Interview : Danuta Hübner, member of the European Commission responsible for regional policy

After her speech of the 10th of November 2006, which closed the General Assembly of European regions, Danuta Hübner, responsible for regional policy in the Barroso European Commission, answered my questions at the Palacio del Pueblo espanol.

Nicolas Schirrer : It seems that regions are worried about their culture. In the “Culture Discussion table”, somebody suggested : “we need to spend more money to protect our cultural heritage, but we don’t have that money. So, shouldn’t we try, at a European level, to reorganize the way we spend money for culture ?” What do you think of that ?

Danuta hübner : Well of course culture is not only about money. I believe that not only to protect our culture but also to use the opportunity that culture gives to people to cooperate in Europe we certainly need first of all the involvement of people. Having said that I want to add that there are European funds which can be used to protect diversity, to protect the heritage and bring people together within the frame of cultural cooperation. We have structural funds, both in the current period and next year, to invest in the conservation of our cultural heritage across Europe. We have been investing a lot with these structural funds and its enough to go to Italy or practically to any other member States, in smaller cities even, to see how much money we have spent on culture in renovating buildings, in museums or cultural infrastructures. I would say that we have invested a lot with the European cultural policy over the last decade. So, basically, I don’t think we need a new approach for financing the way we preserve our cultural heritage. Having said that, about the conservation, I want to add something else. We create culture every day and there is also a lot of investment in the creation of cultural diversity. We more and more appreciate the importance of culture in European integration and, for example, many of the new member States when they joined the Union feared their cultural identity would be in danger. After some time, when they came to us, it turned out they went through the same experience as the UE15 : their cultural identity is gaining on importance and strengthened by being together, within the European framework. EU creates, I think, a strong engine for cultural development and we are more and more aware of this in Europe.

N.S.: Throughout the Discussion Tables, a redcurrant demand of the regions was for more powers and some regional actors suggested it should be written into the Constitutional Treaty. What is you opinion on that ?
D.H.: In the current treaty, the Nice Treaty, we have “social and economic cohesion”, something that has existed for years… But for the first time, in the draft Constitutional Treaty, we introduced the “territorial cohesion”, the elements of territorial structures in the Union (cities, islands, low populated areas) and I hope that one day we will have this territorial cohesion the Constitution of Europe. The commitment of the European Union to support territorial cohesion, to support Regions, to help them, is here. But then you have the national competence on deciding how big is the political role of the Regions and local administration, in the given State. In the European democracy we have a big potential : we have member States where regions have competences restricted and limited, some other federal or even unitary States are very decentralized so we have to deal with this diversity. Regions are very different, they organize differently and they have different powers. We have for example regions with legislative powers in Europe but we also have member States that are so small that they have no regional structure at all. But that is the beauty of Europe, that diversity and what is important is what Regional Policy proposes : the decision that are important for people must be taken in partnership with local communities, with regions if they exists. I think that the frustration that we have in Europe comes from the fact that people feel they are not participating in the decision making. This could come through this partnership that Regional Policy proposes where between all the levels of participation you have crossed links, between all those who are involved in the development of the regions. But at the end of the day, it depends on the people and how seriously they are ready to take this partnership principle, to participate in this process that can change their life…

N.S.: “There is no sustainable cohesion without competitiveness”, that was the last sentence of your speech. It does sound like the defy of the future for regions. In this future, what would be the role of the Assembly of European Regions ?
D.H.: I am convinced that the European Union has to help those who, due to the low level of development, cannot enjoy the benefits of integration. That is why the help called “dynamizing the catching up process of the regions” is extremely important and in the past, to support and dynamize the Regions we invested in material infrastructure, to attract investors and be more and more competitive. And today the world has changed, this cohesion and catching up can only become a reality if we invest in competitiveness and innovation : these are the factors that today produce growth. There is no contradiction between cohesion and competitiveness and to achieve cohesion we have to invest today not only in growth but also in what makes Regions more competitive. Now, what remains an opportunity that we have in Europe is the value added of working together, of sharing and learning from others, presenting success stories to show others how you can make it. And I think within the European regional policy the cooperation between regions is a value added that cannot be replaced. Institutions like the AER, in which most of the European regions are represented but also regions from neighbour countries, can help us to make this cooperation between regions work. I think that is why the AER has been doing well, over the years, it has been expanding and it reveals that more and more regions are willing to work together. I hope that we can use this unused potential that regions have and the AER is an excellent platform to facilitate this process. We need institutions like the AER very much to develop the whole policy of development of the regions.

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