Bringing the EU closer to its citizens

  • 2010-10-13
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

DISCUSSING COHESION: Johannes Hahn, EU commissioner for regional policy, at the round table discussion with journalists in the Committee of Regions on Oct. 4. Photo by European Union 2010

BRUSSELS - On Oct. 4-7, the eighth Open Days – European Week of Regions and Cities was held in Brussels. This annual event is organized by the Committee of the Regions (CoR), which is the EU’s assembly of regional and local representatives, and the European Commission’s Regional Policy Directorate-General (DG REGIO). Last week some 300 journalists and over 6,000 regional and local representatives from all over the EU and beyond its borders as well as university academics, organizations such as Transparency International, banks (the World Bank, the European Investment Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the European Association of Public Banks), and representatives of companies such as Motorola, General Electric, Philips, and IBM attended this biggest EU annual event on regional and urban development.

The hotels of Brussels were so full that the occasional spontaneous visitor to Brussels was forced to pay four times more for a room than usual. The main issue for discussion at 130 seminars and workshops in Brussels was the future EU budget on cohesion policy helping the less developed EU regions in light of implementation of the Europe 2020 Strategy. The latter strategy, produced by the EU earlier this year, replaces the Lisbon Agenda, adopted in 2000, which largely failed to turn the EU into “the world’s most dynamic knowledge-based economy by 2010,” while the U.S. was not left behind by the EU as was planned in that agenda. “Europe 2020” accents innovation, green growth and proposes tighter monitoring of national authorities’ activity which would enable the EU to come out of the worst economic crisis in decades.

“We are here to discuss the future of Europe,” Danuta Hubner, former commissioner for regional policy and current chairperson of the European Parliament’s Committee on Regional Development, said at the special session of Oct. 4 in the European Parliament, where many mayors and members of municipality councils from the Baltics were sitting as well.

Earlier on the same day, Johannes Hahn, EU commissioner for regional policy, and Mercedes Bresso, president of the CoR, met the EU media, including The Baltic Times, for a round table discussion with journalists in the headquarters of the CoR. “We are trying to get in contact with citizens,” Hahn stated explaining the idea of the Open Days, which is a rare opportunity for regional leaders and media to get to know the machinery of EU decision-making institutions as well as an opportunity to make contacts and to participate in the EU-wide forum of brainstorming regarding the EU’s future. Bresso pointed out that the EU structural funds are the best operational tool Europe has to implement its cohesion policies, helping the EU’s least prosperous regions catch up with those that are more developed. Some 25 percent of the cohesion money goes to innovation and ICT.

Indeed, the post-2013 cohesion policy was one of the main issues for discussion during the Open Days. The current EU cohesion policy of 2007-2013 is worth 347 billion euros and more than half of it goes to the post-communist newer EU members. The Netherlands, the UK, Denmark, and Sweden are against the post-2013 cohesion policy carrying on as it does now. They are calling for a cohesion policy focused mainly on the new post-communist EU members. Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Finland, Luxembourg, Belgium, and France want the cohesion measures to apply to the whole of the EU. Germany, the biggest contributor to the EU structural funds, tends to support the latter group. Knowing the influence of France and Germany on EU decision-making, the outcome of this discussion is rather predictable.

During the round table discussion in the CoR headquarters, Hahn was asked by a rather angry Swedish journalist why the rich EU member states cannot solve their regional problems without  EU money, which would be more suitable for the Baltic States and other poorer new EU members. Hahn defended the application of the cohesion policy for entire of EU, stating that the EU regions are at the frontline to get the EU’s economy back on track, and the recovery of the crisis-touched regions in Western Europe should be beneficial for the entire EU economy.

On Oct. 5, Johan Magnusson, a Swede himself who is responsible for the Lithuania-related cohesion policy in the DG REGIO, talked to The Baltic Times in his office in the DG REGIO headquarters and defended Hahn’s position by giving other arguments. “There are pockets of poverty in the UK, Sweden, the Netherlands and all over Europe. People should feel that they get help from the EU and should be happy with the EU,” Magnusson said.

He pointed out that, although there is some criticism from Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite and Lithuanian media regarding the insufficient usage of EU funds by Lithuania, Lithuania’s general picture from Brussels looks bright and shiny. Lithuania has been allocated a total of 5.7 billion euros for the 2007-2013 period from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the Cohesion Fund. To date, the Commission has paid 1.7 billion euros of this amount to Lithuania. Compared to other EU member states, this is a high level and currently puts Lithuania in second place in the EU – Estonia is No. 1 for the ERDF and Spain is No. 1 for the Cohesion Fund. At the national level in Lithuania, the Managing Authority, which is located at the Lithuanian Finance Ministry, has signed contracts for a value of 4.4 billion euros and more than 1.3 billion euros has been paid to projects. “Compared with other EU states, Lithuania is doing well in terms of spending the money,” Magnusson said.

During the Open Days, the implementation of the EU’s Baltic Sea Strategy was widely discussed in Brussels. The Baltic Sea Strategy was adopted by the EU last year. So far, this EU region, including Sweden, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, is the only region of Europe having such a special EU-developed macro-regional strategy. Now, the Danube Strategy is expected to follow by the end of 2010 and future strategies for Mediterranean, Black Sea and Atlantic Arc regions are being discussed as well.

The Baltic Sea Strategy deals with the environment of the Baltic Sea, trade, business co-operation, an energy market interconnection plan, and transport links (such as the high-speed Rail Baltica aiming to connect Warsaw to Tallinn, though it may be that only the Kaunas-Warsaw railway link will be implemented by 2013 if the project goes at its current pace). “The water quality in the Baltic Sea is important for all states of the region. If some of those states would spill sewage into a river, we’ll not achieve the result,” Hahn said, explaining the importance of this macro-regional project during the round table discussion of Oct. 4. The strategy is about cooperation and better coordination, not allocation of some additional EU funding. Eighty flagship projects were selected for the strategy. Magnusson pointed out the successful project named BSR Stars (BSR means “Baltic Sea Region”), which is implemented jointly by the Lithuanian Economy Ministry and the Swedish government agency Vinnova, to promote creation of innovation milieus, clusters and networks of SME in countries surrounding the Baltic Sea.

On the eve of Open Days, the Baltic Sea Strategy was mentioned in many English-language Brussels-based media. Hubner, in her interview to the magazine Europolitics, gave some criticism towards the Baltic countries. “In this region there is no tradition of cooperation as we see, for example, in Western Europe between the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium. For the Baltic countries, which recently joined the EU, cooperation is still something quite new,” she said.

“You can’t compare apples with potatoes,” Magnusson said, commenting on her opinion and adding that historical and political context was very different in those two regions. He also pointed to the language factor. “Hubner forgets the language component,” Magnusson told The Baltic Times. He pointed to the fact that the Dutch-speakers of the Netherlands and Belgium speak the same language and they can easily communicate with the Germans. Magnusson also pointed to Scandinavia. “Swedes, Norwegians and Danes speak almost the same language while people in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland usually do not speak each other’s language,” he said.

At least journalists from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland were easily communicating among themselves in English during the Open Days in Brussels. Let’s hope that in some near future, the English-language skills will be so common among local authorities and businessmen in those countries.