EU Strategy for the Danube Region:
A joint regional policy for the Danube area
On Monday, 17 January 2011, when the Hungarian Council Presidency met representatives of Churches and religious communities, one topic stood out on the agenda: the future EU ‘Danube basin Strategy’, which will be officially launched in Budapest in the spring.
Following extensive consultations, in which Christian Churches also participated by issuing a statement drafted by COMECE, CPCE (the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe) and CEC (The Conference of European Churches), the European Commission published on 8 December 2010 its Communication on the ‘EU Strategy for the Danube Region’, accompanied by an action plan.
The significance of the Danube region cannot be overstated. It is home to 100 million people and takes up approximately one-fifth of the surface of the European Union. This is an area which spans both some of the richest stretches of the EU (Bavaria and Baden–Württemberg) as well as some of its poorest corners. The Danube region plays a key role in matters of transport (the Danube as an environmentally friendly transport route) and energy security (important oil and gas pipelines link development areas in Russia and Central Asia with consumers in Western Europe). This is an area which boasts a rich level of biodiversity, but at the same time is under threat from the effects of its dilapidated industry. This is a region which is a treasure trove of natural and cultural delights and time-honoured educational establishments, but which longs for the rest of Europe to pay greater attention to it. The action plan encapsulates the goals underpinning each of the activities under four key ideas: establishing priorities, the lasting impact of the projects on the area’s macroeconomic development, taking a realistic approach when it comes to implementing the projects, and coherence.
Interestingly, since the Commission also stresses three ‘principles’ of the Strategy: no new EU subsidies, no new structures, no new EU legal provisions. Most citizens and institutions can live with the last two points, but without new subsidies, it is hard to imagine how new projects will get off the ground. Given that EU grants for regional policy have nearly all been snapped up until 2013, it is going to be an uphill struggle to get any new activities off the ground: are there any volunteers who would readily give back money which had already been handed out, or who would be prepared to share some of it with others?
On the Communication and on the action plan, the Churches have two desiderata. True, the countries and ethnic groups of the Danube region can point to a lengthy shared history and culture. However, this history has, until recent times, been characterised by mutual prejudice, tensions and disputes. For this reason, if the Danube Strategy is to be a success, there must be a clear desire for reconciliation. This goal, present at the birth of the European integration process, must not be forgotten: economic cooperation within the EC/EU was but one, albeit important, component in the process. What is indispensable for reconciliation to win the day is the existence of a functioning civil society – something which it is rather hard to detect in vast swathes of the Danube region. This is why the action plan refers to the need to build a civil society, even if it stays curiously vague on this point, apart from the mention of the establishment of a ‘Civil Society Forum’.
For their part, the Churches have used their contribution to the consultation to allude to the significance of both reconciliation and civil society. After all, there is no need to reinvent the wheel: all that the many small, often regional, initiatives need is a little support and the chance to put their heads together with people spearheading other initiatives. Many such initiatives are led by Churches and religious communities and those behind them are more than ready to share their experiences and build on their endeavours.
Through contacts with younger generations, be it during the International Summer School Seggau or else at the ‘Social Seminars’ conducted by Kommende Dortmund, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the Franz-Hitze-Haus in Münster, what becomes apparent is the lengths to which young people are prepared to go to contribute towards a future based on reconciliation in their region and the plethora of complex obstacles they come up against in the process: structural unemployment, inadequate schooling, a political system on its last legs, prejudice, hatred. Helping these often idealistic young adults in their efforts and preventing them from throwing in the towel in frustration and leaving the area altogether must be a top priority for the Danube Strategy.
The Commission has already made it known that publishing a Communication and action plan on the Danube Strategy is just the first step, the bare bones of a project into which we must now breathe life. Looking ahead, it will be a matter for Churches and religious communities to make use of the existing possibilities the Strategy puts forward for concrete projects and initiatives and, on the basis of its experiences, to play an active and creative role in word and deed as it collaborates on this ‘work in progress’.