Dear friends, I'm pleased to be here today. The last time I was involved in an ENRD event was in January, when I met  some of you to talk about my plans for the future CAP. Time flies when you're having fun!

Today, we have a much clearer idea of what the CAP legislative proposal will look like and how much funding will be available to support its goals. The legislative proposals will be formally launched by the Commission at the end of next week.

Rural development will form a key part of our plans. Of course, we are not starting from scratch: much of the ground work was already done when we elaborated the Cork 2.0 Declaration on a better life in rural areas.

And last month, we held a Conference on Smart Villages at Lake Bled in Slovenia, exactly 12 months after the launch of the EU initiative on this topic. This was an important milestone along the way, and I want to thank MEP Frans Bogovic who is here beside me today, for his dedication and inspiration in making that such a successful event.

I think it's important to be clear in relation to what we mean when we talk about Smart Villages. It's not about suddenly transforming our rural hamlets into high-tech hubs with self-driving vehicles and robots cleaning the streets (although this may well happen further down the line).

Smart Villages are all about making different policies work together to find better, smarter ways to promote holistic rural development.

It is about harnessing existing and emerging technologies and social innovations to add value to the lives of our citizens. It is about giving villages the tools to address their own challenges while also making a contribution to the bigger challenges facing society as a whole.

Of course, digital solutions can provide many of these new opportunities, but smart also means developing new co-operations and alliances – thinking outside the box and charting your own path to prosperity.

And what better organisation than the ENRD for bringing the right people together to think outside the box!

I want to thank you for the great work you are doing on Smart Villages which was very well illustrated in the inspirational video. Your thematic working group has generated a huge interest from many stakeholder and local authorities – a clear sign that there is a need and an appetite for smart villages in our rural areas.

And later today we will hear some of the inspiring stories taking place on the ground, different projects and initiatives moving the Smart Villages concept forward.

Your unique capacity for networking and information exchange means you are well placed to be a laboratory of ideas for moving Smart Villages forward.

Another important strand of the initiative is the pilot project, which aims to develop a model for smart eco-social villages that rural communities can use as a template to improve their situation.

We expect to have the first results of this pilot before the summer and a full model by the summer of next year.

Meanwhile, thanks to MEP Bogovic and MEP Szanyi, the European Parliament has allocated €3.3 million for a preparatory action which we will launch next year. Here the idea is to provide support for the development of 10 Smart Villages throughout the EU. 

All these steps are helping to build momentum. The challenge now is to harness this momentum to move to the next level.

Smart villages begins with local people coming together to develop a strategy around local assets and aspirations and we need to invest in these people, their ideas and the much needed infrastructure and capacity building.

So what steps should we take to create this enabling policy environment? How can we ensure an integrated approach so that different policy streams and EU funds are working together with the same smart objectives?

The first step is clear: we need better broadband, connectivity and infrastructure. Despite the great efforts to date, there is still a serious digital gap between rural and urban areas. According to our most recent figures only 47% of rural households have access to fast broadband while more than 80% of urban households do.

This is a real obstacle for the development of new businesses, jobs and prosperity in rural areas.

And I would add that the provision of high-speed internet to all rural territories is also vital for the management and control of the Common Agricultural Policy.

To help close this gap, around €6 billion (EAFRD and ERDF) in funding is available to finance broadband roll-out as well as other digital infrastructures, especially in rural and peripheral areas. The estimated contribution from EAFRD is almost 1 billion. This will benefit around 18 million rural citizens.

At the same time, the Commission is implementing an "Action plan for Rural Broadband", aiming to help broadband rollout in rural and remote areas.

The second step is to use this improved connectivity to improve the quality of life and standard of living in rural areas: this means better access to jobs and improved services.

In terms of economic development, the agri-food space, digital platforms can foster the use and roll out of precision farming and other modern technologies, but they can also create new local markets to help small and medium sized farmers get a better price for their product. We can use digital platforms to access global markets – you can sit in the Valleys of Southern Belgium and supply services to Silicon Valley.

I understand that in today's seminar you will focus in particular on how smart villages can and are revitalising service delivery to our rural communities, through digital and social innovations. We can use digital technology and the data economy to deliver new services to our rural citizens or to  deliver familiar services in a different  and more efficient  way – such as e-health; online education; mobility solutions; local energy production and much more.

We can improve the resource efficiency of farming – as well as improving health and safety for the whole village. I was pleased to hear that later today some inspiring projects will be showcasing how rural communities are already testing out exciting ideas in this area.

So while there is a lot of potential, we need to invest to make this potential into reality; we need to invest in people, in ideas and in businesses; in local communities and in the surrounding countryside. We need to support digital infrastructure but we also need to empower rural citizens to develop on and off-line solutions that strengthen rural vitality – through social innovation and smart specialisation.

Smart Villages was highlighted in the Communication on the future of the CAP – this demonstrates that we are committed to supporting these types of initiatives as part of a wider approach covering all EU funds and instruments.

And when we publish our legislative proposal for the future CAP at the end of next week, there will be clear opportunities for Smart Villages.

In order to put focus and emphasis on the emerging concept of Smart Villages we have introduced a new result indicator for the CAP strategic Plans.

When developing their CAP strategic Plans, Member States will carry out a SWOT analysis and a needs assessment, including for aspects related to the socio-economic fabric of Rural Areas.

Member States may then choose to programme funds for municipalities or communities that want to develop into Smart Villages, expressing the expected results by setting a target for the number of Smart Villages strategies they intend to support.

One of the key tools for this remains LEADER and CLLD where we propose to maintain the current earmarking of 5% of rural development funding. Given the scope of the need for investments to develop Smart Villages, it is however, clear to us that other EU funds should also play a role, and financial instruments and private funds can be leveraged to make every Euro spent go further.

To conclude, ladies and gentlemen, I want us to work together to help the Smart Villages concept achieve its full potential.

Our pilot projects and initiatives can become inspiring examples to help communities across Europe to develop innovative solutions for rural services and digital technologies.  New ideas in fields such as e-health, online education, mobility, local energy production and the bioeconomy will lead the way.

We need to invest in people, in ideas and in businesses, in local communities and in the surrounding countryside. We need to support digital infrastructure, but we also need to empower rural citizens to develop online and offline solutions that strengthen rural vitality and sustainability through social innovation and smart specialisation.

I encourage the ENRD to grab this bull by the horns and do what you do best: network, exchange best practice, share experiences, and generate new ideas. Thank you.