This was another "marathon trip", this time in Malta, where we managed to squeeze in meeting many Maltese ministers, visiting several projects funded by cohesion policy and attending a citizens' dialogue. All this in just about 24 hours!
The first part of the visit was essentially political. A mere fortnight before the Commission's proposal for the next financial period, it was important for me to explain to Maltese ministers (namely Helena Dalli in charge of European Affairs, Aaron Farrugia responsible for EU funds and social dialogue, and Justyne Caruana minister for Gozo) why I believe Malta and Europe need a strong cohesion policy beyond 2020.
In a nutshell, it is the biggest EU investment policy for all regions, but it is much more than that: yes, everybody agrees on the importance of its economic dimension (in the last period, cohesion policy alone created over one million jobs in Europe, that is one third of all jobs created, and this in the midst of the worst economic crisis ever in Europe). But it also has a strong social dimension; I often say cohesion policy goes where the private sector does not venture, and by that I mean we fund projects in poorer areas whether in Malta or in any other Member State, not only for economic reasons but to reduce the social fracture therein, to improve people's quality of life. Finally, thanks to its two above mentioned dimensions, and because it is so visible, cohesion policy has a tremendous political dimension: it shows Europe at its best, Europe at work in your streets, in your town or city.
Take the sustainable urban development project, in one of the poorer districts Valetta, with a high poverty, unemployment and crime rate. I visited it with Minister Elena Dalli and my colleague Commissioner Karmenu Vella to see for myself how cohesion policy helps regenerate poorer urban areas by focussing on education, jobs and attractive public spaces.
I was also impressed by the Marsa Junction Project, just outside the capital city, Valletta. This is a congested junction that sees about 8,000 vehicles drive through every hour, and the project aims to improve road traffic but also pedestrians' and cyclists' mobility; it includes the construction of a car park to encourage people to use public transport, walk or cycle, instead of using their private car.
Then, the Fort St. Angelo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that dates back to the Middle Ages, restored with EU funds. As a result, over 15,000 visitors flocked to it in the two months following its opening, providing a major boost to the local economy.
Finally, the Xewkija industrial Park on the island of Gozo: with the support of the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the park is the island's main industrial zone, hosting ICT companies as well as furniture and food companies. It provides economic growth to the island, as well as job opportunities, by diversifying its business activities.
After the political, and after the project parts, one of my favourite ones: the citizens' dialogue. I am a big fan of this European Commission initiative that allows European citizens to have direct exchanges with EU Commissioners. And the one on the Maltese island of Gozo lived up to my expectations. My colleague Commissioner Karmenu Vella and I dedicated one hour to answer questions, sometimes difficult ones, always important ones. This time, a number of questions focussed on the difference of economic and social development between the biggest island of Malta and the smaller Gozo.
Enriching for me, especially as next week I will speak the conference on European islands, in Brussels, but also since it comforted me in the conviction that macro-economic data don't tell you the full story: wherever you go, you find territories with economic and social disparities.