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Commissioner for Regional Policy
Danube Strategy – Important Driving Factor for Improvement of Economy and Environment
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Conference on the Danube Strategy
Ruse/Bulgaria, 10th May 2010
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a true pleasure for me to participate in this, the fourth conference on the EU strategy for the Danube region.
As I arrived, the surroundings seemed very familiar to me as a native of this region. The beautiful neo-baroque and neo-rococo architecture which Ruse is famous for is just another visible reminder of our common cultural heritage.
This cultural background is part of the shared potential of this region. The Danube basin is home to 3 world religions and a multiplicity of languages and ethnicities. This diversity is part of our wealth – and helps to forge the bonds between EU members, candidate countries and neighbours.
I would like to congratulate our hosts, and the Prime Minister who will be with us shortly, on Bulgaria's part in hosting this conference. It is good to see Bulgaria at the heart of an initiative that is rooted in European values, setting the highest standards and the best of the EU at the service of this region.
If we are here today with Bulgaria a full member in a reunited Europe, it is because we all chose to bring this about. Europe doesn’t just happen – we have to make it happen.
We see this today in the financial crisis, and the recent sobering events in Greece. Such challenges are a litmus test for Europe as a whole. But what we see are serious efforts to work together in order to overcome problems. This is what Europe is all about.
Since we celebrated Europe Day only yesterday, let me quote one of Europe’s founding fathers, Robert Schuman:
“Europe will neither be built in a day, nor to an overall design, it will be built through practical achievements that first establish a sense of common achievement”.
This is true of the European Union, and it is true of the work we have before us in the Danube basin.
Just as Europe is not a magic cure for its members' ills, simply creating a macro region here will not automatically solve our problems. We constantly have to work on our common European house to improve and adapt it in order to be able to tackle the challenges of our time. I want a Danube strategy that delivers results because it has found a new way of working to unlock new forms of co operation. The energy will come from you: the strategy can only provide the framework for your efforts.
A WEALTH OF IDEAS
Ladies and Gentlemen,
You have shown us that you have many aspirations for this new way of working together.
The conferences and consultation process on the Danube strategy have produced a wealth of ideas for concrete projects in a wide variety of sectors.
You have told us your ideas to address the wasted opportunities for increased navigability on the Danube which put unnecessary pressure on other forms of transport like road. Many of you want action to bring us the blue Danube of the song. You see need to work together beyond national and even European borders, because it doesn't make sense to clean upstream when pollution is taking place downstream. And you want improved connectivity - to the benefit of Europe as a whole.
The Commission is now in contact with Member States to distil priorities from your proposals and identify the key flagship projects. To achieve early successes, we need to decide on a clear focus. If we try to tackle everything that has been proposed at once, we will not advance.
At the same time, we need to start thinking about how we will organise ourselves to move from words to action.
A NEW WAY OF WORKING
The Danube region already has a tradition of co operation – but work has often been stymied by lack of funds or political will. Our task is to find a structure that overcomes such problems. Emerging from the consultations is the idea that, working with existing organisations, the EU can provide a framework to reinforce commitments, and help provide instruments and funding to attain your chosen goals.
We need not start from scratch. The Baltic Sea Strategy is pioneering ways of working at macro regional level. It is early days, but so far the model of governance that they are road-testing is working.
In this regard two points are of particular importance.
The first is to establish a structure that ensures ownership of those involved, without losing sight of European wide coherence and accountability.
The second is to provide the region with the capacity to act and act effectively to implement the Danube Strategy. This will be a partnership built around selected and visible actions.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The Danube strategy is a strategy of the European Union. While it is obviously of prime concern to those states whose territory lies in the Danube region, it is of legitimate interest to all member states and the governance structure must recognise this. That means that no exclusive groups of member states should be established.
At the same time, the Danube strategy should be designed to be driven from the bottom up – so that it responds directly to the wishes and needs of the region.
That's why we need to establish a management system to marry political coordination at a European level to implementation at a local level.
The information flow within this system should not be a one way street. So, we will propose appropriate monitoring, coordination and reporting so that information flows freely.
Each macro region will be sui generis – but let us not reinvent the wheel if there is no need. I hope that the Danube will draw on the experience we already have in the Baltic Sea strategy. The first lesson has been that the nomination of a national contact person is essential to facilitate exchange of views between the relevant member states, and between them and the Commission.
When it comes to implementation, the strategy works on the basis of an Action Plan, that identifies a number of Priorities. A Priority Area Coordinator – perhaps the ministry of a Member State – is chosen to take charge of each policy area. The Co ordinator has the job of ensuring that work goes to plan, meetings organised, that all stakeholders are involved, and that monitoring takes place.
For example 220 universities in the Baltic have entered into a new co-operation in an initiative co-ordinated by the Land of Hamburg, which works with partners from national government and the universities, to develop a more complementary range of courses and remove barriers to mobility of researchers.
You will determine what role you want the Commission to take. In the Baltic Sea the Commission has been asked to chair meetings of the Member States' representatives in a High Level Group, and to report to the Council on the basis of information provided by the Priority Co-ordinators. Our role is not to implement the Strategy – that is for you – but to help "keep the ball rolling" and facilitate agreements when necessary.
EFFICIENCY AND EXPERTISE MATTER
Ladies and gentlemen,
Effective governance is not only dependant on the management structure.
Experience shows that the stability and availability of expertise within national institutions responsible for EU funds, are key to good progress in implementing programmes and projects.
Therefore our technical assistance offers support like training, and help in developing information systems for management of EU funds. We also support policies to avoid high staff turnover. It is crucial that we encourage people to stay in jobs long enough to build up expertise, and then to stay on and put that know-how to best use.
This support is not the biggest item in our budget, but it is invaluable to those who take it up. But, to my astonishment, I find that a significant amount of EU technical assistance lies idle.
I mention this only because administrative weaknesses can compromise the flow of EU funds. Regional Funds are only transformed into cash payments, if they are turned into action, otherwise budgets are cancelled and taken back.
We must avoid this at national level, and avoid weaknesses in administrative capacity undermining the success of our future Danube strategy.
And, we must use the Danube strategy to spread expertise to the candidate countries too. I hope that by working with us they will learn some of the important skills that will help them once they finally join the EU.
MAKE OUR MONEY WORK HARDER
In the Danube basin we have €100 billion for regional development. This money is not lying in a bank, but already bringing about many projects underway.
The aim of the macro-regional approach is to make available money work harder for us. As they say in the US, we want more bangs for our bucks. We can do this by aligning programmes to the objectives of the Strategy that will be set out in the Action Plan. This is possible even with in the current financial period. All that will be required is the political determination to make our action coherent – and, as I have said, efficient management.
DOING MORE FOR OUR CITIZENS
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is through Regional Policy that the European Union is most visible to our citizens. In more than 2 million projects people can see the EU at work bringing real benefits close to their concerns.
Now we have a new opportunity to show that the EU can do even more to bring advantages to those who live in the Danube region.
We will all have a duty to ensure that we operate efficiently and accountably. The Danube Strategy will be only the second macro region, and the responsibility is ours to show the value added of this new approach.
Before the end of the year, I will publish the Commission's proposal for the Strategy. But even then it will be work in progress, constantly updated to keep pace with political and economic changes as they occur.
I am convinced that the Danube Strategy will contribute to spreading security and prosperity to Europeans wherever they live in the Danube region.
This is not because "I am not an optimist" but because "I am determined" as Robert Schuman would have put it.
Thank you for your attention!