Dimitris Dimitriadis: Macro-regions should be labs for innovation

Individual countries, regions and municipalities cannot solve alone all new societal and economic challenges

Photo: EESC Dimitris Dimitriadis

Macro-regional strategies can make not only the towns and cities to prosper, but the remote area as well. The roles of stakeholders and the implementation rules have to be clearly laid down, and the communication on macro-regional strategies has to be brought up to date, Dimitris Dimitriadis, member of the EESC Employers' Group, says in an interview to Europost.

Mr Dimitriadis, recently the EESC adopted the opinion on better economic convergence within macro-regions, authored by you. What will the setup of a vibrant collaboration system, across borders and sectors, bring?

First of all, I'd like to highlight that the macro-regions are a very important initiative of the European Union. There are four different macro-regional strategies - for the Baltic Sea Region, the Adriatic and Ionian, the Danube Region, and the newest - for the Alpine Region. The idea for the macro-regional strategies dates back a decade. It gives the opportunity to the society, to the local authorities, governing bodies, and especially to the private sector, to work together at the regional level and to prepare some fresh ideas as EU programmes. The most successful, according to the results achieved so far, is the macro-regional strategy for the Baltic Sea. The other three are encountering a lot of problems due to the obstacles in the connectivity between the Member States and the local authorities, public administrations, and basically because the different stakeholders very often do not share the same philosophy. For example, the Adriatic and Ionian is a very important macro-regional strategy, but we have within the region countries with totally different mentality and philosophy - like Italy, like Albania, like Greece, like Croatia. Nevertheless, in any case, the macro-regional strategies give local people chances to work from bottom-up on strengthening the European cohesion, on boosting local productivity and they certainly open new ways to local societies across borders to work together.

Concretely, what does the performance of the current four strategies show, and what are the biggest challenges they are facing?

The biggest challenges are to find the best practices between the four macro-regional strategies and to implement them in different places. For instance, if we have best practices in the Baltic Region, we can transfer this kind of experience and knowledge to the other macro-regions. The European Commission has spent a lot of efforts to support and to connect the stakeholders in the regions, and now we need better results. According to me, now we don't yet have the outcome that we initially expected. It will be necessary, in the next three-four years, to work with more ambition, harder and faster. Individual countries, regions and municipalities cannot solve alone all new societal and economic challenges, and in this respect interregional and international cooperation is a good solution. Macro-regional strategies are a kind of laboratories to develop joint solutions to these issues with a bottom-up approach and should also be laboratories for innovation.

How can macro-regional strategies serve as a strategic framework for cohesion and sustainability policy, as you suggested?

This initiative is coming from the bottom-up, from the social partners, from the civil society organisations, from the private sector, and around the table these different kinds of partners give the opportunity to work closer at the local level and thus to get better results on the ground - in the towns, villages and the whole regions, of course if these stakeholders work very closely and very effectively. It is really a great chance because the stakeholders can prepare a programme and because the European Union can allocate money for these kinds of programmes, and to work locally on some important initiatives for the common good. Macro-regional strategies can make not only the towns and cities to prosper, but the remote area as well. The roles of stakeholders and the implementation rules have to be clearly laid down, and the communication on macro-regional strategies has to be brought up to date. I'd like to highlight that we must help the public to use existing data and information and establish communication strategies to enhance the visibility of macro-regional strategies and foster networking and participation.

What needs to be done to improve the impact of macro-regional strategies when it comes to reduction of social and regional inequalities?

The inequalities between different partners and different approaches is the most serious stumbling stone in the moment. I will explain this again with an example from the Adriatic and Ionian Region, as there the problems are harsher. If we have around the negotiating table an Italian mayor, partners from the private sector, an Albanian governor or major, as well as such from Serbia and Croatia, with the aim to plan European projects, it is extremely difficult to have a common ground. They have completely different experiences, procedures and methodologies about the processes. And this is a big problem for the macro-regions. To improve this, the European Commission especially could be involved - it doesn't have this role but can act like a coordinator to support the good ideas with its experience and help transfer the best practices from one region to another. According to the decisions of the European Council, the macro-regional strategies must work independently from the EU institutions, but it is impossible because only the Commission can play as key actor and liaison between the stakeholders. Transport, migration, education, the labour market and sustainable energy supply, as well as addressing climate change, are the potential areas of cooperation between regions.

What are the main recommendations you make to improve the work, and what will be the role of involvement of civil society organisations in this respect?

The civil society organisations play a fundamental role because they have important experience as they are representing the citizens, and they have at the local level the awareness and can prop up this kind of policies. They actually came from the society, and the society can be more productive in this kind of programmes.

The main recommendation that the EESC makes is to educate the stakeholders better and to give them the indispensable expertise to work jointly. For some regions it is not an easy task. As we see in the Alpine Region, stakeholders have experience, but for key actors in other macro-regions, like the Adriatic and Ionian, it is not the case. That means that the Member States and their stakeholders should transfer their experience to the participants from non-EU countries like Serbia and Albania, among others. We suggested the European Commission to play as a connecting point to all stakeholders, to disseminate more information among the non-EU stakeholders for the European programmes and to support them to prepare logical and concrete proposals for financing. Launching of functioning networking, interconnection and management for existing databases is another important aspect to improve the impact of the strategies, given the current lack of reliable and detailed data to compare both regions and sectors. For curbing social and spatial discrepancies, the EESC sees a solution primarily in improving communication and connectivity between cooperation partners and also closer involvement of civil society organisations in the realisation of the strategies and in their monitoring. Prioritising networking and clustering of social partners, local socio-economic actors and civil society organisations and their involvement in decision-making, planning and evaluating policies, is extremely useful for implementing macro-regional strategies.

What will be the scope of the proposed networks for educational activities?

The networks for educational activities are important for macro-regions as well, for example such between the universities and between educational institutions. They can provide specific EU programmes with added value. Most of the universities have a very competent and well organised staff, and they can make excellent proposals that will gain funding from the EU.

The emphasis should be on the digitalisation of production and initiatives towards effective interregional research and innovation ecosystems, with a focus on basic and applied R&D. They will contribute for sure to a better performance on environmental sustainability.

Does a 'two-speed' Europe have its macro-regional dimension?

Of course there is such a dimension. Countries with big experience, like Italy, they have totally different reaction compared to countries like Croatia, or Greece, or Albania. Experience has a crucial role, and the European programmes are in some aspects very bureaucratic in the details due to transparency reasons. As I mentioned before, for this reason these regions need more experience and knowledge.

Analysing the existing macro-regional strategies, what initiatives impressed you the most?

The programmes differ completely from one region to another because they have very special characteristics. For example the programme for Danube is very different from the one for Adriatic and Ionian. For the Danube the local authorities are working together, among them Austria, Romania, Bulgaria, trying to define projects especially for the river. For the Adriatic and Ionian the local authorities are working on 'blue', which is about fishery, and 'green' economy, which is about the environment. We have these programmes organised very well at the local level. In the opinion, we put the focus on Danube because it was a very important priority for the Romanian Presidency, which actually requested it. What we realised in this macro-region was that there were a lot of problems among the stakeholders. From the beginning, we lost a lot of time to connect the stakeholders, and this is indicative for the links and communication between them. Stakeholders from Austria and Romania have extremely different approach and experience about the European programmes. Although many stakeholders from Romania want to participate, only very few of them have the capacity to work on that. It is important to transfer macro-regional experience from the Baltic Sea Region. There is a good will from different players in the Danube Region to work together, but it is difficult to put together stakeholders from different places. The bureaucracy is very high, and they don't have the tools to work together.

 

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Dimitris Dimitriadis is a member of the European Economic and Social Committee's (EESC) Employers' Group since 1999. He is also a member of the Hellenic Confederation of Commerce and Entrepreneurship (ESEE). Mr Dimitriadis was President of the European and Economic Social Committee from 2006 to 2008 and was First Vice President and President of the General Assembly of the ESEE as well. Before that, from 2004 to 2006, he served as EESC Vice-President in charge of Budget.

He graduated in law at the University of Thessaloniki in 1981. In 1977, before starting his studies, he already set up his own company.

Dimitris Dimitriadis authored the exploratory opinion on “Economic convergence and competitiveness within macro-regions-transnational clusters”, which was at the request of the Romanian Presidency of the Council.

 

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