"Far from the eyes, far from the heart" has been an accepted truth for centuries. This week proved it wrong, especially in the case of those European regions that are thousands of kilometres away from the European continent.
In my case, it was virtually a whole week dedicated to the outermost regions (the Azores, the Canary islands, Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Madeira, Martinique, Mayotte, La Réunion and Saint-Martin) ,starting with the adoption of the European Commission's new strategy for those regions, in Strasbourg, on 24 October.
With that strategy, the European Commission delivered on a promise to those regions to set up a specific, personalised plan to help them turn their specific features into assets. And I believe this is precisely what we did.
For the first time the Commission is setting up a partnership with the relevant Member States (France, Spain and Portugal) to help the outermost regions turn their specific features into assets and opportunities. A new ad hoc platform will be set up to involve all relevant stakeholders - the regions themselves, their Member States, the EU institutions, and others - in preparing key EU legislative proposals. This to make sure that any legislative proposal that concerns each outermost region reflects the needs and concerns of those concerned in the first place.
The strategy focusses on those topics that matter most for the outermost regions: in future, the Commission will better take into account the potential impact on these regions when negotiating trade agreements that include products such as bananas, sugar or wine for instance; the so-called POSEI programme, the "programmes of options specifically relating to remoteness and insularity" should continue, and the Commission will re-assess the relevance of state aids to support the renewal of artisanal fishing fleets. By the same token, a new initiative in partnership with the European Investment Bank has been created to help outermost regions have easier access to EFSI funding for specific projects.
It is thus, pleased with the brand new strategy, that I left Strasbourg to join the President of France Emmanuel Macron, and the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, in French Guiana, for the annual conference of the presidents of the outermost regions.
I consider that President Juncker's and my presence in Cayenne, in itself, amounted to sending a strong signal to those regions: "Yes, the EU cares! Not only have we just adopted a new strategy to support those regions furthest away from the continent, but we are here among you, in French Guiana, to meet you, to listen to you".
And listening we did. For three days, I spoke to representatives of the outermost regions and I listened to their concerns. Such exchanges are crucial, whether as bilateral meetings or at official events such as the evening of 26 October where Presidents Macron and Juncker, the presidents of those regions and myself could discuss fisheries, natural disasters, unemployment and all issues or challenges that those regions face.
As for all my trips, I was also keen to see for myself how EU funds are used on the ground. One of the highlights of my stay was the signing of the "Toucan" project in the presence of Jean-Claude Juncker. That project foresees the construction of a home for elderly people as well as a hotel. Not only has this project a dual nature (social as it cares for elderly people, and economic as the hotel will boost jobs and growth in that region), but it makes the most of one of French Guiana's assets: its fauna and flora, as it encourages visitors to discover its natural beauties whilst promoting sustainable tourism.
Other visits such as the opening of the "house of forest and wood" and the visit of a seafood processing factory in Cayenne, both with President Juncker, enabled me to see, once again, how EU funds really make a difference on the ground, how cohesion policy funds genuinely improve people's alive across the whole of the European Union.
On the long flight back home, I could not help feeling that we managed to put on the chessboard all the right pieces on the right squares. In other words, the strategy is set, the means to implement are there, now the work starts. In about one year's time, the 2018 conference of the presidents of the outermost regions will take place, under the presidency of the Canary Islands. My ambition is that by then we will record tangible, albeit possibly partial, results to make the almost 5 million inhabitants of those regions feel that they are not alone, and that their future looks bright.