LITHUANIAN TRIUMPH: Johannes Hahn (on the left), member of the European Commission in charge of regional policy, and Loreta Krizinauskiene, representing the Langas I Ateiti alliance (a group of companies, banks, and telecommunications and IT businesses), which won the award for establishing public Internet access points and enhancing computer literacy skills among the elderly, disabled and people living in remote areas of Lithuania.
BRUSSELS - The European Union is a single market of 493 million people. However, there are big differences in the development level of the various EU regions. The EU, seeking to reduce disparities in regional and social development, allocated 347.4 billion euros for its 2007-2013 cohesion policy. On May 20-21, this policy was discussed by experts from EU states during the conference “Regions For Economic Change - Building Sustainable Growth,” in Brussels. On May 20, the annual ceremony RegioStars Awards 2010 was held in the Brussels Square Meeting Center to celebrate those who achieved the greatest results with the help of EU funds: Lithuania won in two categories out of six. According to the European Commission’s officials, Lithuania is the smartest user of EU funds, which especially now, in a time of crisis, has become the main engine of Lithuania’s economy.
During the conference, The Baltic Times sat for an hour with Johan Magnusson, who is now responsible for the Lithuania-related cohesion policy in the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Regional Policy. This Swede is so involved in Lithuania’s affairs that he can even follow conversations in the Lithuanian language.
“Lithuanians are simply the best among all 27 EU countries in using EU funds. They are able to spend the money despite the crisis. Although I know that Lithuanians are very critical of themselves, Lithuania is doing better than all their neighbors - Poland, Latvia and Estonia. Lithuanians like to compare themselves with Ireland [because of the same size of territory and population]. Lithuania is doing better than Ireland from a financial point of view, though the Irish are faster. Lithuania is the EU’s best in dealing with the European Regional Development Fund, and not lower than second in dealing with the Cohesion Fund - maybe Ireland or Spain are ahead of Lithuania regarding this fund, though I’m not sure about it,” said Magnusson, who earlier had similar posts in the European Commission dealing with the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
According to the European Commission, by 2020, the cohesion policy’s added value in Lithuania’s GDP will make up 50 percent. In 2007-2013, Lithuania is spending eight percent of cohesion policy-funded money for development of scientific research, and another eight percent for creation of an IT society.
He emphasized that the essential element of the EU cohesion policy is that it is decentralized, with member states and their regions taking the leading role in deciding how the money should be used, bearing the responsibility for managing it properly while the European Commission plays the role of supervisor - it partially reimburses their spending from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the European Social Fund (ESF), which are called “structural funds” in the EU terminology, and the Cohesion Fund.
Allocation of EU funds for the cohesion policy for 2007-2013 in the Baltics is as follows: 6.885 million euros for Lithuania, 4.620 million euros for Latvia, and 3.456 million euros for Estonia. The ERDF and the ESF are used throughout the EU, while the Cohesion Fund is limited to countries with a GNI of less than 90 percent of the EU average. The Cohesion Fund is available only to 15 EU countries.
There are some fears in Lithuania that, due to the Greek tragedy-provoked crisis, allocations in the next EU financial perspective of 2014-2020 for cohesion policy might be lower. Johannes Hahn, commissioner for the regional policy, asked by The Baltic Times if such fears are justifiable, could not as of yet give a straightforward answer. “We are still in the process of discussion. It should be nearly the same budget,” Hahn said during his meeting with several journalists from his native Austria, as well as Lithuania, Poland, Germany, and France.
“Lithuania will still be a big receiver, whatever the deal will be among the biggest EU countries, although there are different points of views among them. The UK says that only the poorest EU countries should be helped, while France, Germany and Spain say ‘no way, we should spend money everywhere.’ In fact, even in Sweden there are certain groups and areas with a big percentage of not-well-enough-integrated immigrants, such as Arabs, where such help is needed,” Magnusson told The Baltic Times.
Both Hahn and Magnusson emphasized the importance of the EU-adopted Baltic Sea Strategy, which involves development projects which are co-financed by the EU in all countries surrounding the Baltic Sea, including non-EU countries.
Hahn, during his meeting with journalists, mentioned only one nominee for the RegioStars 2010 award. “There is an outstanding nominee for establishing public Internet access points and enhancing computer literacy skills among the elderly, disabled and people living in remote areas. This project was done in Sweden… or in Poland. Wait a minute, I need to look at my papers. Yes, it is from Lithuania,” Hahn said.
Loreta Krizinauskiene, representing the Langas I Ateiti (“Window to the future” in Lithuanian) alliance, which won the award for establishing public Internet access points and enhancing computer literacy skills among the elderly, disabled and people living in remote areas of Lithuania, was the star of the RegioStars awards ceremony. She received a prize in the category “ICT applications for e-inclusion.” The project, which cost 2,694,534 euros, received 1,996,650 euros from the European Social Fund. In 2002, a group of companies, banks, and telecommunications and IT businesses formed the Langas I Ateiti alliance. The aim was to provide training, establish public Internet access points and stimulate growth in e-services - 50,400 adults completed courses over the two years.
Lithuania was the only country which enjoyed a double victory at the RegioStars Oscar-style posh ceremony in the Brussels Square Meeting Center. On the evening of May 20, the Lithuanian Web site www.esparama.lt was announced as the winner in the category “Information and Communication.” As its name implies (“esparama” means “EU assistance” in Lithuanian), this official Web site, under the responsibility of the Lithuanian Finance Ministry, provides information on all EU structural funding to the country by content administrators in 15 government institutions. At the beginning of this year, the portal contained 470 calls for tender and 1,700 projects. An evaluation function, updated daily, enables companies and organizations to follow the progress of any applications they have made. The project also targets a wider audience. The site has links to Facebook and YouTube, contains competitions, pictures and videos, surveys different target groups and offers the opportunity for feedback. The project’s funding was 131,590 euros, of which 111,852 euros came from EU funds.
The winners in four other categories - Innovative use of ‘brownfield’ (former mining areas) sites in an urban context, Integration of migrants or marginalized groups in urban areas, Broadband coverage in less developed regions or rural areas, ICT applications by or for SMEs came respectively from Belgium, Sweden, France, and Germany.
There were four jury-elected nominees from Lithuania (if also counting one joint project of Lithuania and Poland) to win the RegioStars 2010 awards - more than from any other EU country. There were no nominees from Estonia and Latvia, though all 27 countries presented their applications. “Lithuanians are very smart in promoting their projects,” Magnusson commented.