EU has big ambitions for Danube region, but no extra funding

Based on the model of the "Baltic Sea Strategy," the EU is about to launch a new "macro-regional" policy for the 10 countries along the Danube river, but without committing any fresh money for the scheme.

"I believe that in a few years, this initiative will improve mobility, biodiversity, water quality, flood protection, research and innovation and security," European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso said Monday (8 November) in Bucharest at a summit dedicated to the EU's new "Danube Strategy."

Mr Barroso said that the policy document, which will be presented by the commission in a month's time, will help countries along the river to better co-ordinate the use of existing EU funding, amounting to 95 billion for the period 2007-2013.

"This can also be complemented by grants and loans from the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development," he added.

Yet unlike the "Baltic Sea Strategy," which only applies to EU countries, this document will also include non-EU states in the 3,000 km-long river basin: Serbia, Croatia, Moldova and Ukraine - a move which Mr Barroso labelled as an "opportunity to create closer and more direct links with the EU, to have direct contacts, to co-operate and prepare their future together."

Facilitating naval traffic, cleaning up the highly polluted river and improving regional links through bridges, highways and better train connections are some of the projects likely to be included in the strategy.

For politicians in the crisis-struck region, finding the necessary co-funding and keeping the political commitment alive will be the main challenges for this policy to succeed.

"It is not easy, after a financial and economic crisis, to find the necessary resources for major infrastructure projects," said Romanian President Traian Basescu as he was hosting the Danube event.

The former sea captain saw the development of naval transport as the most important economic dimension of the Danube river, stressing that this area is under-used.

With the Danube forming a natural border between Romania and Bulgaria over a stretch of 470 km, Mr Basescu pointed out that there is one single bridge connecting the two countries, with a second one having been under construction for decades.

"We want to develop tourism, trade and to make life more dynamic on the two river banks. Two more bridges are planned, as well as a new power plant on the Danube," he said.

Both neighbours are so far the biggest laggards when it comes to absorbtion of EU structural funds, the largest chunk of the community budget designed to help poorer regions catch up with the rest of the EU.

Still, the country would like to see EU funds committed directly to the Danube strategy, similar to regions around the Baltic Sea.

"We are being realistic and we know that EU rules cannot change until 2014. But from 2014 on, we'll have to be very active, along with other strategies, such as the one for the Baltic Sea," Romanian environment minister Laszlo Borbely said, as quoted by Evenimentul Zilei newspaper.

In a 2001 documentary, "This is it", Romanian filmmaker Thomas Ciulei portrayed the extreme living conditions of people stuck in the less touristy part of the Danube Delta - a natural reservation home to pelicans and other rare birds. Apart from fishing with broken rods, growing pigs on the barren lands and drinking pure alcohol, there is virtually nothing else to do for the inhabitants of this area.

[Source: By Valentine Pop, Euobserver, Brussels, 08Nov10]

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