Just what direction should Croatia’s islands take?
EU parliamentarian Tonino Picula is the initiator of the establishment of the Inter-Group for the Sea, Rivers, Islands and Coastal Areas in the European Parliament, where he is the Vice President for European Islands.
The active work of the group has put forward many ideas and projects, as well as promising guidelines that would make life on the islands better for locals.
In an interview with the Dubrovnik local publication Dubrovacki Dnevnik on the 6th of November, 2017, Picula says he is particularly proud of the fact that the islands are finally being recognised as unique areas facing unique challenges and that the cohesion policy will be more tailored to the needs of these communities in the future.
He emphasises that today, he feels optimism when he thinks about the future of Croatia’s islands. Picula made particular reference to the specifics of the islands in Dubrovnik-Neretva County.
From the very beginning of your mandate, you’ve dealt with the problems of the islands. Why did you decide to deal with this topic?
I was born on the island of Mali Lošinj and during my travel and stay on many islands, I became aware of both the beauty and the weight (hardships) of island life under specific conditions. That’s why my intention to dedicate myself to Adriatic Croatia (coastal Croatia) is personally motivated before anything else. This is important because I find that no serious work can be performed properly if we don’t feel a kind of devotion to it. Furthermore, apart from the fact that we’re bragging about our islands as if they were our family silver because of their beauty and resources, it’s equally important to point out that the interests of the islands are [also] the interests of 125,000 citizens, as they’re permanent inhabitants of fifty of our islands. This is the most important part in the battle for the islands for me, and that’s why I started to focus on the position of our islanders and small fishermen. I’m confident that continuous work can improve their living conditions.
Are you satisfied with the issue of the islands in the focus of the European Parliament since the group was formed? What exactly does the group do, and what is its purpose?
In addition to pleasure, I’m also proud of the establishment of the Inter-Group for the Sea, Rivers, Islands and Coastal Areas, because its creation enabled the infrastructure through which, as a representative in the European Parliament, I could be even more effective. With my counterparts, of which there are now more than 100 from 20 member states of the Union, we can influence legislative proposals, invest amendments, launch projects, inform EU institutions and citizens about innovations, suggest changes to policies. As the Vice-President of the Inter-Group, I’ve been specifically in charge of the European islands. With the resolution on the special situation of the islands, which we in the European Parliament adopted last year, I’ve found great success as evidenced by two key changes. The first is that it has been acknowledged that the islands in a unique area are faced with unique challenges, which requires a special approach by European institutions and the other: a cohesion policy will be more tailored to the needs of island communities in the future. Today I feel more optimistic when I think about the future of our islands.
You submitted an amendment to secure this year’s budget of two million euros for the energy independence of the islands. What is the purpose of this project? It was also announced that the budget for the initiative for the islands you started with your colleagues will increase by an additional ten million euros. How did all this happen?
In agreement with two colleagues from the group, who are originally from Malta and Italy, I decided to make an amendment to the project “Strengthening climate action on islands in and out of the EU through the creation of an island identity.” This amendment brought us two million euros for Europe’s islands This money is intended to help the islands gain greater autonomy with their supply of electricity and to use available renewable sources for electricity production, after which I met with representatives of the European Commission who commented on this initiative and announced the possibility of raising the two million to 12 million euros by allocating funds from the Obzor 2020 program. Of course, this news was pleasant because it brought a concrete result, and, at the same time, proved that well-prepared projects do result in the withdrawal of [European Union] funds.
When can the tenders and the release of the funds be expected?
There is a public bid this month to select members of the so-called “Island Secretariat”, whose task is to collect information on island needs and provide project assistance to help smaller islands to participate equally inthe withdrawal of funds for concrete projects. The whole project should be completed by 2020. I will regularly inform the public about all the stages of the project, which you can follow on my Facebook and on the website.
Many Croatian islands have problems with infrastructure, waste disposal, depopulation, drinking water problems… What can Croatia do in its own relationship with the sea and the islands in order to function better, of course with the help of the European Union?
The Adriatic area is a particularly valuable part of Croatia’s potential. It has never been anonymous. Today, it makes up a third of our GDP. Our relationship with the islands after our entry into the EU is at the intersection. I believe that the best instrument for tackling chronic and frequent problems on the islands, regardless of the different stages of development, is the cohesion policy of the European Union of the new generation. What the European Union must do for its islands is provide them with a special place within the cohesion policy after 2020. My goal is actually that from the “islandism” that is found in official documents to be ”distant” ”too hard to reach” and ”difficult” we create a step forward. Islandism should be a positively connoted specificity. This shift must, of course, be recognised in development strategies both in national and European frameworks.
The government announced a new Law on Islands. What are your expectations and what do you think should be crucial in the Law in the context of defining the future development of the islands?
I communicate with the Ministry of Regional Development and European Funds about what I do as a representative in the European Parliament to promote the interests of the islands. Also, we’re in touch when it comes to the drafting of the Law on Islands, where there is help with the information I have about different European practices on other islands within the EU. Of course, the responsibility for the final draft of the Law is entirely in the [hands of] the Ministry and the Government. What the new law should reflect is the change of the existing approach and policy, more specifically, adopt the fundamental orientation of the resolution on the special situation of the islands of the European Parliament. I especially advocate for the changes in the island development index because it currently isn’t equal or fairly set.
In March, you started the Water Saving Challenge project on World Water Day, and shortly thereafter, a workshop conference on Vis followed, and Lastovo also participated. Why did you choose those islands?
The island of Vis, more specifically Komiža, hosted our conference on water conservation on European islands because Vis has the most technologically advanced water resource monitoring system on the Adriatic. Therefore, not even during the time of the largest drought is it necessary to introduce reductions in water which, unfortunately, often occurs on our islands. In addition to Vis, Lastovo also participated in the project, and the idea is that these two islands could be a model for solutions to other islands that are struggling with water shortages. Many European islands are affected by the lack of potable water, Croatia isn’t an exception. The project was designed in cooperation with the Royal Institute of Technology from Stockholm and the European union of small and medium islands. Eight islands from Ireland, France, Greece and Croatia were included. That’s why I jokingly refer to this project as the “Four Seas Initiative”.
How can we sensitise the public for responsible water management?
The “Water Saving Challenge” (WaSaC) aims to reduce water consumption on islands, which will automatically enable us to save money for our citizens. Bringing potable water from the mainland, either through pipes or watercourses, isn’t always the best or the cheapest solution. That’s why we want to encourage and develop different models for the rational use of water and to sensitise the public for responsible water management. Why would we not, for example, open hotels that would encourage guests to save water along with a reward system?! Most people today don’t really think much about it, but why not try to alter bad habits? The working groups involved in this international project are exploring different local situations and setting up many parameters in order to make the solutions available in as many of the areas affected by the lack of water [as possible]. I expect the results to be presented at the beginning of next year. I’m particularly proud that the project, which is still being implemented, was awarded the prestigious “The Greening Islands Award” in the category of sustainable water management on the Italian island of Favignana on November the 4th. The international panel and the votes of the public decided that the WASAC project, whose main owners are the islanders themselves, has the greatest potential for successful application on the largest number of islands, and awarded it a reward in a tough competition of projects, including millions of infrastructure projects.
What is the reaction of locals like? Are they interested in these innovations?
From the citizen turnout to the conference, as well as the media coverage, it’s obvious that interest is undoubtedly there. Innovations include technological solutions, but also something more complex – changes in everyday human habits. The goal of this project is not to impose solutions on the islanders, in fact, we want to hear their suggestions. Thus, Vis, Lastovo or any other Croatian or European island with some water saving solutions can become examples of good practice not only for other islands but also for endangered coastal communities. At this stage, our research has already shown that the islanders can save up to a quarter of their own water.
Will it be possible to feel some more concrete changes as of 2020, in the sense that residents of the islands can say that they live better [have a better quality of life]?
To answer this question, three preconditions need to be met: to change the Commission’s approach to the islands, the relationship between domestic policies towards their islands under Croatia’s European Union membership conditions, and the approach of the islanders to the islands. As far as the first challenge is concerned, I’ve been working intensively for the last three years on the Resolution on the islands, and we’ve made a decisive breakthrough that gives us the right to believe that after 2020, the islands will have completely new tools available [to them] for development. National policy, through work on the new Law on Islands, has the opportunity to prove its understanding of the islanders and their needs. As far as the islanders are concerned, it is felt that the they increasingly understand the concept of sustainable development which requires their proactivity. In other words, securing new funds available to the islands will only be half of the work, and their withdrawal is far more important than the other half.
What is your view of the potential, and in this context, the future, of the islands of Dubrovnik-Neretva County? In what direction should they develop?
Dubrovnik’s islands, as well as [those of] the entire county, have a unique advantage, which is their proximity to Dubrovnik, which is the destination of an international voice, Croatia’s indisputable number one brand. It’s a real challenge to find a relationship between the reliance on such a mega destination and finding your own niche, developing your own recognisability and relying on your own resources. Anyone who has visited any of the inhabited Elaphites, Mljet, Korčula, Lastovo and Pelješac (which is a large island community) has no doubt that these communities have a strong tradition and identity. The development of Dubrovnik’s islands should aim primarily to answer the question of how to make life on the islands better for the islanders, and only then to make the island more attractive to tourists. A happy and contented island is a good host, and the future of tourism is undoubtedly in the living communities where the guest is a welcome participant, not the central source of survival.
Interview translated from Dubrovacki Dnevnik