SHETLAND looks set to regain the highest level of regional aid by the end of this month following last week’s visit from European commissioner Johannes Hahn.
So impressed was he by how Shetland had spent state aid in recent years, Hahn wants the islands to demonstrate to other European communities how to maximise the value of public funding.
The commissioner now intends to invite Shetland Islands Council leader Gary Robinson to Brussels to present the islands to some of the movers and shakers in the corridors of power.
Robinson in turn hopes to see Europeans flying in to see for themselves how structural funds are being spent in places like Lerwick harbour and the NAFC Marine Centre.
Immediately after his 36 hour visit, Hahn attended a Scottish government regional aid workshop in Edinburgh where he made it clear member states could overrule Europe’s edict that Shetland only receive half the 40 per cent subsidies permitted elsewhere in the highlands and islands.
Since then both northern isles MP and cabinet member Alistair Carmichael and Scottish deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon have pledged to put their weight behind Shetland’s case.
Robinson said he expected a decision to be made by the end of this month.
“I am absolutely delighted that the European Commission has listened to our case and considered it and I think it is now very much over to the UK government,” Robinson said.
“I am quite hopeful we will gain their support and regain our regional aid status so we will be able to continue to support local business and organisations in Shetland as we have done in the past.”
Emboldened by Hahn’s enthusiasm, Robinson is setting his sights on greater things such as bringing Shetland’s transport costs in line with other remote parts of Europe.
“It costs the best part of £700 to take a family of four with a car to Aberdeen, almost four times as much as it costs the same family to reach the Canary Islands from Spain,” he said.
Shetland should be eligible for the same “operational aid” the Canaries enjoy, he believes, and such subsidies should apply to non-islanders as well.
He has been eyeing up a successful pilot of gas-powered ferries on the Baltic Sea as one way to reduce the enormous cost of burning 4,000 litres of fuel an hour when the NorthLink ferries run at full speed.
That cost is likely to go up further in 2015 when the European carbon directive forces NorthLink to work with a higher grade of fuel to cut its emissions.
The SIC leader’s ambitions even extend as far as securing a direct air link to Europe, saying Hahn had been shocked at the cost and complexity of reaching Shetland from his home town of Vienna.
There is no question that Shetland now has an enthusiastic advocate in the highest echelons of the European Commission.
During his brief tour of the isles he spent an hour with senior councillors hearing about their hopes and fears for the future, especially with the loss of 40 per cent state aid status.
After that he toured Mareel, took a trip around Lerwick harbour, visited a Hjaltland house and Lerwick power station to hear about the revolutionary NINES project, spent time with researchers at the NAFC Marine Centre and met businessman Angus Grains to hear about his biofuel scheme.
At the end of his visit he said Shetland used its state aid “extremely intelligently” and “better than is normally the case”, providing “a good case study” from which other parts of Europe could learn.
“Shetland has started to invest the money in energy efficiency and production of renewable energy, so this is everything which is exactly the target of the whole of Europe,” he said.
“In that respect the Shetlands are ahead for what we are planning for Europe.
“So I think I will invite Gary Robinson to present Shetland in Brussels so people get a first (hand) idea of what is possible if you are committed and determined.
“Shetland could be a good example…because this is also Europe, to offer people the possibility to learn from each other.”