Madame State Secretary (Eszter Vitályos), Director (Henning Stirø), Ladies and Gentlemen,
Good morning, everybody!
It is a great honour to speak at the beginning of this ceremonial closing conference. It is an important event. We shall look back at five-six years of basically successful cooperation. But also look forward to new achievements.
I find it very interesting that the National Focal Point, the Prime Minister’s Office, has selected this venue for the conference (Liszt Ferenc International Airport Terminal 1). The old terminal building, - the airport -, was/is meant to receive people, and send them off to new destinations. The airport has always been a mixing place, a place of connections, - of connecting people, countries and cultures. We, who travel a lot, can see how the airport is growing in importance and size, reflecting the interest in and pleasure of traveling to Budapest and Hungary. “Connection” is a worthy theme also for this conference.
As you probably know, I took up my position as ambassador in September last year. Then I kind of “inherited” a legacy of Norway and EEA grant issues which have still not been completely resolved. From colleagues in Oslo and Brussels (the Financial Mechanism Office), I sensed that it would be hard for Hungary to regain momentum in the implementation of the programs. Two whole programs were indeed completely terminated. But Hungarian partners have surprised and impressed us by accelerating and very successfully concluding many complex projects and events, on time and within budget!
I have had the pleasure of visiting many events and places, but of course only a fraction of the more than 600 individual projects in nine programme areas in Hungary. Everywhere I have been impressed by the interest, dedication and professionalism of the project promoters, the people involved. My congratulations go to them, - to you-, including the nice and competent colleagues and friends in the Prime Minister’s Office, and in other ministries and central government offices. And the Implementing Agency (NKFFÜ), of course.
However, as we congratulate each other, I think we must admit that not everything went as smoothly as it should have. Clearly, the fund absorption rate of this cycle will be considerably less than in the 2004-2009 period, where it surpassed 90 %. My feeling is that more than 50 million EUR has been lost from the programme. As a Norwegian taxpayer, may be this is good news of returning funds. But rather, it is a vast amount of lost opportunities of cooperation, connection and cohesion.
For Norway, but also for Iceland and Liechtenstein, the EEA and Norway grants, are a substantial investment. Since the start more than 6 bn EUR has been allocated for the purpose of reducing economic and social disparities in Europe and strengthening bilateral relations. For us it is a major contribution to the common building of the new Europe, with the European Union at its core, of a Europe free, prosperous and at peace, - if you allow me to use a cliché.
Important is that all the programmes and activities funded have to be based on the common values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and the respect for human rights including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.
So what do we do when we experience contraction in the observation of these values? We voice concern, to say the least. Because these values, which clearly underpin the European Union, but also are fundamental tenants of the NATO partnership, Council of Europe, OSCE and the UN for that sake, is a crucial part of our system of security, indeed our understanding of security.
Based on the experience of the past century, Norwegians put overriding attention to the promotion of open, democratic societies, in our own country, and worldwide. An open society in Europe and elsewhere is a guarantor against backsliding into the arms of fascism, communism or other forms of evil governance. Compromising on basic values is a very dangerous path. European history should be a clear evidence of this.
The aim of our government is to conclude the framework agreement, the MOU, with Hungary for the 2014-2021 period as soon as possible, but without compromising the values we believe in, and which have brought our own country and our Nordic and West and Central European neighbourhood such unprecedented level of prosperity, freedom and security.
We are looking forward to the new programme period, with a particular emphasis on the block of programme areas termed Innovation, Research, Education and Competitiveness. Strengthening, and in some areas regaining European competitiveness and economic momentum is a major aim for the whole European Economic Area, - and now with Brexit as an added challenge and burden.
The EEA and Norway grants will hopefully have a sizeable portion of activities stimulating further innovation, dynamism and strength, for the benefit of Hungary and us in the next decade. The EEA and Norway grant programme areas are a well-balanced package, basically covering all the sustainable development goals.
I’ll conclude by saying that wherever I now go, I try to convey the message that Norway and Hungary are members of a Winning Team. I think it is a good metaphor. Here in Europe, we have fantastic opportunities of success, if we work together, stay together and in good faith make use of all the integration instruments at our disposal.
The false news is that European integration is the problem. It is the solution!
I wish you success with the conference, and the future!