Ladies and gentlemen, dear colleagues,
I would like to start by congratulating everyone involved with the ENRD on your great achievement of 10 years of successful ‘rural networking’.
This forum has played a hugely important role in making sure that our rural communities are talking to each other, and talking to policymakers at all levels: regional, national and European.
Rural voices and the rural dimension to policymaking must be kept high on the agenda if we are to have a truly balanced development of the European Union.
Today we recognize the achievements of the last 10 years– and all of you active in the EU level networks have contributed to this success: first the ENRD, later joined by the EIP-AGRI Network, and of course the National Rural Networks in the Member States.
Whether it was promoting generational renewal in farming, improving natural resource management, promoting innovation, or developing the LEADER and smart village approaches, all these actions have added up to a very impressive record.
In the last decade the Networks have played an important role in supporting the implementation of rural development programmes all over Europe.
There is a Chinese proverb that says "if you want 1 year of prosperity, grow grain. If you want 10 years of prosperity, grow trees. If you want 100 years of prosperity, grow people".
And by providing platforms for exchange among various stakeholders at all levels, that is exactly what our rural development networks are doing.
While today we celebrate 10 years of networking under the ENRD, the roots of rural networking go even further back, to the first phases of the LEADER Community Initiative over 20 years ago.
In fact I believe there may even be some of you in the room today who were involved!
LEADER's original working method encouraged connections and networking in local communities, and it soon became clear that connections between LEADER groups helped to share information, exchange good practices, generate new ideas and add value to our rural development policy.
As the number of Local Action Groups grew - from the initial 200 to well over 3,000 today - it also became clear that structures at EU and national level were needed to help foster these links between Local Action Groups.
Building on those first successes, in the 2007-2013 programming period the Commission rolled out the networking approach beyond LEADER, to help support all aspects of the new generation of Rural Development Programmes.
National Rural Networks were also set up as key stakeholders in the Member States, building connections with national and regional authorities, project beneficiaries and also helping to inform the general public about what EAFRD support is doing in their rural communities.
Another leap forward took place in 2013, with the creation of the EIP AGRI Network.
This fantastic forum is playing a key role in promoting peer-to-peer learning and innovation in agriculture.
In 2016, at the Cork 2.0 Conference on the future of EU Rural Development, the resulting Declaration again affirmed the role of networks in boosting knowledge transfer and in enhancing rural governance.
But aside from the history and declarations, I have attended many of your events personally and I have seen with my own eyes the great work you do.
The ENRD and EIP-AGRI networks have played a very important role in supporting the delivery and implementation or rural development policy so far. They continue to showing a high capacity and powerful tools for transferring knowledge and sharing experience on matters of policy design, implementation, innovation and evaluation.
We are some 400 people today, 400 networkers not only from the EU Member States but also from neighbouring countries. I am very pleased to be here and welcome all of you to this important event.
I believe it is very important to use these moments to take stock and celebrate our achievements. After ten years of work, we can acknowledge how big the networks have grown. And of course, this is also a very welcome opportunity to learn from the past 10 years as we identify the challenges and opportunities going forward.
The project examples that will be presented and discussed throughout this event - including this afternoon's Rural Inspiration Awards ceremony which I am delighted to join - are the evidence of these achievements.
But networks are not only important for the design and implementation of the rural development policy. They also play an important role, acting as a two-way channel between Brussels and the Member States. You make sure that the people who count here in Brussels are well aware of what is going on in rural areas, where Rural Development support is helping and where things can be improved.
Taking stock of the past and seeing the results is only one part of the story, and the time is now right to look to the future as well. We need to consider the networking needs under the future CAP post 2020 and in a broader EU context.
I am very pleased that the Commission Chief Spokesperson, Mr Margaritis Schinas, is joining this event today, and I am sure he will tell you about the importance of face to face interaction and networking in a time where social media and modern communication techniques have a disproportionate influence on public perception by using truth or fake information.
The Commission’s future CAP proposal is based on a performance-based policy where Member States will have much more flexibility in designing their CAP interventions and guaranteeing results.
This proposal provides scope for a reinforced role of networking, recognising how the CAP as a whole and not only its second pillar can contribute to increase stakeholder involvement, improved outcomes and exchange of experience and good practice.
You may know that the Commission is proposing in the new CAP to have a single EU CAP network (replacing the current ENRD and EIP-AGRI) accompanied by national CAP networks in the MS.
This proposal responds to stakeholder input on the need for more consistency and streamlining, and seems to be widely endorsed. I understand that some of you may be concerned that your specific needs will be somehow lost in this bigger network.
I want to reassure you that this is not our intention: our aim is to retain and build on all the good things networks are doing now, and then go even further still.
We want to reinforce the networks' contribution to the modernisation of both the agricultural and rural economies, the continued roll-out of knowledge transfer and innovation, and a key contribution to the new performance-based delivery approach.
And given the fact that RDPs will be built into a wider CAP strategic plan, we want to extend the scope for networking across both Pillars of the CAP, involving new topics and rural stakeholders.
I also want to warmly welcome the Commission’s plans for a pilot corporate communication campaign focussed on rural areas.
The fact is that virtually every rural town and village in Europe has benefited from multiple EU funds and coordinated policy plans.
If I take a walk around my local village in Ireland's Co. Kilkenny, I see upgraded roads and electrical schemes that have benefited from cohesion funds, farms supported by single farm payments, rural businesses established with LEADER match funding, and much more.
However, I do think it is true that not enough people are aware of this fact, and the EU should not hesitate to promote and celebrate the contribution of "European added value" to our rural areas.
For this reason, I will be watching this pilot communication campaign closely. Good news stories are worth repeating! My colleague Mihail Dumitru will elaborate on this campaign later today.
And of course, if this campaign is to be a success we will depend on the strengths of the ENRD, National Rural Networks and other multipliers to spread the word.
In conclusion, dear friends, I count on your ideas, energy and enthusiasm to make the most of all the exciting new opportunities I have outlined.
I encourage you to play an active role in this conference and profit from this great opportunity to discuss, share, exchange and network with all the rural actors present here! Thank you.