Fifteen years ago, Europe was a surprisingly different place. The rusting hulk of the iron curtain had finally collapsed, and the dust was still settling. Further east, the Soviet Union was staggering towards oblivion, while further west, the 12 Member States of the European Community were continuing with plans for a single currency. This was the world, which, on 15 February 1991, witnessed the birth of the Visegrad Group.
From the start, the aim of the group's founding members was to strengthen stability in Central Europe. Rather than isolating themselves from the rest of Europe, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia encouraged cooperation with all countries, especially their immediate neighbors. They promoted democratic values across Europe, while preserving and promoting cultural cohesion, and celebrating common values in the fields of culture, education and science. In short, they seized control of their own destiny, and jointly paved the way for a smooth transition to their subsequent membership in the European Union and other international alliances. By successfully meeting the challenges of this cooperation, the Visegrad Group members helped equip themselves and each other with the attributes necessary for successful integration into the European Union. Even today, the Visegrad Group see themselves as completing and reinforcing the work of existing structures in Europe, both at the EU and transatlantic level.
The Member States of the EU have long recognized the importance of cooperation when working towards common goals, even in areas traditionally held to be the responsibility of national, regional or even local authorities. One example of this is education policy. While education is a matter for the Member States' or regions' authorities, the EU institutions have been instrumental in bringing these authorities together to work towards common goals for the benefit of Europe as a whole.
The European Commission in particular has been very active in this area. A new method of coordination, the so-called "Open Method of Coordination", was used with great success to improve the level of cooperation among the Member States. Under this system, Member States translate European guidelines into national and regional policies, set targets and adopt measures through monitoring, evaluation and peer review, while adhering to timetables, indicators and benchmarks to compare best practice. The result has been a dramatic rise in cooperation among the Member States and regions on education issues over recent years.
This approach has also become increasingly important in making a success of our Lisbon Strategy for Growth and Jobs - the number one priority of my Commission. Europe's regions have been quick to respond to this challenge. One example of their activities is so-called "Lisbon Regions Network". This was set up to emphasise the relevance of Europe's regions in the delivery of the Strategy for Growth and Jobs, and to explore the specific role that regional authorities play in meeting Lisbon's objectives and targets.
In this context, regional groupings like Visegrad Group are clearly very appropriate for delivering a valuable and effective regional response to our Strategy for Growth and Jobs and other Community policies.
Effective cooperation at the regional level is an excellent way to reinforce the efficiency and proximity of action taken at the EU level. The International Visegrad Fund (IVF), with its support for cultural, scientific and educational projects, exchanges between young people, crossborder cooperation and tourism promotion, is a very good example of the regional dimension reinforcing initiatives at the European level.
Of course, the success of EU actions and programmes in these fields is not just measured in terms of the number of projects funded, but also by their impact on European citizens' attitudes and choices. For example, a more cohesive Europe needs to promote European citizenship; civic participation by European citizens is evidence that they feel they belong, and can identify with a shared vision for Europe. Such citizenship starts by getting to know the neighbors better - precisely what the Visegrad Group has always aimed at.
Last year's referenda in France and the Netherlands on the European Constitution showed that the biggest proportion of "no" votes was among the young. This may partly reflect a growing sense of alienation among the young, a perceived lack of influence in the political process. This trend can be reversed by clearly demonstrating to young people the added value of the European Union: how the EU is working to improve Europe's education systems, how it is creating new and better jobs, how it is helping Member States lay the foundations for sustainable prosperity and economic development, and bringing youth issues onto the mainstream political agenda. So the exchanges between young people funded by the International Visegrad Fund can be seen as yet another example of action at the regional level directly complementing efforts at EU level in the fields of education, culture, citizenship and youth policy.
Overall, the European Union welcomes the Visegrad Group's approach of strengthening cooperation among the new Member States and elsewhere, and promoting cultural and educational exchanges and mobility, to promote better mutual understanding. Being a wellestablished political association, with a long tradition of successful cooperation, the Visegrad Group is particularly well-equipped to take this kind of initiative forward, and make further valuable contributions, for the greater good of the European Union as a whole. For all these reasons, I offer my best wishes on this, the Visegrad Group's 15th birthday, and look forward to another 15 years of fruitful cooperation.
José Manuel Barrosso
President of the European Commission (since November 2004). Former member of parliament for the PSD party. In 2002 became Prime Minister of Portugal.