As you have certainly noticed, it has been a while since I was a school boy, but I do remember some of my Greek mythology – mostly because it was a very exciting subject for the generation who grew up without James Bond or Indiana Jones. And it was in Greek mythology that I heard about the Adriatic Sea for the first time. If my memory is correct, it was not very far from where we are today, that Jason and his team of Argonauts had reached the sea-shore and set sail towards Greece, pursued by the fuming Colchians determined to recapture not only the Golden Fleece, but also their King’s daughter, Medea.
Colchians, according to my colleagues who paid attention in their history classes, were a people living on the coast of the Black Sea, in what is today Georgia. It is a striking coincidence that the legend of the Golden Fleece – the mythical treasure sought by Jason and the Argonauts - connects the Adriatic Sea and the Black Sea, and therefore the two parts of our continent to become Euro-regions at the initiative of the Council of Europe and specifically our Congress of Local and Regional Authorities.
The Mediterranean Sea has always been a dish of cultures – and its northernmost arm – the Adriatic Sea – is no exception. This is where – geographically and culturally – south meets north and east meets west. This is a region rich with historic, cultural and natural heritage – which includes, of course, the astonishing City of the Doges, but also the melancholic beauty of Istria, the scattered pearls of the Kornati archipelago, the ancient walls of Dubrovnik, the imposing sights of the Bay of Kotor and the pristine nature of the seashore near Vlora or Saranda most of which my wife and I have seen and enjoyed during our holidays in this region.
The Adriatic Sea – locked between the Apennine and Balkan peninsulas, is also a region rich with history – sometimes perhaps too rich. In the past, including the very recent past – as we all sadly remember – this part of Europe had been embroiled in bitter conflicts causing immeasurable human pain and physical destruction. History is not a kind teacher, and when we do not listen to its lessons, it comes back with a vengeance. But we can learn from our past in order to create – together - a better, safer and more prosperous future.
That is why the Council of Europe attaches so much importance to the recognition of Euro-regions such as the one we are launching today – bringing together countries with long historical links and a common cultural heritage – Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, and their neighbour, Greece. In recent years, the idea of setting up an Adriatic Euro-region - first launched by the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe and the regions of Istria in Croatia and Molise in Italy - has received growing international support.
This new initiative is neither a waiting room nor an alternative to membership in the European Union, which is an objective for all participating countries which are not yet members of the 25. It is a project which has a value in itself - a Golden Fleece for the 21st century if you wish – achieved through reinforced regional cooperation in order to protect natural resources, strengthen social cohesion through joint projects in agriculture, fisheries, tourism and transport, and provide a platform for cultural cooperation and exchange. If successful in bringing these ambitious objectives to life, this Adriatic Euro-region will logically and inevitably contribute to the dismantling of the existing dividing lines in Europe.
Our project of a network of Euro-regions has another very important underlying ambition. In the Council of Europe, we are determined to bring issues of cooperation in Europe closer to our citizens. An important way of achieving it is by striking the right balance between the involvement of national and local authorities in this cooperation. Our starting point is that good governance cannot be delivered without a direct and meaningful contribution from local and regional authorities. We also understand that it is at this level that the results of our efforts to improve the quality of lives of Europeans are most likely to be noticed, accepted and appreciated by the citizens. Local and regional democracy also offers the entry level for engagement in democratic processes.
The turning point for this initiative was the international conference in Termoli in November 2004, when the participants signed the Protocol on the establishment of the Adriatic Euro-region and created a temporary Adriatic Council, composed of representatives of the Adriatic regions of Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Albania.
Launching the Adriatic Euro-region is an integral part of the long-standing action by the Council of Europe in promoting cross-border cooperation. Last year, we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the European Outline Convention on Transfrontier Co-operation between Territorial Communities or Authorities, adopted by the Council of Europe in 1980 in Madrid. However, only four of the seven countries in the Adriatic region, namely Albania, Croatia, Italy and Slovenia are parties to the Madrid Outline Convention. I should like to use this opportunity to call on Greece and Serbia and Montenegro to sign and Bosnia and Herzegovina to ratify this Convention as early as possible.
I have already mentioned that the Adriatic Euro-region is the first in a series planned by the Council of Europe and our Congress to promote cross-border cooperation between its member states. I look forward to the preparatory conference on the Black Sea Euro-region, which will be organised by the Romanian Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers in March, and then, I hope, to the establishment of a Baltic Sea Euro-region.
When created, the three Euro-regions will bring together countries around three semi-locked seas in Europe. The maritime focus is of course not incidental. It has many practical reasons – from environmental to social, cultural and strategic ones – but also a poignant symbolic meaning. To describe it, I will borrow from Jacques Cousteau, a man who knew everything about the sea, and learnt much about humankind. He said that the sea was a great unifier and man's only hope. Now, as never before, the old phrase has a literal meaning: We are all in the same boat!