Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The EU Single Market Forum, Krakow, Poland, 2011..!

As one of the five winners of the "Tell us your story" competition, organized the Polish Presidency of EU, the European Parliament and and the EU Commission, I had the honor of being invited to attend the EU Single Market Forum. The Forum took place in the beautiful city of Krakow, Poland on the 2nd to the 4th of October.

The Single Market Forum's (SIMFO) main aims were to bring together citizens, businesses and public authorities from all over Europe to take stock of the single European market as well as to discuss on new ideas for forthcoming initiatives and on how to improve implementation of the Single Market Act.

Since 1992, the Single Market has brought tremendous benefits and created new opportunities. But free movement of people, goods, services and capital does not always come about easily. The full potential of the Single Market is still unexploited.After a wide open debate, on 13 April 2011 the Commission has adopted the Single Market Act setting out a package of twelve key actions to further develop the Single Market.

 The two-day forum in Krakow will be the first of a series of similar conferences in coming years. It will mark the starting point of a constant debate among EU institutions and stakeholders on the development of the Single Market. (The above paragraphs were taken by the actual website of the SIMFO. You may find the information on the website at: http://www.tellusyourstory.eu/content/single-market-forum).

I arrived in Krakow on Sunday the 2nd of October around lunch time, with an Aer Lingus direct flight from Dublin. The weather was fantastic and amazingly warm and since I had the whole day ahead of me with no further obligations, I enjoyed strolling down the old city of Krakow on my own, shopping, browsing, dining and taking pictures for my albums. Krakow itself is a must-see European city, unspoiled, preserved with a rich and diverse heritage. The one thing that struck me apart from the vast number of aesthetically beautiful buildings, was the amount of nuns and priests roaming the city. I knew that Poland is a very religious country and Catholicism is deep rooted, but I was not expecting that.

The next day, Monday the 3rd of October was a very busy day. We met with the other four winners of the competition (Kimmo from Finland, Karolina from Poland, Barbrara from Austria and Alvaro from Spain) for breakfast in the Radisson Bleu Hotel's restaurant where we were booked, at 8.00 o'clock in the morning. At 9.00 we had to be at the Conference Center, about 20 minutes walk from the Hotel. The Forum was taking place in the Auditorium Maximum, at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. We registered after we passed all security checks at the entrance, and we went on to have another coffee before the conference begun.

There were about 1500 people attending the Forum mainly from Poland but many other EU countries as well. Politicians, MEPs, Commissioners, journalists, representatives from national Governments, think tanks, Unions and Trade Unions. The Conference was opened by its moderator, Mrs Jackie Davis. Soon after her introduction, followed speeches by the President of the European Parliament Mr. Jerzy Buzek, Poland's Deputy Prime Minister Mr. Waldemar Pawlak and the EU Commissioner for Internal Market and Services Mr. Michel Barnier.

Then our time arrived; the videos we filmed in Brussels about a month earlier were shown to the audience. Next we were called on stage by Mrs Davis to introduce us in person to the audience and we were interviewed by her. She asked us questions about our experiences, what problems we faced, how did we view the Single Market and what our suggestions would be to solve those issues we faced. Following that we had the honor to be presented with an award and a basket full of Krakowian delicacies by Mr Barnier and Mr. Pawlak. Then we returned to our seats and watched the comments on our videos and interviews, by some of the organizers, delegates and guests of the Forum like the Maltese MEP Mr. Louis Grech and British MEP Mr Malcolm Harbour.

Some amazing evidence were presented, on how much EU regulations are being misused, misunderstood and not properly applied by the EU member states. Sometimes because of ignorance of the rules and regulations by the officials in the national public services or simply by the inability of the member states to implement EU regulations. They have created the "Top 20" most common problems that people face when they shop, travel, study, move or work to another EU state from 20 real complaints and problems posted by EU citizens to various European portals. One thing that will stay in my mind was the case of a Danish girl that moved to Sweden and tried to open a bank account; but to do that she needed to have an permanent address in Sweden, and to have that she needed to have a bank account in order to give her details to her land lord and set up a direct debit, so she could rent a property. So she was stuck in a vicious circle, in vain because there are EU regulations that prevents and solves similar issues, but simply she and the Swedish bank employees were unaware of them! That opened my eyes on why people are so skeptic about their rights and the benefits that EU membership offers; they simply do not have a clue or if they do, it is the officials in their national public services that they lack the necessary knowledge!

The lunch break took place then and we had the opportunity to meet and mingle with various people. Many would come to congratulate us, others to get to know us better or comment on our experience. Soon many conversations turned political and of course we started talking about the current crisis and the situation in Greece.I was in my element. My discussions with Jenni Nikander, a Finnish employee of the EU Commission are most memorable!

Later on we had to go back to the conference and choose a workshop to participate, according our own interests or choice. There were around 7-8 workshops taking place at the same time in many different rooms of the conference center. I thought that the most appropriate for me, or of some interest would be the one regarding on how to bridge the gap that exists between the different EU institutions and the citizens. Because that is what my story was about; not knowing what is out there, our rights and opportunities that are left unexplored or unexploited simply because the people are not aware of them!

The workshop had the Polish MEP Mrs Roza Thun as a rapporteur, who she was also one of the main organizers of the Forum. We discussed the reasons why the people are unaware of many EU portals or institutions, how can we make the citizens more aware of them, the benefits of having more active participation by the citizens and other solutions, problems and challenges that we are facing when it comes to the Single Market. It was very interesting, lots of brain power and many ideas were flying around the room and some very interesting points of view. There were representatives from EURES, the program that helped me find my first job in Ireland, and also SOLVIT , a portal that helps EU citizens when faced with problems dealing with the Common Market and handles problems with a cross-border element that are due to bad application of EU law by public authorities within the EU member states.

They have presented their agencies and what they do, their plans for the future, the challenges they are facing and what they have achieved so far. Comments came from ordinary folk mainly from Poland, but from other representatives of Unions and Trade Unions from other EU states. The workshop finished around 6 o'clock in the evening and then  we were free to continue exploring and enjoying Krakow.

We arranged to meet with the other winners, go for a meal, a few drinks and experience the Krakowian night life! An experience that gave me the opportunity to make some new good friends like Tiina, the wife of the Finnish winner of the competition and Roberta, an Italian lawyer that was representing her firm that deals with problems arising from the misuse of the Single Market. We had a wonderful night out, but early enough we decided to go back to our hotel rooms as the next morning we had to attend the Forum again for the last day of it. And not only that, but we were all flying back home later that evening!

While we were out, the rapporteurs and other analysts were working most of the evening to come to conclusions, gather the results of our discussions of the previous day and present them to the audience the next morning! The Conference started again with the presentation by its moderator Mrs Davis of all the rapporteurs and soon after they took their turn on presenting what was being discussed by the rest of us in the workshops. One Austrian EU Commission employee, Mr Robert Wein approached the winners of the "Tell us your story" competition, and asked three of us to present the results and conclusions of the workshops (The Krakow Declaration) on a symbolic gesture to the appropriate officials. So I volunteered and I was given a scroll with the results of the first EU Forum on the Common Market to give to a representative of the Polish Government. It should have been the Polish PM Mr Donald Tusk, but to my disappointment because of the on going electoral campaign that was taking place in Poland at the time, he was not able to make it to the Forum!

After a short coffee break, most of the organizers and delegates took their turn to conclude and make a last comment on the conclusions of the Forum, and then it all ended. Me and the rest of the winners gathered for one last drink and some lunch in the main square of Krakow, the Rynek Glowny! We said our goodbyes and headed to the airport. I arrived in Dublin late that night, tired but so pleased that I had the opportunity to experience an event like this.

To me this was a first glimpse of the works of EU and its institutions, and a renewal of hope. Despite its bureaucracy and an often very slow reaction to the citizens problems, I saw democracy in the process and for the first time I was a part of it! I was able to discuss, share my views and opinion with MEPs and EU officials, debate and learn more on what other people like me are facing in their dealings with officials of another EU country. I have learned where the problems can be found and what must to be done to deal with them. I have made wonderful new friends and learned more about opportunities that I can explore and exploit as an EU citizen. I only hope that the EU officials take this opportunity and do something about it. Press our national Governments to improve the knowledge of their officials and the knowledge of the citizens about those opportunities and rights. I hope all this effort and ideas won't go wasted and stay in the papers only; it will be such a pity!


You may visit my new friend's Tiina Linkama photo-blog to see the pictures she took from the EU Forum at the following link: http://www.villaottilia.ee/winners/

You may view and read the Krakow Declaration here: http://ec.europa.eu/internal_market/top_layer/docs/simfo-declaration-op-conclusions_en.pdf

You may visit EURES 's web page at: http://ec.europa.eu/eures/home.jsp?lang=en

Finally you may learn more about SOLVIT at: http://ec.europa.eu/solvit/site/index_en.htm

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