freedom’ – the freedom of movement of knowledge – around the Baltic Sea.

Under the accessibility and attractiveness heading, I will just highlight 2 proposals:

  • Achieving the Rail Baltica target of a 120 kilometre per hour link from Warsaw to Tallinn by 2013 – here the need is so evident. The journey today takes 36! We must do something about it, there's no doubt.
  • And we should complete energy interconnections between the three Baltic States and the wider region, such as the Baltic Interconnection Plan and also the Sweden-Lithuania high voltage connection. Indeed, I am very pleased to say that as part of the package announced a week ago, the Commission proposes contributing 500 million euros from European Union funds to gas and electrical interconnection infrastructure in this region.

And since the safety and security of all our citizens must be paramount at all times, I would encourage further action in this field and in particular:

  • Enhance cross-sectoral and cross-border cooperation of maritime surveillance systems in the Baltic. This is also a priority for the implementation of the Maritime Policy in the Baltic Sea basin, which my colleague Joe Borg will present to you tomorrow. I think that the implementation of this policy will be an important component of the Strategy.

These are – I repeat – examples. The action plan we present to the Council will have more than this, and you will be discussing all the options shortly. But I also want to underline that for these actions to be implemented, well-functioning, stable partnership is needed. I think I can already say today, on the base of what we have done together that it's working. Let me explain:

  • You – all of you –have proposed realistic, achievable actions

We have identified key flagship projects

  • We – the Commission – are willing to monitor and report on progress
  • And after this conference, we will examine the results and make sure that the draft action plan is specific and realistic.
  • The Regional Policy Directorate-General will hold meetings with each of the Member States concerned, in Brussels, to be sure that every action is feasible, and that everyone knows just what is expected of them.
  • Where necessary, we will also identify lead partners and timetables to ensure that the actions are achieved.
  • The Commission will adopt the strategy and indicative action plan at the end of May, ready for the European Council to take it on board, most likely on Council meeting on 19th June.
  • We are organising a conference for all Structural Funds Managing Authorities in the region – at Visby on 11 and 12 June – to identify how cohesion policy can enable the regions to contribute to the strategy.
  • Together with the Swedish Presidency of the Council, we will then immediately launch a process to develop the action plan into a rolling plan that is transparently updated to take account of the needs of the region as they evolve. Because we don't want to have a strategy that will be cast in concrete. This is a living strategy.

By these actions in the short term we can ensure that our strategy is more than words: that it will lead to immediate action on the ground. But this strategy must work in the longer term, even after the enthusiasm we all feel now is displaced by familiarity and by other urgent priorities.

Our detailed proposals will depend on the discussions tomorrow, when my Director General, Dirk Ahner, will be participating, and also on our discussions subsequently with Member States and other Stakeholders. But here are some of the points that need to be agreed. We have to ask there questions:

  • What is the best way of ensuring the right policy decisions are taken?
  1. How can we continue the political involvement at the highest level that started this whole process? I am thinking here of the European Council level.

I believe that we should have strong political leadership where it is needed, so we need governments of the region. We must find a way to maintain the priority and support that the Member States are showing. In my view this could be best done by using the resources and qualities of the European Council and the Council of Ministers.

The second question is:

  • Who should monitor, who should coordinate, who should implement, who should push the actions that are part of the strategy?
  1. Are existing institutions in the region adequate? Can the Commission do this?

I believe I can say with full responsibility that the Commission is ideally placed to take on a coordinating rôle – if– the necessary resources can be found. The Commission has a view of all policy areas and works closely with all the countries concerned, and with most of the regions. But you must appreciate that this is a new style of work for us, we are entering a new territory, and we will need your help. We need close cooperation with you.

  • How can we ensure that all the partners – the people who can really make things happen – are consulted and participate fully in the development of the strategy and updating the action plan?
  1. We probably have to think how we should go with conferences like this. Could we organise regular events and roundtables?

I believe that the implementation on the ground should be done by the bodies that know it best – by the agencies, by municipalities, NGOs and other organisations that have enormous experience and expertise in this region. And again, the Commission can facilitate this process, but there must be full involvement from everyone concerned.

  • And the next question is, how can we associate our important neighbouring countries?

I believe that the existing mechanisms, especially the Northern Dimension Partnership, should be used and, if necessary, adapted to enable the strategy to succeed with support from all sides.

  • If the strategy is successful, I believe we can reverse the environmental deterioration of the Sea and the wider region
  • We can create a model for attacking challenges across the Community – as you know, Member States in the Danube region are already watching us carefully, and also asking for the same approach.
  • Perhaps we can even create a new model relationship between the Union and all its citizens.

I would like to thank you once again for you commitment, for your input to this strategy, which will enable the Baltic Sea Region to enjoy a sustainable environment and optimal economic and social development.

Thank you very much.

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