Taking open borders to the next level

You can find a summary of this article in DG Regio’s Panorama No. 63 

My uncle and aunt just returned from a road trip along the wildly beautiful coast line of northern Spain. While their original plan was to travel from Bilbao to Porto, keeping things Spanish turned out to be the easier alternative. Overcoming the legal and administrative nightmare of picking up a rental car in one of the Iberian states and returning it in the other was not how they decided to spend their holidays. For them, this cross-border obstacle was a new and temporary inconvenience of minor importance. For others, these issues are a daily reality.

On 20 and 21 September 2017, the European Commission hosted an event to present its brand new Communication: ‘Boosting Growth and Cohesion in European Border Regions’. The event was held in the charming Châtelaine or Kastelijn area in Brussels. Apart from the convenience of having many European institutions nearby, Brussels meets more criteria for hosting an event about border regions than one might expect from a capital city. Located in the heart of a country with possibly more tangible internal than external borders, the city’s multilingualism reminds us of the effects that past and present borders can have on daily life. For two days in a row, this scenery provided the setting for a get-together of European policymakers, experts and stakeholders who wish to draw attention to border regions. I attended this event as a European Solidarity Corps volunteer to share my enthusiasm for Interreg Volunteer Youth (IVY), an initiative that connects young European volunteers to Interreg programs and projects.

I have three main thoughts about the Communication. First of all, spending about as much time in Belgium as in the Netherlands, I am happy with the Commission’s renewed commitment to European border regions. Administrative and legal differences between states complicate everyday life even in our unilingual region. Nevertheless, volunteering as an IVY reporter for Interreg Vlaanderen-Nederland, I have noticed a lack of attention for Interreg programs after 2020. I believe that these programs can continue to contribute to regional integration by exploiting their vast networks of project partners to identify legal and administrative barriers between states. Interreg could well contribute to public appreciation of the EU in general. Not only because the programs stand close to the public, but also because they deliver concrete results within relatively short periods of time. They connect border regions to Europe. Finally, as a European Solidarity Corps volunteer, I miss a youth-specific dimension to the Communication. Young Europeans growing up in border regions are experts on the ‘cross-border way of life’. Consequences of border obstacles affect their future particularly harshly. While the Commission has proposed actions that will most likely improve the quality of life of young border citizens, it remains unclear to me how youth will be included in policy-making processes. IVY could serve as a great mediator between border region youth and policymakers.

Let me expand a bit on each of these thoughts.

European Border Regions – what’s at stake?

 There is no continent with as many internal borders as Europe. Border regions cover 40% of the EU territory and account for 30% of the population. While every region is unique, border regions have in common that buzzing capital cities are often blind to their specific issues. It is not without reason that the Commission has now presented a Communication that specifically addresses border-issues. All European citizens have the right to move, work, study or use services in other EU countries. These rights are especially important for border communities. Invisible as borders may be, however, Europe is still fragmented by administrative, legal, political and psychological barriers. These complexities do not just cost time and money, they compromise the freedom of citizens to carry out their citizenship. The Communication highlights a few striking examples:

“Firefighters can be made to wait at the border before being allowed to go and help their colleagues on the other side. In several Member States restrictions apply for ambulances to take patients across the border.”

“Companies doing business across borders spend 60% more than businesses operating domestically to carry out key procedures, mainly because of additional translation and certification costs.”

“A person who suffered a work-related accident in Sweden could not receive rehabilitation care at home in Denmark because of incomplete mutual agreements in the social security systems of the two countries.”

Clearly, borders still affect the daily lives of Europeans in many different ways. The Commission does not always have the competence to tackle these issues by itself. It needs support and active participation from Member States and regional actors. A top-down policy formulated by a single actor would miss the point. Each region is unique in terms of challenges as well as political organization. Therefore, the Commission has decided to interpret its Communication as a ‘toolbox’ to facilitate interaction among local, regional and national actors. The tools it presents are inspired by previous cases of successful cross-border cooperation. Think about the establishment of a system of mutual recognition of qualifications in the Benelux countries and North-Rhine Westphalia. Recent cooperation between Belgian and French health care providers permits Belgian patients to receive dialysis treatment 3km from home, in France. Before, patients used to travel 200km three times a week to receive similar treatment from a Belgian provider. These cases demonstrate that border challenges can be transformed into opportunities. The ‘toolbox’ combines lessons-learned from these examples with new studies and public consultations. As such, it can help border communities overcome obstacles in the future.

Inspiring speeches, promising words

It is time to act. That was the message of all speakers present on 20 September. The event was opened by Commissioner Crețu for Regional Policy. She highlighted the difficulties that many inhabitants of border regions face if they wish to interact with fellow citizens across the border. The current Communication, she expects, can simplify life along the border. Referring to President Juncker’s State of the Union speech, she underlined that “there can be no second class citizens in the EU” and that “like all European citizens, inhabitants of border regions must be able to make use of their rights and freedoms.” The Commissioner was followed by Mr. Lambertz, President of the European Committee of the Regions. He confirmed his appreciation of the Communication: “this is a practical document with hands-on suggestions, based on in-depth knowledge of the situation in border regions”. He furthermore stressed the importance of cohesion policy in general and pleaded for its continuation after 2020.

The introductory session was continued with a personal anecdote coming from Mr. Lenaers, MEP for the Dutch Christian Democrats. Lenaers: “I was born in the most beautiful village in the Netherlands, 200m from the Belgian border, 30km from the German one. I am the result of a cross-border marriage. So I have a natural affection for the topic.” He warned us for the false romanticization of closed borders. “The history of my village revolves around the smuggling of simple products. Having opened our borders, there is no more need for such practices. We cannot let voices who want to return to these times become dominant in EU politics,” he argued with fervor. Appreciative of what has already been achieved to remove Europe’s internal borders, he remains critical of the current situation. Open borders to him sometimes feel like a paper reality. People still face too many administrative, legal and social obstacles around borders in their daily routines. “We have to overcome these complexities to erase borders from the hearts and minds of people,” he concluded.

The new Communication aims to achieve this through several action points. The Commission will establish an online professional network where legal and administrative border issues and solutions can be presented and discussed between stakeholders. Before the end of 2017, it will launch an open call for pilot projects by public authorities wishing to resolve one or more border-specific legal or administrative issues. Up to 20 projects will be selected as demonstrations for future reference. Furthermore, the Commission will intensify research on cross-border impacts and provide expertise to Member States. The Commission also suggests Member States increase their effort to digitalize government facilities and continue its own e-government projects. For example, it has recently proposed a Single Digital Gateway, which will provide easy access to information, administrative procedures and assistance services. Other suggestions made to national and regional authorities include the promotion of border multilingualism, the reinforcement of cooperation between employment services, and investment in further integrated public transport services. On this last note, the Commission itself will deliver a study on missing rail-links in 2018. By that same year, it intends to share a comprehensive overview of EU cross-border health cooperation. All these steps will be coordinated and facilitated by a ‘Border Focal Point’ within the Commission. This focal point will soon become operational.

Soon is too late for some international spirits who already think and act beyond borders. Erik Joosten, Founder and CEO of Arion, truly sparked the imagination of the audience with his story. Situated in the Dutch province of Limburg, his company is better connected to cities in Germany and Belgium than to the rest of the Netherlands. When trying to interact with neighboring markets, however, Joosten often found himself limited by administrative burdens and a general sense of closed-mindedness coming from each side of the border. In his experience, it is harder to overcome the fear of border-issues than to actually solve these issues themselves. “We cross the border every weekend for shopping or recreation, but when we put on our suits we all face the Hague or Berlin,” he noted at the event. Arion decided to challenge this introverted behavior. An unconventional idea came to mind: their new office had to be built exactly on the German-Dutch border. The construction, and above all, the paperwork before the construction, was anything but easy. Finding consensus on safety regulations proved to be particularly burdensome. “In case of a fire, Dutch fire brigades need you to be able to close the roof to prevent oxygen from coming in. In contrast, German laws require a roof that can open, so that the smoke can escape,” Joosten exemplified. But Rome wasn’t built in a day. Armed with determination and a good dose of optimism, Arion eventually succeeded at constructing a cross-border company site. “For every issue we ended up selecting the safest construction method. You really have no idea how safe this building is,” Joosten playfully said. The new location delivers some practical advantages too. Staff can be put on both Dutch and German payrolls, for example. More importantly, however, Arion’s story is food for thought for policymakers. A remaining piece of the Berlin wall rises from the company grounds to symbolically contrast the firm’s international mindset. In the end, Joosten believes that this expensive adventure has been worth every penny. He hopes that his story will lead to further simplification of cross-border entrepreneurship.

The Commission did well to include this story in the Conference’s program. Its spirit truly captivates the valuable philosophy behind the new Communication: vision, will-power and dialogue can turn border obstacles into opportunities.

Interreg and IVY: social capital for border regions

 While the Commission will take some concrete steps to overcome border region obstacles, the challenge ahead rests on the shoulders of many actors. Writing from the perspective of IVY, I have noticed that the future of Interreg is not reconfirmed in the current Communication. It seems from the Conference that the Commission questions the ability of Interreg programs to contribute to a reduction of administrative and legal border issues. Ms. Andersson Pench from DG Regio explains: “We look forward to continue working with Interreg programs, but we have to see their added value at an EU level. We will need to think about how to gear these programs for the future. How can they help us remove border obstacles?”

Here lies a great challenge and opportunity for Interreg. I believe that Interreg programs can play a large role in identifying and specifying administrative and legal obstacles. They could share best practices too. Being in touch with many cross-border projects, Interreg programs collect cross-border experiences directly from the source. Regional authorities, entrepreneurs and scientists are often already connected through Interreg, but they are not always aware of this. I expect that innovative solutions can be achieved by means of cross-fertilization of existing knowledge hidden in these networks. A great example is the Dutch-Flemish project DEMI MORE, which has the ambition to develop an internationally applicable norm to evaluate the energy-efficiency of monuments. This could strengthen market competitiveness of monuments across borders. The project works with an already existent environmental assessment method, called BREEAM. In the Netherlands, the Dutch Green Building Council is responsible for adjusting BREEAM to national legislation. The project therefore closely cooperates with this agency. Such an agency does not exist for the Belgian market. Project partners have therefore decided to first develop a Dutch norm for monuments and subsequently use this process as a model for the Belgian case. Given the different legal and administrative contexts in both states, this project will deliver valuable information about cross-border barriers and how to overcome them. Interreg Vlaanderen-Nederland monitors and analyzes the developments made within this project. It has a great overview of best practices and solutions to specific problems.

During the short time that I have been volunteering at the Joint Secretariat in Antwerp, I have noticed that a lot of synergy exists between the projects within this one Interreg program. Just imagine the added value that could come about when all these projects come together at a European level and exchange experiences in thematically organized clusters. While a lot of data is already collected in the KEEP database, the Commission’s proposed online professional network could well facilitate a constant exchange of best practices.

Interreg can generate enthusiasm for European regional policy as its innovative projects reach communities directly. Renovated buildings, protected nature reserves, improved infrastructure – these are all tangible results of Interreg programs that improve the quality of life in cross-border regions. But simply placing an EU flag on static information boards won’t do the job. People should be able to ‘grow’ along with Interreg programs and experience how opportunities are created relating to different aspects of their lives. Education and mobility opportunities are being created for students of all ages, while open innovation can support young entrepreneurs. Nature parks provide recreational options for families, while health care innovations address problems coming with our ageing population. Such connections can be illustrated through visually appealing campaigns, like digital posters, informal blogs, or personal visits to schools, universities or other public institutions. Given that each Interreg program focuses on the challenges in one specific region, the investment strategy for that region is tailor-made. This gives the program a very personal character. Through Interreg, people living on each side of the border learn that they share responsibilities and interests with their foreign neighbours and can achieve great things by means of cross-border cooperation.

IVY is a one initiative that can boost public awareness of Interreg programmes, especially by involving youth in Europe’s path towards truly open borders. It allows young people from border regions (and beyond) to contribute to regional development or disseminate information about EU investments in border regions. Interreg Project Partners (IVY) are volunteers that are directly involved with one specific Interreg project. They perform hands-on work and witness the development of the project from within. As such, they are aware of all of the cross-border obstacles that these projects try to overcome. Interreg Reporters (IVY) perform a broader, more journalistic task. Their aim is to collect and spread information about one Interreg program, working from a Management Authority or Joint Secretariat. Reporters can go on project visits or use data collected by Project Partners to develop and share regionally relevant stories with a personal touch. They give Interreg (and therewith EU regional policy) a face. Finally, all the IVY volunteers together form a network of ambitious and engaged young citizens who develop knowledge and passion about cross-border regions through their IVY experience. Like Interreg, IVY generates social capital for border regions.

United in diversity

I volunteer because I believe that actively demonstrating European solidarity is a great way of generating mutual understanding among European communities. In contrast, cross-border obstacles push people back into their own corners. The current Communication tries to build bridges across borders with hands-on suggestions, such as its online professional network. The two-day conference in September helped create a common vision among local, regional and national policymakers and other stakeholders, like myself. Now is the moment for all of these actors to speed up and intensify their efforts to overcome border issues. Interreg will continue to support cross-border projects on a day-to-day basis. Together with its youth-branch, IVY, it generates social capital that can identify border obstacles and stimulate the necessary collective action to overcome these obstacles. Interreg networks can become especially fruitful when combined with the practical tools suggested in the Communication. With sufficient political will and the Commission’s ‘toolbox’, Europe can exploit existing resources to take open borders to the next level. Truly open borders permit the emergence of multilingual and culturally diverse communities, in which people from different states come together to pursue shared interests and carry shared responsibilities. As such, border regions can become powerful symbols of the EU’s motto: united in diversity.

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