Europe flows west to east

20 years after the Iron Curtain came down, Europe still has its sights set more on the East than on the South. The EU regards the Baltic, the Danube and even the Black Sea as priority macroregions, sidelining the Mediterranean, which is sundered by huge social and economic imbalances between its two shores.

Published on 23 October 2009 at 15:09
 | They now call this a macroregion. A bend in the Danube, near Ritopek, Serbia. Lošmi

This week in Brussels, European regional policy commissioner Pavel Samecki could not have said it more clearly: “We need to develop cooperation with our neighbours because it is vital to growth and stability, and our most important neighbour is Russia.” Two figures should suffice to account for this assertion: 40% of the EU’s energy comes from Russia, and 51% of Russian imports come from the EU.

Faced with the challenges of globalisation, for years the EU has been keen on developing competitive regions, and now there are two that stand out from the rest: the Baltic and the Danube, each of which has its own strategy, while both have their sights set on Russia. These are macroregions: a new concept which is presumably better suited to coping with the challenges of the future – and which takes up the shape of 15th-century Europe, before the state sovereignty-based order of the modern world set in. “Regions have a very interesting duality,” explains Daniel Tarschys, ex-secretary general of the Council of Europe: “they are smaller than a state, but they can also be bigger than a state.”

According to Danuta Hübner, ex-European commissioner of regional policy, “there is no stopping” the process of regional concentration. “It can be organised, that’s all,” she explains. “Regional cooperation is bound to keep growing and gaining in complexity. So a new territory is taking shape which, contrary to what we might expect, won’t fragment the EU, but make it more cohesive.”

Less cooperation between north and south

Energy and trade are the driving forces behind the new macroregions. The Baltic is a case in point. Having gained considerable recognition during Sweden’s EU presidency, which is now drawing to a close, the Baltic countries are forging close ties to the Russian region of Murmansk. Their object is to exploit the trade routes across the Barents Sea, which is becoming increasingly ice-free with each passing year thanks to global warming.

“Economic cooperation,” argues Kari Aalto, president of the Barents Regional Council, “is far more important between the east and west of Europe than between the north and south, both for historical reasons and owing to mutual interests.” Evgeni Nikora, president of the Murmansk regional parliament, is positive that the future of his port city lies in forming the link between the Baltic and the North Pacific. “We aim to improve the railway network to the Baltic to supply the port of Murmansk,” he announces, stressing that the ice no longer hinders navigation: “If there are any ice fields, all that does is up the cost of shipping.” For the time being, the only existing shipping lines there carry containers between Murmansk and Norway, but it is merely a matter of time before oil tankers take to these waters as well. So this will be a new gateway to Europe for Siberian hydrocarbons.

Powerful pressure groups

Caucasus oil is likewise one of the main selling points for the Black Sea. This macroregion has been burgeoning for at least a few years now with the backing of other Central European lobbies, which, bolstered by Germany, are outleveraging their Mediterranean counterparts.

The main argument for the Danube macroregion – which Baden-Württemberg has taken under its wing – is mercantile, as well as being historical and cultural. Europe’s foremost inland waterway will be even more important in future. “It is vital to us,” admits Gabor Demszky, mayor of Budapest. “It is a natural zone that would have been set up even if the EU didn’t exist. Don’t forget: the EU forced Hungary to split up into artificial regions so it could apply for economic aid.”

Union for the Meditteranean, an empty shell

The Mediterranean is a natural, historical and cultural area too, but its contours have been blurred by the tremendous differences of all sorts between its two shores and by the pre-eminence of national energy interests. “Cooperation has not borne any fruit to date,” admits a French diplomat who prefers to remain nameless because he is not authorised to speak on the subject, “and the Union for the Mediterranean that Sarkozy initiated a couple years back is still nothing but a political showcase.”

The Spanish presidency of the EU, beginning next January, is going to give this union a boost, but there are no concrete efforts in the offing to organise a macroregion around the so-called Latin Mediterranean Arc from Sicily to the Alboran Sea. To fill the leadership void, Catalonia is making moves in Brussels, through its representative Anna Terrón, to unite the Pyrenees-Mediterranean and Alps-Mediterranean Euro-regions. The resulting arc from Genoa to Tarragona would include the Balearic Islands as well as key cities like Barcelona, Lyon, Marseille, Turin and Milan. So the historical and cultural ties running through this emerging zone will be reinforced by the mercantile goal of becoming the great southern gateway to Europe.

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