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From Region to Macro-Region: Upper Austria in the EU Strategy for the Danube Region

Submitted by on 25 Nov 2013 – 16:04

By Michael Strugl, Minister of Economy, Labour, Tourism, Sports and European Affairs, State Government of Upper Austria; Member of the Committee of the Regions

The EU Strategy for the Danube Region (EUSDR) was established in 2011. Upper Austria had closely followed its preparatory works, and was ready to start when Brussels gave the green light for its implementation. But why was connecting with the Danube Region an important goal for Upper Austria?

One of Upper Austria’s most important economic motors is export. Our export quota currently stands at approximately 60%. For exports, markets are unquestionably a vital prerequisite. Emerging markets in East and South East Europe have much potential to grow. We could wait for this to happen on its own, or we adopt a strategic approach and try to shape and assist their growth. Upper Austria chose the latter option.

In order to access markets, reliable contacts and networks are required on all levels. The EUSDR connects people, they learn how to best work together and build up trust. Upper Austria has longstanding and good relations with its partners in the Danube Region – on the governmental level, between universities and research institutions, as well as between companies. Now it is time to establish even closer links.

These newly connected people experience how things are done elsewhere. They draw their lessons to be implemented in their home country or region. This includes policy learning, but it is also true for matters of innovation and technology. Putting two bright people with different backgrounds together leads to new solutions that neither one of them could not have thought up on his or her own.

Upper Austria is small. We need to focus on specialized niches and regional strengths in order to stay competitive. When other regions and countries do the same, we can jointly build a synchronized innovation chain that creates an economic benefit for all partners. This approach is also in line with the European Commission’s concept of Smart Specialization. In order to avoid duplication we need to communicate. The EUSDR is an excellent platform for such communication. As a joint force, our strengths are also better visible in Europe and in the world.

Finally, in the Danube Region, we face common challenges that one country or region alone cannot solve. The river Danube is the best example. In June 2013 a flood affected several Danube Region countries. The risk of such natural disasters must be faced jointly. Moreover, floods are also a cross-sectoral issue. To take care of flood prevention, a systemic level is necessary that includes climate change, river regulation, offering natural areas that can be flooded, and in their aftermath floods also impact the economy as well as environmental issues such as water quality or biodiversity. Analogies can be drawn for the economic crisis, or, looking into the future, for facing the challenges of an ageing society. In short, the list of common challenges seems endless.

While Upper Austria closely follows and supports the work of all eleven EUSDR priority areas, we pay special attention to priority area 8 “Competitiveness including cluster development”. Upper Austria is represented in its Steering Group, and also leads its working group “Clusters of Excellence”.

This working group is currently fine-tuning a project that aims at establishing a Danube Region-wide cluster network. On the basis of a common cluster strategy for this macro-region, DanuClus (Danube Cluster Networks) offers a platform for exchanging experiences and best practices among cluster experts, managers and policy makers. The members of DanuClus together develop ideas for concrete innovation projects that unite the economic strengths of the macro-region. They also assist the implementation process of these projects with their expertise. Furthermore they ensure that these projects stay on track with the common goals of DanuClus and the EUSDR.

Clusters in the Danube Region are very diverse, ranking from mature clusters with ample experience as instruments of innovation, to newly established and embryonic efforts with little funding or political backing. Cluster co-operation projects in DanuClus therefore need to cater to the needs of this large spectrum of clusters in order to increase the innovative potential in the Danube Region. Innovation is widely regarded as a vital precondition for competitiveness, which in turn ensures prosperity.

Funding is still a challenge for all areas of the EU Strategy of the Danube Region, and also for DanuClus. Now is the time to co-operate on the governance level in the Danube Region, to make sure that our regional and national goals are in sync across borders, and correspond with the related budgets for the coming years. Now is also the time to make sure that new EU-funding programmes, starting in 2014, are aligned with the targets of the EU Strategy for the Danube Region, and that its projects can be financed. This is the task of the political and administrative level across countries in the Danube Region.

Regional policy today is not possible anymore when stopping at one’s borders. In a globalized and interconnected world, countries and regions influence each other. What could be more effective than bundling these powers and pushing for common goals while solving confrontational issues within our networks of reliable partners. For prosperity, we need to jointly work towards realizing a shared vision.