I was in Greece between 5 and 7 April, my fifth visit to it in my mandate. Once again, I stated my personal commitment to support a Greek-led growth strategy as well as the development of every Greek region. This was the objective of President Juncker's 2015 plan called "A New Start for jobs and growth in Greece" as it sought to help Greece maximise its use of EU funds.
Rather than follow a conventional chronological order to recap that visit, I think it could be divided in three parts: one consisting of visiting EU funded projects, one bloc made of meetings with Greek politicians and the third angle being the citizens' dialogue.
Projects first! The inauguration of the Tempi Tunnel showed us that when we work closely together, involving national governments, cities, regions and social partners, we make miracles. I would call this project a bold breakthrough, as truly Herculean work was required in the making. The 6km tunnel, the longest in Greece and the Balkans is the last stretch of the Aegean Motorway, connecting Athens to Thessaloniki. It is not beneficial only in terms of road safety, but also it improves connectivity with other neighbouring countries and with the rest of Europe! This project is the living proof of our long-standing support to Greece, as its construction had begun in the 1990's, with the support of EU Funds.
I also visited other Cohesion Policy success stories such as the Agrostis company, the Thessaloniki waterfront, the Ptolemaida waste treatment project and the Vergina Museum. Those projects ranged from cutting-edge technology to waste treatment facilities and tourism via enhanced cultural heritage and were, altogether, projects that raise Greece's international profile, accompany the shift towards a low-carbon economy and greener mobility or promote quality employment.
I firmly believe in the importance of a permanent political dialogue with national parliaments and this is why I met the members of the Greek chamber, to invite them to join the discussion on the future of Europe, on the basis of the Commission White Paper, and on the future of Cohesion Policy which, in my view, are deeply intertwined.
To me, Cohesion Policy is the cement that holds the Union together. It delivers results that citizens can see with their own eyes: better public transport, better access to internet, better schools. I congratulated the members of the Parliament as Greece made full use of its 2007-2013 Cohesion Policy envelope and I stressed that efforts need to be sustained to deliver fast and good results in the 2014-2020 period. We have set a number of goals to reach by the end of the financial period: 33 000 Greek companies and start-ups are expected to get EU funding, for example. If we want to achieve these objectives, all managing authorities need to accelerate the pace of project selection and implementation. Greece is currently in the lead on this point, but I raised a few concerns with the Ministers during my visit about risks in the environmental sector. I will particularly mention the situation of waste water and solid waste treatment infrastructure in the country. This is not a light matter. There is a common understanding that action is needed now. We should turn these risks into opportunities by launching investments fast on the ground and using all available resources, avoiding fines and saving money. In the end there will be significant benefits for the environment and the quality of life of the Greek citizens. Of course the Commission, and myself in particular, will stand by them in this endeavour.
Last but not least, I had a great "citizens' dialogue" in Athens. Wherever I travel in my duties as EU Commissioner I try and engage with the broadest range of local people; and Citizens dialogues are one of the best ways to do so: for over an hour, sometimes two hours, people from various backgrounds have the chance to ask the EU Commission questions, to criticize, praise, suggest. To me there is no better way to convince citizens to join the debate on the future of Europe. The many questions I answered on EU funds showed me how much people care about Cohesion Policy. This motivates me even more to work for a meaningful Cohesion Policy beyond 2020.
In short, this mission to Greece showed me once again the paradox of Cohesion Policy: it rarely grabs big headlines in the media, yet everybody is passionate about it, be it for their schools, their hospitals, their jobs or their Tempi tunnel carved out of rocky mountains!