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Vice President of the European Commission
Connecting Europe: using transport to bring the Baltic region closer
Baltic Europe Intergroup/Brussels
4 December 2013
President, honourable members of the European Parliament, ladies and gentlemen
It is a pleasure to be with you today in the European Parliament.
One of the principles underlying my approach to transport policy has been to use it as much as possible as a development strategy – to connect Europe’s countries, cities and towns efficiently and sustainably. The broader goal is to bring all our peoples and economies closer together.
We need transport to access a huge market: the unified trading space of Europe's 500 million consumers. However, this vast geographic area is not always well connected, especially between its eastern and western halves.
So many people and businesses are losing out on several levels, particularly on the economic advantages that the single market offers.
Now, thanks to the recent historic agreements on the new TEN-T regulation and the Connecting Europe Facility, we are in a position to connect East, West and all corners of Europe. We can make a real start in transforming today’s transport patchwork of national parts into a smooth-running network.
These two regulations are a major achievement for the European Union. They represent a transport blueprint for the future with the financial means to make it happen on the ground.
Tgether, they will transform Europe’s approach to transport infrastructure as the focus shifts from individual projects onto a core network of strategic corridors.
This is a pivotal moment for European transport. But if we are to be successful, our ambitious programme for developing infrastructure has to be guided by a real "Connecting Europe Philosophy".
It is also backed up in hard cash, with a new dedicated infrastructure fund: the Connecting Europe Facility. Without this funding, I believe that many major cross-border transport links would simply not be started, let alone completed.
Rail Baltic is just one – but very important - example of this. There is money available for the countries concerned and it is available now. But, and it is a big ‘but’, these countries also have to play their part to prepare mature projects.
This will be the largest infrastructure project ever undertaken in the history of the Baltic States. For these countries, nothing could be more politically and economically important than to have good links to Europe’s heartland.
As Western Europe becomes increasingly interlinked, a more thinly populated Eastern Europe risks being left behind. We must not allow this to happen.
That is why Rail Baltic should be built as soon as possible.
It’s not only about removing the bottlenecks and physical and technical barriers, although that certainly has to be done. We also have to fill in the gaps, build the missing links so that we connect all the corners of our continent.
Ladies and gentlemen
Rail Baltic is the project for linking the Baltic States with the rest of Europe.
I cannot stress enough how important a role this new high-speed line will play as a part of the nine major TEN-T corridors that will become the transportation backbone for Europe's single market.
When it is built, Rail Baltic will bring all the major cities along its route closer together, linking them via the European standard gauge.
It will boost trade for the whole Baltic Sea region.
It will bring benefits to much of Europe as well, because Rail Baltic will link the Baltic States, Finland and Poland into the planned North Sea-Baltic Corridor which will link Europe’s three largest ports: Rotterdam, Antwerp and Hamburg.
It symbolises my entire "Connecting Europe Philosophy".
At the moment, it is not easy to take a smooth and direct rail connection between Brussels and Berlin. There are similar problems travelling between Berlin and Warsaw, and further east.
Rail Baltic will change all that, with its design speed of 240 km per hour that should apply throughout its route. And speaking as an Estonian, I would love to see the day when passengers can board a train in Tallinn and get off in Berlin, with reduced journey time and without changing.
That would be a historical first!
So what happens next? The focus now is to set project priorities to get the funding required and make sure that Rail Baltic gets built. As you know, the aim is for passenger and freight trains to run along the entire route by 2025.
Since the list of potential projects is very long, Member States need to think hard about these priorities - because competition for the CEF funding will be tough. If you compare the overall price tag of project requirements against the money available, it’s clear there are not nearly enough resources available to accommodate and finance every project.
Europe needs a common approach for a common project.
With Rail Baltic, each country involved should produce work plans with detailed and credible descriptions of routes and timelines. This should be done now, so as to make the best use of the financial window that the CEF offers.
Rail Baltic will only be achieved if all the countries take the same approach to achieving the ultimate objective: to build it and make it operational.
The more mature the projects are, the better their chances are for funding. For the three Baltic States, I would say that their single most important project application should be for Rail Baltic.
I should also stress that if this project is to realise its full potential and benefit all the countries and regions involved, then what we need is a seamless transport operation throughout its route.
That means no gaps, no technical barriers – and above all, no bottlenecks. It also means a lot of cooperation and coordination between countries.
Let me give you one example of how Rail Baltic can help the rest of Europe to reap some of that potential. Take Finland, which - along with Poland - forms part of the line’s wider catchment area.
One of the shortest ways to move freight from Asia to Europe is across the Arctic Sea and then into Finland and the Baltic States.
Of course, this isn’t the traditional route taken through the Suez Canal – but melting ice caused by global warming has now allowed the Arctic Passage to open up for more months of the year.
It is now becoming a competitor on the Asia-Europe freight route, potentially cutting usual journey times by two weeks and thereby reducing shipping costs.
With the Rail Baltic gateway ready to receive cargo via Finland and send it on into the heart of Europe, I can only see trade advantages for Europe as a whole.
Ladies and gentlemen
The European Commission has played its part to set aside funding in the budget. It is now up to Member States to work together and start building the projects so that Rail Baltic becomes a reality.
Despite its name, Rail Baltic is about much more than the Baltic States. It goes further into Europe; it links peoples, businesses, regions, towns and capitals together. It truly joins East and West.
We cannot afford to let the grass grow under our feet with this vital transport link that holds so much promise for my philosophy of connecting Europe.
The clock is ticking!
Thank you for your attention.