In this interview, Paula Fernández Viaña (ES/Renew Europe) spoke about the impact of Brexit and COVID-19 on the Atlantic regions. In response to the current challenges, the Minister for the Presidency, Home Affairs, Justice and External Action of the Government of Cantabria has put forward a series of proposals to strengthen cooperation between the Atlantic regions. In particular, she proposes creating an Atlantic macro-region, as well as taking tangible steps towards a sustainable and resilient blue economy in the Atlantic. These proposals are set out in an opinion due to be presented by the Cantabrian Minister on 17 March at the European Committee of the Regions' plenary session.
What impact has the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union (EU) had on the Atlantic regions? Do you think that the EU took these regions into account when negotiating the exit agreement?
The impact of the UK's withdrawal from the EU is not only greater in the Atlantic regions, it has also been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. The Atlantic regions have long warned of the need to take measures to deal with the effects of Brexit, both with a view to ensuring the continuation of strong inter-regional cooperation and to establishing financial mechanisms to offset the local impact in the most affected regions.
As to whether the EU took the regions into account when negotiating the exit agreement, the answer is no, although negotiator Michel Barnier spoke at the European Committee of the Regions' plenary session to update us on the progress of the negotiations and, in Spain, the central government kept the autonomous communities informed through the Conference for EU-related matters (CARUE). In my view, it was a mistake not to have heard more from the regions during the Brexit negotiations, as we know most about the reality on the ground and our communities' specific needs in relation to the effects of Brexit.
In Cantabria, we trust that these needs will be taken into account when distributing funds from the Brexit Adjustment Reserve. In this regard, I must express my concern, which is shared with the other Atlantic regions, over the centralised distribution and management of these funds. We are also particularly concerned about the discretionary power granted to the Member States in the Atlantic region in connection with these funds. This distribution cannot disregard the EU principles of partnership and multilevel governance.
Fishing quotas were one of the most controversial issues in the negotiations between the United Kingdom and the European Union. How do you view this aspect?
We are not yet aware of the quotas to be allocated, but the fishing community in Cantabria fear dramatic cuts. For the time being, reference has been made to the deep-sea fleet, which is of greater interest to other regions such as Galicia. However the coastal fleet, which is the type we have in Cantabria, fears significant cuts, especially in the first mackerel fishing season. Our fisheries department supports the sector and we are waiting for the ministry to inform us of the outcome of the negotiations.
What impact has COVID-19 had in Cantabria?
Cantabria was the Autonomous Community with the lowest level of mortality during the first wave. Moreover, Cantabria was the only region in the whole of Spain to see an increase in life expectancy during that period. The incidence rate has also been lower in our region.
The reason why Cantabria has such good data is partly due to our established tracking system. In Cantabria, we managed to diagnose more than 90% of cases and were therefore one of the best communities in Spain at detecting COVID-19. The fact that there are no undiagnosed cases means that we can cut transmission and fewer people become infected. I would also like to stress that this outcome is the result of a collective effort.
What role do you think local and regional authorities have to play in post-coronavirus reconstruction?
There is no doubt we will learn many lessons from this crisis, but for me one of them seems key: regional and local authorities have done most of the work. We will also have to rely on them if we are faced with new crises, the frequency and nature of which are unknown – although we are aware that such crises are highly unpredictable. Predicting chaos is one thing, responding to it is another. When dealing with future scenarios, the regional dimension seems to me to be the most appropriate in terms of responsiveness, efficiency and proximity, all in close cooperation with local authorities. Regional governments are best able to choose, decide and implement solutions tailored to the local area and to meeting legitimate demand from citizens.
Your opinion takes the view that the pandemic and Brexit could be opportunities to further the technological transformation. Which sectors need further transformation, especially as part of the European Green Deal? What role should the European Union play in this transformation?
Rebuilding using funds provided by the Recovery and Resilience Facility is an opportunity to reinvent our regions and to encourage green and digital investment that avoids, or at least compensates for, the industrial crisis that many European regions are experiencing.
Public administrations have been very focused in recent months on the short-term, but now we need a medium- and long-term vision as well. We need to set priorities and channel the European resources that will start to arrive this year. Industry is one of the sectors that needs most investment and the greatest transformation in line with the two focal points of the recovery in Europe: digitalisation and greening.
The European Union has a crucial role in the recovery and in steering the new model for the development of our regions. We need to see the funds provided by the new multiannual financial framework (MFF) and the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRM) as an opportunity to exit the crisis and lay the foundations for a new, more sustainable and more inclusive economic model.
The opinion regrets that activities such as water sports, tourism and fisheries have been excluded from the Atlantic Action Plan (AAP). What role do these activities play in the move towards a sustainable, resilient and competitive blue economy in the region?
The tourism sector accounts for 10% of EU GDP and 12% of Spanish and Cantabrian GDP. In addition, tourism can act as a catalyst and increase the economic potential of sectors such as commerce, transport, food and cultural amenities. We regret that the revised Atlantic Action Plan does not mention this sector, as the Atlantic tourism strategy needs to be driven by sustainable environmentally-friendly tourism and should be coordinated at European level.
Tourism, culture and the social and local economies are by far the sectors most affected by this crisis. The Atlantic regions have long called for a holistic strategy for the tourism sector, supported by a specific budget line. However, this has unfortunately not been included in the next EU multiannual financial framework. Including the tourism sector in the Atlantic Action Plan would provide us with a framework for preparing common measures to help the sector recover and to implement a tourism strategy based on sustainability, innovation and digitalisation that will enable us to gain competitiveness.
How can Atlantic regions contribute to meeting the objectives of the European Green Deal?
Maritime regions such as Cantabria are bearing the brunt of the growing and ever more serious effects of climate change. Examples of this include rising sea levels, coastal floods, droughts, storms and forest fires, which are increasingly affecting our local areas, economies and citizens.
In Cantabria, we have been implementing mitigation and adaptation measures and mobilising investments to counter the impact and threats of climate change. The impact is even more devastating for islands and the outermost regions. Not all regions are affected in the same way and it is therefore necessary to address the vulnerabilities in the most exposed regions and to offer them support, such as the resources provided by the Just Transition Fund, among others.
Your opinion proposes that an Atlantic macro-region be created. This proposal has already been put on the table on several occasions, but was rejected by the Commission in the end. Do you think that the current situation (COVID-19 and Brexit) could change this position?
I am putting this proposal on the table because the Atlantic regions consider it a good time to do so, given the concern over the impact of Brexit on the Atlantic coast. This framework will enable us to strengthen our maritime character, boost innovation and foster the development of connectivity between Atlantic regions. It could also serve as a platform for cooperation with interested UK regions.
In 2019, the General Affairs Council reaffirmed its willingness to consider any solid and mutually agreed initiatives by Member States facing the same challenges in a given geographical area, aimed at establishing a new macro-regional strategy. It is a strong political message for the European Commission to consider the interest in an Atlantic macro-region.
It also seems like the right time to us as a new programming period (the multiannual financial framework and its programmes for the period 2021-2027) is just beginning and further resources have been provided via the Recovery and Resilience Facility. At a recent meeting of competitiveness ministers, the Portuguese Presidency of the Council raised the question of the development of multinational projects that have not been included in the draft national plans submitted to the European Commission so far.
Which policy areas would be covered by this Atlantic macro-region?
We are clear that macro-regions should not be limited to the efficient management of resources, but should base their legitimacy on consensus, a long-term approach, the definition of specific projects and collaborative work. For Cantabria, as for the other Atlantic regions, there are a number of areas where the macro-region would bring added value. One such sector is marine energy, which has the potential to play a key role in the future energy system, while contributing to the reduction of carbon emissions and the objectives of the European Green Deal. We believe that a macro-regional strategy could help to put in place specific incentives to promote a single energy market.
Sustainable fishing, protecting the environment, the fight against climate change and tourism are other areas which require coordinated action. With regard to transport and accessibility, there are also opportunities related to developing multi-modality and green transport, which contribute to job creation. The completion of Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) projects is a priority. These involve north-south connections on the Atlantic coast and the inclusion of ports of strategic value, such as Santander, in the core network.
Research, development and innovation is another field that would benefit from an Atlantic macro-region, as there are many centres of technology and excellence throughout the Atlantic regions and they have developed important partnerships in recent years.
For all of these reasons, I firmly believe that using an EU macro-regional strategy as the framework for Atlantic cooperation will lead to increased political commitment from the Member States, as well as boosting its relevance and longevity.
You can follow the plenary session of the European Committee of the Regions on 17, 18 and 19 March 2021 by clicking here