An EU strategy aimed at improving the quality of life for those living along the Danube is moving forward, despite the crisis in the eurozone.
By Svetla Dimitrova for Southeast European Times in Sofia -- 25/06/12
For the period 2007-2013, cohesion funding from the EU will make about 100 billion euros available to the Danube Region. [Reuters]
The financial crisis in the eurozone has deepened since EU ministers endorsed the European Commission's (EC) proposal for a strategy for the Danube region more than a year ago.
The strategy, endorsed in April 2011, is aimed at boosting economic development and improving environmental conditions in 14 countries, including EU members Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia -- as well as non-EU countries Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Croatia, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia and Ukraine.
While the ongoing crisis in the eurozone has not directly affected the process, according to EC officials, it has highlighted the importance of certain key elements, especially those concerning the competitiveness of enterprises, the labour market and innovation.
One of the four main pillars of the strategy focuses on improving mobility, encouraging sustainable energy and promoting culture and tourism.
The other three aim to protect the environment, build prosperity and strengthen the region.
The strategy was accompanied by an action plan, defining 11 specific priority areas.
Since it was endorsed, targets have been defined in each area and a host of concrete projects have been identified or are being considered.
Miodrag Poledica, the head of department at Serbia's Ministry of Infrastructure and Energy, told SETimes that targets in his area focus on improving rail, road and air mobility and intermodality.
They include developing multimodal terminals at Danube river ports and dry ports to connect inland waterways with rail and road transport by 2020, and improving travel times for competitive railway passenger connections between major cities.
In addition, four rail freight corridors crossing the Danube region are to be in place within the next five years. A new one linking the EU and non-EU member states' railway systems may be included. Progress has also been made on inland waterways, including a pilot project for innovative ship design, and roadmaps on the navigability of rivers, including the Sava.
Dragica Karaic, head of the department at the ministry of economy, labour and entrepreneurship of Croatia, is a co-ordinator of a priority area to support the competitiveness of enterprises.
In February, the Danube iced over then flooded parts of Belgrade when it thawed. [Reuters]
The South East European Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning initiative is a flagship project, "which is very broadly set up to boost competitiveness … and economic development" of the region, she told SETimes.
An instrument for including entrepreneurship as a cross-curriculum topic has been developed under the initiative. It is now being strategically piloted in 32 schools and 16 faculties in the eight countries -- Albania, BiH, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey. There has also been concrete action in the fields of technological transfer and vocational training.
Another focus is environmental risks that present a key challenge to the Danube region, with floods representing "the most expensive" among them, according to Kristalina Georgieva, the EU commissioner for international co-operation, humanitarian aid and crisis response.
"Natural disasters have cost Europe 150 billion euros in the past ten years," she told SETimes last month. "Floods accounted for 52% of the damage caused by natural disasters" during that period.
The Danube Floodrisk is a specific project in this area. Peter Bakonyi of Hungary's Environmental Protection and Water Management Research Institute, is a co-ordinator of the priority area program focusing on environmental risks management. Noting that the project "is already financed, running and approaching a successful end," Bakonyi told SETimes that other environmental risks are drought and water scarcity.
Bulgaria, which, with Germany, co-ordinates work on the priority area of tackling security and organised crime, hosted a forum in April on border management and securing travel documents in the Danube region.
In May, Bulgaria followed up by announcing the launch of a new project, aimed at strengthening cross-border co-operation to prevent and fight corruption in the Danube region and the Western Balkans. The initiative focuses on conflicts of interest, forfeiture of assets from criminal activities and cutting links between organised crime and corruption.
Bulgaria and Romania meanwhile are jointly responsible for implementing programs dealing with promoting culture, tourism and people-to-people contacts. Earlier this year, the two neighbours, along with Croatia and Serbia, signed a memorandum to implement the project "In the Footsteps of Roman Emperors," aimed at attracting tourists to the four countries. A separate target is to develop a Danube brand for the entire area.
Work on the Danube project will help EU hopefuls prepare for future membership in the bloc. Poledica said that Serbia's participation "confirms its strategic commitment" to membership and added, "active [participation in the program] … can support the moving of Serbia to EU integration."