By Meit Fohlin, President of Region Gotland, Member Region of the CPMR’s Island and Baltic Sea Commissions
The EU is at a crossroads. We have seen a turbulent political environment, with the rise of populist, anti-democratic and euro-sceptic movements, culminating in the Brexit vote in the UK. The European project, which we hold so dear, is being constantly called into question.
Therefore, it is crucially important that the work of the EU is understood by all of its citizens – in a real sense. People must know about the positive impact of EU projects, so they can understand the practical improvement’s EU policies and funding are making to their everyday lives.
This is where we, Europe’s Regions, have a key role to play. Regions are the bridge between the highest reaches of the EU and the everyday people who live there. We have key responsibilities across a wide range of areas, and we are the first to feel the impact of many of the challenges facing Europe. Regions can never be just another stakeholder – we are the drivers of economic development and social progression, and we are the first barrier in the battle against climate change.
But what can we, Europe’s regions, and more specifically its Baltic regions, do to protect the goals and principles of the EU that we hold so dear?
The answer lies in our unity and cooperation. It is here that we find strength. But mobilising this unity is not an easy task.
The Baltic Sea Region consists of countries and regions with quite different economic circumstances and also different political leanings.
Take my own region, the island of Gotland, the smallest region in Sweden. We have to deliver results according to the same directives and goals as the really big regions of Sweden and Europe.
Being a small region and an island, with a small budget, this presents us with some tough challenges, but there are also many more possibilities, both in our own region, and as a collective group of Baltic Sea Regions.
For instance, it’s in our regions that we work for social inclusion at the first level. It’s there that we plan and work with education for better understanding for the need of global contracts.
It’s there, on an everyday basis, that we meet our citizens and form alliances around how support migrants arriving in our countries. It’s there that we value integration and form real and lasting solidarity among people.
It is on the local level the citizens can experience the result from EU projects such as Interreg. It is also on the local level where we are able to form strategies that meet the economic, climate and social development needs of our citizens.
And it’s there that we develop the initiatives required to meet the goals of the UN’s Agenda 2030, and the European and Structural Investment funds are crucial when it comes to make it happen – everywhere.
But the key to ensuring we meet our goals is undoubtedly cooperation: by providing a platform to learn from each other and through joint action that can affect the context in which the countries from the Region operate.
We can, by using our strength, be a strong and important voice that leads the way and sets a good example.
Together, the Baltic regions must stress and highlight the importance of Cohesion policy and the social dimension, and call for a more balanced development of Europe’s territories, including those in the Baltic, for the benefit of all citizens.
We, regions in the Baltic sea, can be an example for collaboration that serves different interests, not just one, and with our well-established structures for regional collaboration we have a platform to act jointly. But do we have the political will to do so?
In Sweden right now we are hearing reports of the potential effects of Brexit on future budgeting, and there is a risk that the policies and funding we need to support citizens in our regions will be threatened. I’m concerned that national governments, not just in Sweden, don’t see the important role of regions in these circumstances.
Therefore, the work of CPMR and its Baltic Sea Commission is of vital importance. We, the regions, need to do our homework and ensure our voice is heard at EU level in Brussels.
The basis of successful cooperation in the Baltic Sea Region is mutual understanding of cultural differences, sensitivity for each other’s interests and trust. Citizens need Regional Authorities to voice their interests and perspectives to Member States and EU institutions.
We have a number of priorities for the coming years. These include developing better conditions for strengthening the business areas in the regional smart specialisation strategies through pan-Baltic cooperation, and enhancing opportunities for Baltic regions to increase their knowledge of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
We will also continue to focus on the key issues of Accessibility and Transport, including the revision of both the ’Connecting Europe Facility’ and the TEN-T Corridors; Maritime Affairs, including promotion of Sustainable Blue Growth and Maritime Spatial Planning; and Renewable Energies, in relation to regional Smart Specialisation Strategies.
Additionally, central to our acitivies will be our continued calls for a modernised post-2020 Cohesion policy that will overcome regional disparities, boost jobs and growth, and be at the heart of the EU’s strategy for a reformed Europe.
By showing the impact the Cohesion policy has had on a regional level and how the funded projects contribute to change for the better we can ensure the future of these funds.
We need a positive vision for a reformed Europe built on: strengthened territorial, social and economic cohesion; reinforced co-operation and partnership; and a Europe based on shared values with solidarity at its core.
Do we let the nationalistic, egotistic views we have seen emerge in some European countries win? Or are we ready to stand up for our principles of social inclusion and democratic participation, which are best addressed at local and regional level?
As politicians, at regional level in the Baltic Sea region and across Europe, we have a huge responsibility that we simply cannot ignore.