Opening speech at the Conference “What EU funds bring us for the next years – and how we will use the upcoming Czech EU Presidency”

(Source: European Commission)

“Check against delivery”

Deputy Prime Minister Bartoš,

Dear colleagues,

We live in uncertain times where one crisis follows another. Crises cause a lot of havoc and hardship, but they also force us to react, rethink and do things differently. The way we respond to these crises is what defines us as individuals, as societies and as polities.

Czechia was hard hit by Covid, especially by the second wave. And before you had a chance to properly recover, you find yourself near the epicentre of the earthquake of the Ukraine crisis, which has rattled windows across Europe.

Europe has already welcomed around 6 million Ukrainian refuges with more than 350 000 having come to Czechia. This generous response of people opening their houses and their hearts to welcome those fleeing the war is a ray of light in these times of darkness. I am proud as European and I am grateful to all of you for this reaction. But the earthquake is not yet over and the aftershocks will continue for some time, bringing higher fuel prices and higher food prices.

In these unstable times it is more important than ever to have a strong architecture and to build on a solid foundation.

In Europe our keystone, our solid foundation is solidarity and no other policy expresses it better than Cohesion.

During the crises, Cohesion policy has been sufficiently flexible to become the first responder. The firefighter of Covid, with the CRII and REACT-EU initiatives, financing emergency measures to purchase medical equipment, and provide support to keep businesses afloat. And now we are again using Cohesion Policy as the firefighter in the refugee crisis, with the CARE initiative to support those who welcome refugees. We have frontloaded 283 million euros to help Czechia deal with the inflow of refugees.

But let us not forget that despite all these emergency measures, the strength of Cohesion policy is long term transformation, future-proof investments, driven at the local level. I know of no better foundation for a solid future.

Czechia is a telling example of the success of Cohesion policy. It is estimated that Czechia has benefitted from a 3.7pps. boost to GDP levels due to structural support from the present programming period. It has not only converged quickly with the rest of the Union, as it is now one of its more vibrant economies.

But there are still important challenges for a balanced and sustainable growth. We look with admiration to Prague, which is already one of the EU’s richest regions, with a GDP of around 200% of the EU average – this is remarkable! At the same time, Severozápad in the Northwest stands at just 63% of EU average. Regional disparities are a drag on the economy and a risk to the internal cohesion of our countries and of our Union. We need to act decisively to promote a balanced and multipolar growth.

And we lay the foundation stone today for such inclusive growth with the Partnership Agreement.

This document is our common vision, a contract between Czechia and Europe, a commitment for the future we want to create, together. That future is based on our common European values, but also on a solid strategy of investment support of this coherent strategy of over 21 billion euros, available under Cohesion policy for 2021-2027.

This is a strong strategy, with many relevant points, but I will highlight 3.

First, the Partnership Agreement lays the foundation for a more modern, digital Czechia.

The 8th Cohesion report, a detailed analysis of the situation and trends in Europe’s regions. It noted gaps in the quality of broadband coverage.

In Czechia, less than 10% of the population has access to internet of over 100 Megabytes per second. Even in cities, coverage is often poor.

This fact is just 1 symptom of a much broader need. We have a lot of work to do together to get Czechia ready for the future digital economy.

In the last programmes, Cohesion Policy invested in the Citizen Portal project. Digitalising public services, so that citizens could access them online, and through mobile apps.

In the new programmes, cohesion policy will extend high quality broadband, and contribute to the digitalisation of business.

Second, the Partnership Agreement lays the foundation for a greener Czechia.

As you know, Czechia’s economy is energy intensive. Change is becoming urgent: for the climate and the planet, and now for our geopolitical security.

So the new programmes will invest in the production of renewable energy, in the renovation of public buildings, to reduce consumption, and in clean and green urban public transport, accessible, affordable and attractive to all.

They will also invest in other measures to protect the environment. Nearly half of Czech municipal waste, 49%, ends in a landfill – this is not compatible with Czechia’s level of development – while the EU average is less than a quarter, at 23% – which is not acceptable either. So we will strengthen recycling and work to restore natural ecosystems.

Third, the Partnership Agreement lays the basis of a greener, digital future for all, with no one left behind.

The Just Transition Fund will support restructuring in coal mining and carbon-dependent regions, creating new skills and new jobs. Czechia is the fourth most important beneficiary of this Fund. Its performance and impact, so how Czechia uses it, and what it brings to the local populations in terms of just transition will be critical for our joint success.

Cohesion policy will also invest in skills for all, as well as social services and access to health services in underserved areas.

I am particularly pleased to see 1.1 billion euros invested in sustainable urban development. And to see communities taking the lead in the development of their own area, through 180 local action groups, covering 92% of the Czech territory.

These measures, digital, green and an economy that works for all, lay a solid foundation for a successful future.

So now is the time to build on this foundation. Now is the time to finalise programmes. Now is the time to get the project pipeline up and running. Czechia was an early frontrunner. Let’s continue in this vein.

We will need to build administrative capacity. The Northwest region in particular, is falling behind other Czech regions, because of a lack of capacity in managing and delivering cohesion policy.

The recent adoption of the technical assistance programme is a golden opportunity to build this capacity. Not just for the Northwest region, but for all municipalities, cities and regions. So that investments are well targeted and programmes and projects are not delayed.

But we must also build partnership. Cohesion is not just an investment instrument, but a policy anchored in the partnership principle.

Czechia has been an example of best practice here, with broad public consultations in the preparation of the Partnership Agreement. The Partnership Agreement was designed by all, it must now be implemented and monitored by all. It is our collective responsibility to make it work.

So, in the days and months ahead, transparent communication will be essential to maintain this partnership.

I urge you, to reach out to all groups, especially those who are sometimes missing at the table: people with disabilities, marginalised groups, minorities, such as the Roma, and young people.

I will close by saying, that it is especially important for Czechia to be an example of best practice, in view of your upcoming Presidency of the European Council.

Deputy Prime Minister Ivan Bartos told us of his plans to launch a reflection on the future of Cohesion Policy, post-2027. And I reply that you have my strong support.

We count on you to start this journey, showcasing cohesion policy as a modern and flexible policy, bringing added value to the EU.

This Partnership Agreement, with its emphasis on the future economy, and a solid link to the local level, is an excellent example, of this modern and flexible policy with impacts on the ground.

This is the future we want to create. Europe and Czechia, working together. For a green and digital future, which respects our European value of solidarity.

And this is the future for which we must now work: in the programmes, in the projects, and in your presidency.

The times may be unstable, but our partnership is solid and our determination is strong.


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