De Grensregio: from common history to common challenges

Yesterday I went to Antwerp to collect the keys for my new room. Being there, I started wondering why and how more and better cooperation between Flemish and Dutch organisations would be a good thing for our region. Interreg facilitates this cooperation, but with what purpose? And why do we even consider this area a ‘region’? What makes it unique? Before I start my volunteering experience in August, I want to know a little bit more about the Grensregio (Dutch for ‘border region’), its qualities and its challenges.

Most of yesterday’s questions were actually triggered by the absence of difference I noticed while traveling south. While the train ride from Rotterdam to Antwerp doesn’t take much more than one hour, my parents were kind enough to bring me (and the few poorly taped moving boxes I brought) by car. As it was a warm and sunny day in our normally rather drizzly region, we decided to go for a short hike in a cross-border nature reserve before continuing our trip to Antwerp. It would be hard to tell at what point we crossed the border if it wasn’t for the change in number plate colours. Sure, when you start looking for differences, you’ll notice the changes in architecture and infrastructure. But from my point of view, most of these differences are quite underwhelming. People speak the same language and walk around in clothes coming from the same shops. Forests, factories and fields start on one side of the border and continue on the other. So many of us may wonder: why do we need further integration in a region that already seems so homogenous?

 

Before we answer that question, it might be useful to think a bit about the political and socio-economic characteristics of the region. The area we’re talking about stretches from the hills of Limburg all the way to the beaches of West Flanders. It consists of 5 Flemish provinces (West-Vlaanderen, Oost-Vlaanderen, Antwerpen, Vlaams-Brabant, Limburg) and 3 Dutch provinces (Zeeland, Noord-Brabant, Limburg). These provinces are much older the nation-states they are part of, having roots in the Burgundian Netherlands and the Habsburg era that followed. They share a history of trade, war and cultural and scientific development. And even though the sound of the language varies marginally in every province, Dutch is spoken and understood throughout the region. While the Belgian and Dutch provinces nowadays have slightly different political responsibilities, they all play an intermediating role between municipalities and the federal/national government. As such, provinces are able to develop a broader vision than municipalities, while still standing closer to local sentiments than the federal/national government. Municipalities, provinces, ministerial departments and other government agencies all play a role in the political life in this region, each bearing different political interests in mind.

The Grensregio knows a great variety in terms of economic activity, geography and social development. One thing you’ll notice when traveling through this region is that the landscape is largely dominated by farmland. Thinking about economic activity in this region therefore means thinking about agriculture too. Nevertheless, much of the economic activity takes place in and around the urban areas. A few large towns in the region are Antwerp, Breda, Eindhoven, Ghent, Den Bosch, Maastricht and Tilburg. And there’s a lot going on in these towns! If you check the European Commission’s Regional Innovation Scoreboard, you’ll find that the Southern Dutch Provinces and Flanders are leading in Europe in terms of innovation. Among others, this result is measured by looking at how much businesses spend on research and development, the number of patent applications and the number of scientific publications. Indeed, Interreg identifies the (high-tech) industrial sector as determinant component of our regional economy. This characteristic goes hand in hand with the presence of many knowledge institutes, among which several public universities. Finally, life in the Grensregio is influenced by its the strategic geographical location. Being situated at the heart of Northwestern Europe, openness towards the outside world is crucial for regional development. The port of Antwerp and the nearby port of Rotterdam underline the non-isolated character of the area.

So, we have a relatively innovative, highly educated, urban and industrialised region, with a common language. What challenges are there to address? Following Dutch soccer player Cruijff’s logic: every disadvantage has its advantage. And the other way around too. The general level of welfare and consumption and the industrial character of the economy have some side-effects. Interreg has identified four major challenges for the region.

First, due to the relatively high wages in the region, it has become hard to compete with other regions based on the cost of  labour. The Grensregio therefore needs to be innovative to maintain a healthy level of competitiveness. Second, the Grensregio faces serious environmental problems. As mentioned before, the region is characterised by intensive agriculture, strong industries and large urban areas. It is among the most densely populated areas in the world. The pressure on the environment is therefore high: think about energy consumption, waste levels, and the use of natural resources. Biodiversity loss in the region is immense, with about 10%-20% of original species present today. To meet international agreements on greenhouse gas emissions and to improve the general quality of life, there’s a strong need for policies that (continue to) make the economy more sustainable. Third, rapidly changing labour market dynamics require a continuous search for new equilibria between the supply of/demand for labour. Our ageing population, for example, strongly influences the supply of labour. On the other side of the spectrum, there’s an increasing demand for highly and versatilely educated people. Traditional knowledge of facts alone is not enough: people need to be able to learn and re-learn at all stages in their professional lives. And finally, the labour markets on each side of the border are not well adjusted to one another. Improvements on the physical cross-border infrastructure could contribute to more labour mobility throughout the region.

In sum, the Grensregio faces four major challenges:

  • Its economy needs to stay competitive and thus innovative;
  • it needs to deal with the environmental consequences of its economy;
  • it needs to address rapidly changing labour market dynamics;
  • it needs to improve the cross-border mobility to avoid missing economic opportunities.

These challenges are real on both sides of the border. It will therefore be easier to tackle them when companies and public organisations from the entire region combine their forces and expertise. Interreg Flanders-the Netherlands encourages this type of cooperation. It supports cross-border initiatives that are thematically related to one or several of the challenges identified above. For example by facilitating cross-border research on the use of recycled waste water for agricultural, industrial or even hygienic purposes. F2AGRI is an exemplary project that facilitates the use of chemically cleaned waste water for agricultural purposes. Another example is the project 2BConnect, in which private companies (learn to) contribute to the development of green infrastructure. This project not only helps to prevent further biodiversity loss around the border, it also reduces industry-induced noise and air pollution.

I’ve learned a couple of things trying to answer the questions above. Flanders and the Southern Netherlands are united by more than their common history and language. It’s a blossoming region with innovative cities and a global mindset. Nevertheless, the area faces some serious challenges which are not contained within national borders. Cross-border cooperation between companies and governments can turn these challenges into opportunities. United under the Interreg framework, many people from the Netherlands and Belgium seize these opportunities every day, making the region more innovative, sustainable, liveable and mobile. I would encourage anyone to explore some of these projects and be inspired by them!

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