Honoured Members of the European Parliament, elected representatives, ladies and gentlemen,

Before I begin I'd like to take a moment to recall the tragic event that happened exactly twelve months ago. We are meeting today one year after the terrible terrorist attack here in Brussels. I think we all remember where we were that day – indeed we all work very close to Maelbeek station.

Today, I would like all of us to remember the victims of that terrible day, and the families and friends they left behind. A tragedy such as this one reminds us of everything we have achieved to build peace and prosperity in the European Union together.

I believe that in our day jobs we can honour the memories of the victims by continuing to build this Union together.

I thank the esteemed representatives of COPA-COGECA, CEJA and CEPF for organising this event, and of course I am grateful to our hosts, MEPs de Castro, Huitema, and Köstinger.

You are all strong influencers and opinion-shapers within the "Rural Coalition of the Willing" which created the Cork 2.0 Declaration last September. And now, 6 months on, I am calling on you to use your influence to continue driving the process forward.

The Cork 2.0 Declaration has triggered a high level of expectations. It has done so because it has put into words what many people have been thinking for years: when it comes to addressing many of the big challenges of our era, our rural and agricultural communities are part of the solution, not part of the problem! And our objective is to make sure that EU policies reflect this truth.

Today's event is a welcome opportunity to continue our efforts in taking the Declaration from reflection to action.

I am happy to see such a broad representation of interests here today, both on the panel and in the audience. There is an old saying: go alone and you will go fast; go together and you will go far. I think that for this process, we will get both further and faster if we go together.

You organised today's conference under the motto "rural development should go BIG". The "B" stands for bioeconomy and biodiversity, the "I" stands for innovation and investment, and the "G" stands for Generational Renewal and Green Economy.

I fully support this slogan even though I think the Cork Declaration goes even further. The richness of the Cork Declaration is its biggest success and we should make every effort to support the various parts of it.

And we need to move towards action: the Cork declaration is a living document and I am committed to take its recommendations forward.

I announced several concrete actions already two months ago in Berlin.

These actions include DG AGRI internal work on a performance-based delivery model, shifting the focus from compliance to results. It includes various actions of the European Network for Rural development and the European Innovation Partnership for agriculture as well as upcoming dedicated conferences.

I would like to highlight some examples where we are already making headway on implementation.

Looking at the first three points of the declaration, they all refer to the economic development and viability of rural areas. Two concrete examples come to mind:

In order to ensure thriving rural areas we all have to work on their attractiveness. Digital as well as physical connectivity is a pre-condition for economic development and innovation in rural areas.

Therefore, I am pleased to announce that I intend to come forward with a paper on EU actions for Smart Villages in the coming month.

This is a joint, silo-breaking project between several Commissioners and it deals with the question of how we can harness the benefits of connectivity in our villages and surrounding countryside – for instance through big data and precision technology.

Another economic question is of course the need for farmers to make a decent living out of their activity. The market crisis of recent years has highlighted how large this challenge is.

The two rural networks – the European Network for Rural Development as well as the EIP-AGRI - are developing a string of events where dedicated questions are tackled. For instance we will have a workshop next week on using rural development to foster farm resilience. And I am curious to see the ideas coming out of this process.

Looking further into the Cork declaration. Points 4, 5 and 6 all refer to our natural capital, climate action and the preservation of our rural environment.

In this context, I am happy to see that various initiatives are taking place in Member States to start rural community plans.

These initiatives often include strategies for improved energy use, circular economy and food processing leading to more tourism activity and a higher attractiveness of rural life.

This is a road which is well worth travelling. A better use of our natural resources, new innovative ideas for energy and recycling combined with local traditions are often essential ingredients for additional economic activity. At the same time, these rural community initiatives help to reinforce the buy-in of local people while preserving the countryside. We have to learn from best practice examples in this context and see how we can help communities to develop their own appropriate solutions.

When it comes to managing our natural resources, I know you have flagged biodiversity as a main theme for going BIG. Enhancing biodiversity is very important, as is the management of water, which I would like to focus on in greater detail today.

Agriculture, forestry as well as food production are hugely water dependant. We need to use this precious resource well.

In this respect, I am working closely with my colleague Commissioner Vella to take forward work on issues related to the sustainable use of water.

Better implementation of exiting legislation, better investments in water infrastructure as well as the spreading of knowledge are essential tools in order to improve the sustainable use of water in agriculture. And nutrient management plans play an important role in this context as well.

Moving on, the Cork declaration flags in point 7 the need for boosting knowledge and innovation. I fully support this point and there are many initiatives I could refer to in this context. But today I would like to focus on one specific and highly important example: the bioeconomy which offers new opportunities for agriculture and forestry.

This is a thriving area with an incredible potential for new jobs – especially at local and regional level, and especially in rural areas. Global biorefinery product markets are expected to grow at 13% annually and up to 300 biorefineries could be built in Europe by 2030 to meet growing demand. The bioeconomy could be a new driver of climate smart rural development by transferring technology and scaling up.

We need to invest in the new business models of the emerging bioeconomy and build on the lessons of the European Innovation Partnership.

Innovation can drive a rural renaissance: interesting developments are taking place on waste and side streams, nutrient recycling, new sources of feedstock for greener industries, biobased fuels and materials. These developments offer a vast potential for economic development for farmers, foresters and rural areas. The bioeconomy can provide new and reliable income streams for farmers and foresters, as well as new jobs in rural areas.

As you know, the Cork declaration is not only about policy fields. It also includes three points which focus on policy delivery and they are equally important.

Again, I will only refer to some examples in this area. Let me focus first on the point of enhancing rural governance. We have to reflect in our networks and in our rural communities on how we can improve the uptake of locally-led initiatives. We need the buy-in of local people. They know what is best for their rural community and we need to build on this potential!

When we look to safeguard the future of our rural areas there is one group of people who stand out. And it is of course our young people.

If we don't succeed in supporting them to make a decent living in rural areas – they won't be there. If we fail to provide adequate social, community, cultural and recreational for their families – they won't be there. If we don't provide the infrastructure – particularly better connectivity – to unleash their ambition and innovation – they won't be there. If life as a farmer is not attractive enough for them to stay – they won't be there. 

Therefore, we have to be ambitious. We need to put forward new and innovative solutions that are flexible enough to match the different needs of our young farmers. Whenever I meet the next generation of innovating agri-entrepreneurs, I'm always hugely encouraged by their enthusiasm, and their willingness to sign up for what is not always an easy life. We need to build on this motivation and address the well-known issues in relation to access to land; to finance; to knowledge and support which are preventing these game-changers from entering the world of farming.

The challenge of generational renewal in rural areas goes beyond farming. We have to ensure that rural areas are seen as a land of opportunity for young people. We need to make sure that there are jobs for the wives and husbands of our farmers; schools for their children; health care for the elderly – services and infrastructure for all. The Cork declaration is about the people in rural areas, it is about healthy living – it is important to all of us. It is about ensuring a better life in rural areas!

Ladies and gentlemen, let me conclude by reminding you that when the Cork Declaration was handed to me 6 months ago, I made a clear commitment which I stand by today: that its aspirations and recommendations would be reflected in the work on the future our Common Agricultural Policy.

I want to make it very clear: I see a strong role for rural development policy in the CAP in the future. Rural Development is crucial to meeting citizens' expectations and for the development of a living countryside.

Rural Development support is targeting a high number of relatively small beneficiaries and projects. It is designed to meet the specific needs of rural citizens and businesses. For instance, Rural Development is the only policy designed to deliver last-mile connectivity (digital and physical).

Our approach to agriculture cannot be business as usual. It takes specialised knowledge and expertise to develop targeted and result-oriented support schemes which the Rural Development tool box offers. This allows for the necessary investment and knowledge measures where needed.

Furthermore, Rural Policy, in particular through LEADER, provides effective investments in rural capacity building, reconnecting with rural citizens at the local level. We need local people fully engaged on the ground for a living countryside and a policy that connects to their needs.

As you can see, Rural Development is having a positive and meaningful impact for rural citizens throughout the EU.

Therefore, it must form part of the CAP, side by side with the support offered under the first pillar. It is also, as you put it, a BIG deal when we look towards current and future challenges for primary producers and their related value chains.

In the context of the CAP modernisation debate I have highlighted three areas for action. Farm resilience, sustainable management of resources, and generational renewal. And Rural Development has a major role to play in all these areas.

Cork launched an important process of re-engagement and joint efforts at many levels which we need to continue. Again, let me thank the organisers and hosts of tonight's event for playing their part.

Ladies and gentlemen, people and communities are the beating heart of the Cork 2.0 Declaration, which aims to foster a "better life for our rural areas". Our role as policymakers and key stakeholders is to keep people at the heart of the process and involve them closely in every stage of the journey. Thank you.