Yes, in Naples I spoke at a conference on the future of regional policy, crucial for the Mezzogiorno, yes I had meetings with Italian ministers (Claudio De Vincenti, Minister for territorial Cohesion; Dario Franceschini, Culture Minister), with the presidents of all Mezzogiorno, and with local MEPs such as Andrea Cozzolino who helped organise this visit.
Indeed we discussed figures, rules and processes in order to maximise the impact of Cohesion Policy Funds in Campania, Sicily, Calabria, Abruzzo, Puglia, Basilicata, Abruzzo, Molise.
And all these are important.
However two moments stick out from my stay in Naples.
First the visit of Pompeii.
The restauration and reconstruction work of this unique part of our common European cultural heritage is funded by the EU, by Cohesion Policy. I saw for myself the scale of the work, the quality of the work, and as importantly, I saw what this project can do to improve the local economy and thus the local community’s life. When we started the project we were hoping to reach the number of tourists (2.6 million) of before the heavy rains that damaged part of this site; today, thanks to the efforts of those involved in this project we have already hit the 3 million visitors bar! Just imagine what 3 million visitors a year can do to boost local business in a region desperate to cut youth unemployment and boost its economy…
The second moment was the citizens’ dialogue in Naples itself. Imagine a huge university hall absolutely packed with hundreds of young people from the whole region. Yes: noisy, lively, endearingly chaotic at times; just what you expect from any gathering of young people anywhere in Europe!
What I did not expect though was such enthusiasm, even in their criticism towards the EU. Those young people want to believe in the European Union, they reject a future based on segregation, extremism, rejection, nationalism. I saw passion and enthusiasm in their eyes, I heard it in their questions to me, and it made me feel more optimistic about our future. “Their” future actually.
After Naples and Pompeii: Norcia and Cascia in Umbria
Umbria was one of the four Italian regions hit by a series of earthquakes last year. Led by the president of the Umbria region Catiuscia Marini, we walked through the towns of Norcia and Cascia.
What can I say? What words to use when you meet the workers racing to build houses for the locals, to protect badly damaged buildings such as the cathedral of San Benedetto. What words to use when you walk through the rubble and the ruins?
Thankfully, the EU Solidarity Fund and Cohesion Policy can provide relief and hope. I spoke to the inhabitants of Norcia; I told them that the Commission has proposed to fully fund the reconstruction works and that all we need now is for the European Parliament and the Council to adopt that proposal.
I spoke to an old lady living in temporary accommodation as she lost everything in the earthquake, I met those children whose school is now a compound of containers.
Like in Pompeii, but even more moving than in Pompeii, I saw that in many cases Cohesion Policy is the strongest support for European citizens. It is the light at the end of the tunnel.
Back from Italy, on my way to the European Parliament’s plenary session Strasbourg, I can’t help thinking that what I saw and heard in Campania and Umbria is what the European Union is really all about: a group of sovereign states agreeing to pool their efforts and financial resources to the benefit of 500 Million persons, regardless of their nationality.
As we watch a dark trend of egotism, narrow nationalism and extremism grow around us, Cohesion Policy becomes a political statement itself: We in Europe refuse that trend, we in Europe work together!