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The EU Danube Strategy: improving the economic potential of the river, protecting the environment

European Commission - SPEECH/14/507   27/06/2014

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European Commission

[Check Against Delivery]

Johannes HAHN

Commissioner for Regional Policy

The EU Danube Strategy: improving the economic potential of the river, protecting the environment

Round Table "Industry meets Policy" at the3rd Annual Forum of EU Danube Strategy

Vienna, 27 June 2014

We are here in the margins of the 3rd Forum of the EU Strategy for the Danube Region to review progress in one of the most important areas of the Action Plan. I am glad to have this opportunity, because there are some important advances to tell you about.

As we all know, the Danube is the most international river in the world, with 10 riparian states. Improving navigability, while protecting the environment is our challenge. We cannot achieve results without engagement and commitment by all Danube partners. But together, we can make improvements that will impact on the competitiveness of this region and its attractiveness for those who live here and the many who come to visit.

Let me declare an interest before I go any further. I am a sailor. I love boats. But, my home is Vienna, and I love the river too. My aim has always been to increase navigation on the river because I believe it makes economic sense. But the precondition for this has to be that we always take maximum care to preserve, and if possible improve, the environment.

Clearly, we can only make serious progress if all parts of the river are included. Improving water quality or navigability in one place becomes meaningless, if a few kilometres away the same efforts are not being made.

The Danube Strategy is showing its added value in this respect, in co-ordinating efforts. Of course, major problems still occur and too often.

It is not acceptable to see standstill on the river season after season. We cannot expect to attract business to the river if transport is not reliable.

And, unpredictable water levels on Danube force cargo vessel operators to underload, in case of poor conditions en route. This increases transport prices per tonne unnecessarily, reducing the competitiveness of transport on the Danube river.

So what can we do, and what is the Danube Strategy already doing?

    The first priority has to be adequate maintenance. With a couple of exceptions, the Transport ministers of the Danube region all signed a declaration in 2012, committing themselves to effective waterway maintenance measures.

I will not disguise the fact that I would have liked to see a more dynamic implementation of this declaration already.

    However, the Austrian and Romanian Priority Area co-ordinators are currently working with their colleagues from the other partner countries on a Fairway Maintenance Master Plan for the Danube - which is close to being finalised. The plan sets out the shortcomings and the necessary measures in each country to ensure minimum navigation conditions. The European Commission will work with the Priority Area Co-ordinators to get this Master Plan endorsed by all Danube transport and environment ministers.

    I hope this Master Plan will bring a step change in co-operation on these key issues, and provide a basis for the transnational investments that are necessary.

    Which brings me to my second point: money.

    Funds are tight everywhere, so I have asked my staff to investigate the possibility to co-finance the necessary equipment and technical assistance for maintenance under EU Structural and Investment Funds. We have concluded that such funding IS possible, and I therefore call on all the EU Member States in the region to ensure that waterway maintenance is factored in to the current programming for 2014-2020. Work has already started on the Bulgaria Romania section of the river, using EU Technical Assistance.

For the non-Member States, EU funds can support improvement of the waterway and fleet, provided that navigation has been defined as a strategic priority in our planning with them.

    Maintenance of the fairway is the responsibility of each country – but relatively small sums used well, can make a big difference. The Danube Strategy can help pinpoint which actions are necessary, and co-ordinate co-financed investments.

    Maintenance though, is not the whole story.

Compared to other modes of transport, inland waterway transport has huge advantages due to its economies of scale. One pushed convoy on the Danube, for instance, can carry the equivalent of 280 truckloads.

However, in recent years there has been practically no investment in new vessels. Around 9 out of 10 of the fleet were built over twenty years ago.

    With this in mind, the EU has financed a special research and development project, on the Danube vessels of the future. This study has been a flagship project of the Danube Strategy and I want to tell you about just some of the results.

    The “Innovative Danube Vessel” study confirmed that, under good waterway conditions, transportation carried out with Danube vessels can reach excellent cost and energy efficiency. It goes on to show how innovative devices and optimised ship designs would further improve this situation.

    The project identified the three most promising vessel designs to achieve energy and cost savings and reduced environmental impact. Two are new types of Danube pushers, one is an innovative self-propelled vessel. You see a picture of one of the pushers behind me.

    AND the project looked at new tools to improve the energy efficiency, cost efficiency and environmental impact of the existing fleet.

    The study finds that some simple improvements to available technology would help vessels adapt their speed to the water levels and lead to significant fuel, energy and cost savings – and reduce CO2 emissions. The new "tempo-mat" would take into consideration more parameters than the speed adaptation tools currently available.

    You can't buy them yet, but we have investigated the possibility of financing the development both of the new tempo-mat and the new vessel concepts.

    The good news is that the European Investment Bank is interested in supporting new vessel designs with loans. And the tempo-mat could be eligible for EU funding as a climate action measure, subject to state aid rules.

    The last point I want to tell you about today, is "admin". Paperwork is a burden and a deterrent to those who might otherwise choose to use inland waterway transport on the Danube and its tributaries. This is not the EU's fault. Our 10 riparian states are a mix of EU Member States, not all in the Schengen area, and non-Member States. The situation is not simple. But we have to do better than the 15 or so forms that can be necessary for a single transport.

    The Danube Strategy has a new working group bringing together navigability and security experts, which is looking at these administrative barriers. This is part of the value added of the strategy, to be able to bring together not just different countries and regions, but different sectors, to get results.

    The biggest loss of time and highest operational costs are related to three main areas: customs, border police and navigation surveillance.

    In the near future, Priority Area 1 will make proposals to simplify and harmonise procedures. It will then be up to participating governments to agree whether to take up these proposals and put them into action.

I believe we can work together for a Danube that is truly the economic artery through this region without losing its precious beauty and the character of the region along its banks.

As you see, more is being done to achieve this every day – and I count on you to support our work.


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