The first point on the programme of this long official visit to Italy was, technically speaking, outside Italy: in the Vatican. Indeed, I was honoured and moved to meet His Holiness Pope Francis, to shake hands with him and exchange a few words. A truly unforgettable moment…
I also took the opportunity to meet the president of the Lazio region, Nicola Zingaretti and the mayor of Rome Virginia Raggi. Two separate meetings that had one theme in common: the use of available EU funds. My discussion with the mayor of Rome included a strong urban dimension especially as I am a big fan of the EU's urban agenda and the importance of cities at the European level. With president Zingaretti on the other hand, I stressed my satisfaction that the region's strategy is to focus EU funds on research and innovation. However I urged both the city and the region to speed up implementation of cohesion policy funds and offered available technical support from the Commission to their administration.
As for each of my visits across Europe, whilst in Rome I visited projects supported by Cohesion Policy. The first was a building from the years 1930s' that had been left disused for long. It was refurbished thanks to EU funds and these days it hosts cultural events, exhibitions and conferences; a way to regenerate the area whilst offering visitors a wide variety of events. The second was a tool for maritime surveillance, developed by a young start-up in collaboration with Rome university and with the support of EU funds.
And then, it was already time to board the train that would take me to Florence. There, in the cradle of the European Renaissance, I was happy to meet some of my colleagues: the president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, Vice Presidents Sefcovic and Mogherini, as well as Prime ministers and ministers from all over Europe and the mayor of Florence Dario Nardella. We were all there for the "State of the Union" conference organised by the European University institute situated in the hills outside Florence.
As I was asked to speak on the theme of "solidarity and the EU budget", I reiterated my utter conviction that cohesion policy is the strongest expression of European solidarity. It is the main investment policy of the European Union, and has the most tangible impacts in our daily lives. Its underlying logic is quite simple: no one should be left behind wherever he or she lives. During my frequent visits on the ground, I have witnessed how often the citizens ask for a helpful hand from the European Union when they are confronted with acute difficulties.
Alongside the president of Tuscany Enrico Rossi and of the Committee of the Regions Karl-Heinz Lambertz, I spent over two hours discussing with people from Tuscany: students asking what Europe can do for them, fishermen concerned by the future of the European Agricultural Policy, local politicians complaining about the complexity of some EU rules…. This was immensely rewarding.
The final day of this official visit to Italy was dedicated to the concrete benefits of cohesion policy for the inhabitants of Florence. Indeed, I was invited to take the new "tramvia", the extension of a tramway line that links the centre of Florence to the outskirts in a modern, fast, safe and environmentally friendly way.
As in virtually all my visits to Member States, I saw and experimented first-hand how local or regional projects funded by cohesion policy make for people's better lives. A few weeks before I present our proposal for the future cohesion policy, beyond 2020, this was more than heartening.