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European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy
Local and Regional Dimension of the Eastern Partnership
Conference on the Local and Regional Dimension of the Eastern Partnership
Brussels, 9 November 2011
Ladies and Gentlemen, Distinguished guests,
It is a pleasure to be able to address you here today.
I would like to thank the Polish presidency and the Committee of the Regions for organising this conference. This event is timely coming as it does just one month after the Warsaw Eastern Partnership Summit.
More than that, it is also an opportunity to take up some of the lessons from the Polish experience of re-forming regional government following their ambitious reforms in the 1990s. [As you have probably heard this morning] it was not always an easy process but it was a worthwhile one.
Let me start today by setting the context in which our discussions take place: the Eastern Partnership after the Warsaw Summit. I will then look more specifically at the role of regional and local government.
Building on the objectives set out in the Communication 'A new response to a changing Neighbourhood', the Summit consolidated the EaP:
It gave clear guidelines for its future implementation;
It made an important step towards genuine joint ownership of the process;
It emphasised that conditionality and the “more for more” principle will be applied more systematically to EaP activities.
One message from the Summit came out particularly loud and clear: economic reforms are not sustainable without political reforms. Hence, in parallel with economic integration, we have to maintain our strong focus on democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
It follows that civil society should be even more involved in our activities and the Summit committed itself to strengthening the EaP Civil Society Forum’s role in dialogue and cooperation.
The Summit welcomed the ongoing focus on the role of parliaments with the establishment of the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly.
It also highlighted the crucial importance of local and regional government:
Within the European Union we have always emphasised the importance of involving local and regional authorities in shaping our policies. We apply the same approach to our relations with Eastern partners. The initiative of the Committee of the Regions in this regard is especially welcome.
The Warsaw Summit Joint Declaration welcomed the launch of the Conference of the Regional and Local Authorities of the Eastern Partnership (CORLEAP), held under the auspices of the Committee of the Regions.
The Joint Declaration also called upon the Committee of the Regions to work with local and regional authorities to establish a permanent institutional framework of cooperation.
Such a framework should not be a bureaucratic device. Rather it should allow for a real flow and exchange of information between local and regional government, learning from each others successes and, dare I say it, occasional failures.
Of course, we already discuss regional development aspects of our initiative within the EaP thematic Platform on Democracy, Good Governance and Stability. The Committee of the Regions is a permanent participant to this forum. We must explore how best to use the potential of CORLEAP within the context of these activities.
I wish to focus briefly now on two closely-linked areas in which I consider that local and regional government has a particularly important role to play: promoting regional development, and supporting cross-border cooperation.
Firstly, the essential role which local and regional government plays in promoting regional development. To support this, the Commission is currently developing, in close cooperation with Partners’ authorities, Pilot Regional Development Programmes, with an overall budget of 70 million euros for 2012-13 to cover the Eastern Partnership region. The Commission is also establishing a European Neighbourhood Programme for Agriculture and Rural Development (ENPARD).
These programmes will promote regional and rural development and social cohesion within Partner countries and help them to reduce socio-economic disparities existing between a given partner country regions. While the funds currently available will not be sufficient to finance the development of infrastructure, much can be done to support other drivers of growth (regional development planning, human resources training and administrative capacity building, innovation and access to capital) in an integrated manner, to increase productivity and employment.
They are also based on the experience of the EU cohesion and agricultural policies. Local and regional authorities will therefore learn, on the job, the skills, procedures and capacity needed to implement EU funds.
Such support for socio-economic development at the local and regional level has the potential to underpin significant improvements in cross-border cooperation and contact.
The history of the region is complex. National borders have on occasion separated communities, severed economic ties or acted as a barrier to reaching out to and understanding neighbours.
The European Union's cross border programmes are intended to establish or re-establish ties, again based on the experience from within the European Union.
Six of our Cross-Border Cooperation (CBC) programmes focus on the regions bordering the EU and our Eastern partners, or between our partners.
The general goal of these programmes is to support the socio-economic development of local communities. But they aim also at facilitating contact between people and the exchange of ideas across borders.
Overall, we are launching calls for proposals for the amount of more than EUR 400 million for the period 2007-13. So far, the response to these calls for proposals has been excellent. We have received hundreds of applications. The first funds have already started to flow to the beneficiaries, bringing real benefits on the ground.
In response to this success, we are preparing to expand our programmes targeted at regional and local authorities in our Partner countries.
Of course, the mobility of people is another important element in facilitating these cross-border exchanges. We already have mobility partnerships in place with Moldova and Georgia, and have just signed one with Armenia. Visa facilitation and readmission agreements are in place with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. They will hopefully soon start with other partners as well. Action plans for full visa liberalisation are being implemented with Ukraine and Moldova.
At the local level, we also have the local border traffic regulation. This brings benefits to local communities on both sides of the EU border.
The EU interest in cooperating with partner countries at the local and regional level is constantly growing. The expertise of regional and local authorities, through the CORLEAP, has the potential to bring strong added value to the Eastern Partnership.
Let me conclude by reiterating the important role of local and regional government in promoting socio-economic development, and the significant and practical role that support for such development can play in facilitating cross-border cooperation, including the increased flow of people and ideas across borders.
The review of the European Neighbourhood Policy emphasised that there are no limits to partners' European ambitions. Strong, efficient local and regional government is a key instrument in helping to fulfil these aspirations.