From Ostrava with Love

Human rights in the EU are under attack. But against the backdrop of this democratic decay, solidarity continues to travel across borders. Yesterday, I shared Raymond’s message of hope, which expressed disappointment with recent developments in eastern Europe, while acknowledging global progress. Today I would like to share Dominik’s letter, another response to my earlier post on Europe Day 2020:

I am Dominik and I live in the Czech Republic. When the first Polish municipality proclaimed itself as an LGBT-free zone, it was shocking news to me. I could not believe that this was happening only a few kilometres from my home city. However, I was sure that other villages and towns would refuse this repugnant strategy, aimed at attracting attention and gaining political points. A huge disillusion came when other municipalities supported this vision of social exclusion. This flurry of hatred and discrimination suddenly invaded a third of the Polish territory and took away from thousands of young people the liberty to express their sexuality freely. I keep asking myself: Do we not teach children to be tolerant and open-minded? Isn’t genuine love the value we praise most in our society? Is it really so difficult to understand and accept that others might have different feelings? For some, seemingly, it is, and the LGBT-free movement unfortunately proves that. However, despite this massive lack of sensibility and understanding in some individuals, there are hundreds of brave young people in Poland who do not give up and express their disagreement by organizing protests, speaking out loud about the problem or signing petitions. I much admire these people, who risk verbal aggression, physical attacks or threats on a daily basis. They do not fight only for themselves, but also for their friends and other oppressed groups. If you are one of these heroes, I would love to let you know that you are not alone. The queer community from all over the world is watching the situation in your country and will support you in your fight against bigotry. You are creating a new positive movement, helping your peers who live in an environment where hiding is the only way to survive. Thank you for your effort and solidarity!

Dominik, your words of encouragement are much needed. Yesterday, on May 19, the Hungarian parliament passed the much dreaded law ending legal recognition of trans people. And although this law seems to violate international human rights norms, case law of the European Court of Human Rights and previous rulings of the Hungarian Constitutional Court, this will bring little comfort to those Hungarians who are now being deprived of their fundamental rights by the biggest bully they have ever met: their own government. 

Another development this week comes from Slovakia, where members of Smer-SD, Slovakia’s ‘social democrats’, joined forces with extremists to create a Platform for Slovakian Values, attacking virtually everyone deviating from their ideal-type of white traditional families. This move confirms fears that, generally speaking, Smer-SD provides a platform for divisive and hateful politics. Just as a reminder: in Europe, this party places itself in the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats. Being Dutch myself, I believe that such developments deserve a higher place on the political agenda in the Netherlands and in Dutch media. We need to be aware of the bullies in our political system and recognise the pain they cause around us. That way we can provide counterweight, each in our own way. 

I really hope more people will share a personal story or perspective, and as I promised before, I will do my best to forward your messages to activists and politicians in the aforementioned regions, so that the whispers may trigger more whispers!

From Hong Kong with Love

Last week I wrote a blog post on Europe Day, in which I called upon readers to send in a letter of hope, encouragement or understanding to those Europeans currently suffering from minority marginalization, in particular in Poland’s LGBT ideology-free zones. Writing from Hong Kong, Raymond was the first person to reply. Below I’ll share his letter, for which I am very grateful:

Taiwan
Taoyuan City, Taiwan

I am a gay guy living in Hong Kong, coming from a traditional family with whom I’ve lived together for decades. With all the social pressure and our cultural background, I can understand what life is like being gay in this society. I am sure I am not the only one in Hong Kong, let alone in Asia, and I would say we have more or less come to accept our fate as a minority. However, in recent years we saw the equality movement all around the world and the success that people have achieved, prominently in Europe and the US and recently in Taiwan. It gives us hope and goal to pursue: one day we may be able to achieve the same. That’s why, when I read your blog post and learned what’s going on in some eastern European countries, I was totally disappointed. Isn’t the EU or in general Europe our role model for rights and equality? Why does the EU, which positions itself as the global defender of human rights, tolerate discrimination and bullying of such a disgraceful scope? Maybe those in charge are unfamiliar with what it’s like being LGB or T, but they need to be reminded that all kinds of discrimination and racism are the same and equally unfair. And those who remain silent and tolerate what’s going on are just making themselves accomplices. I really hope that people in the EU, the politicians and officials, will look into the matter and stop this non-sense as soon as possible. Treasure what you have achieved! And lastly, I would like to send my regards to those who are suffering under these conditions. Please remember: you are never alone.

Thank you, Raymond. Your hope is inspiring and the deception you experienced recognizable. The achievements in Taiwan meant a lot to us, too. The world is surely moving in the right direction, and, especially for European countries, this creates the opportunity to show that systemic discrimination is a thing of the past. However, political decisions are not always based on ideologies or dreams of a better future. Since you live in Hong Kong, you will understand the ruthlessness of power games much better than I do. I fear that minority stigmatization is often a tool for politicians to position themselves in the here and now. And, as you write, not knowing what it’s like to feel excluded for who you are, politicians who apply such strategies may not even be aware of (or care about) the personal traumas they create. Living in a democracy, the question that keeps spinning in my head, however, is: how is it possible that this even works as a strategy? Who are the voters so willing to take away my individual rights and liberties? What about the person standing behind me in the queue at the supermarket? What about my neighbor?

But then your words of encouragement kick in: you are never alone. Your letter is proof of this. Even in Poland and Hungary today, movements for justice and equality are pushing for change. It’s precisely for that reason that incumbent leaders have to try so hard to stay in office. The only reason they intimidate journalists, judges, scholars or opposition leaders is because they know they wouldn’t make it in a full-functioning democracy. The strength of these Strong Leaders is their ability to cheat. What we can do is to point out the cheating, and to provide the strongest antidote to screams of division: millions and millions of whispers of love and solidarity.

I really hope more people will share a personal story or perspective, and as I promised before, I will do my best to forward your messages to activists and politicians in the aforementioned regions, so that the whispers may trigger more whispers!

 

Europe Day 2020

For most people I know, Europe Day can be summarized by the little gesture you make as you get out of bed, drowsily check your phone, and swipe away the automatic reminder popping up from your digital calendar. Even under normal circumstances, it’s not easy to interrupt your daily routine to actually take a moment to appreciate something as abstract as 70 years of relative peace and unity in Europe. What’s there to celebrate anyway, now that a significant member of the club has voluntarily abandoned these concepts in a sad attempt to restore national glory, while others are rapidly dismantling the rule of law and can barely still be considered to be democracies?[1] And while the Corona-silence makes for some enchanting dolphin encounters in Europe’s ports, we know that European states have drastically failed to meet their target of halting biodiversity loss by 2020, with only 16% of protected European habitats being in good health.[2] There are too many cracks in the wall for a celebration in this house. Living in a Union that self-identifies as a defender of human rights, how do you celebrate peace knowing that authorities in that same Europe, right here and now, endorse nazi-like LGBT-free zones? [3] How do you celebrate peace when you’re humiliated to the bone by the conditions in Europe’s refugee camps? Personally, I just have one answer to that: you don’t, really.

That’s not to say that I’m ungrateful for the wealth and the rights and freedoms I enjoy thanks to the EU. If I had lived in Europe at really any random moment in history, I’m well aware, some famine, infection or ambitious leader’s family quarrels would already have put an end to me. I’m not ungrateful, but just no longer in the mood to celebrate. Instead, I’ll take today, which I still consider a remarkable day in many ways, as a moment of reflection. What the actual **** is happening around me and how do I continue my life not feeling guilty or worried all the time, without becoming indifferent?

Thanks, Mr. Schuman

Indifference is a normal response to life for anyone sharing my tendency to wallow in the misery described above. I need to actively remind myself of the things I’m grateful for in order to stay alert and motivated enough to defend the freedoms that past generations have given so much for to establish. So, before I go on writing that I believe we shouldn’t take certain rights and values for granted, maybe you, too, can take a moment to imagine what your daily life would look like, not living in the EU. Would you have your current job? Would you be eating the same kind of food? Would you have met all your friends? It’s an artificial thought experiment, but it creates awareness of what’s actually at stake when we talk about topics such as democratic decay. Throughout the history of the EU, a lot of great people have done a lot of really difficult work to achieve my status-quo: peace, wealth, freedom. Here’s my little, incomplete gratitude list:

  • I’m glad I’m not dead because of some authoritarian figure’s need to defend or expand a fatherland I don’t really feel any spiritual connection with in the first place. So, thanks for the creation of economic interdependencies between states, the creation of -some- checks and balances between political institutions across the continent, and the relatively successful attempt at protecting and anchoring democratic values in most member states.
  • I’m really happy I’m not dead because of some authoritarian regime’s disapproval of my lifestyle, activities and opinions. Thank you for trying to protect the rule-of-law, although I really wouldn’t mind if we could step up our game here, and thank you for trying to safeguard freedom of expression and information.
  • I’m glad I’m not being separated from my boyfriend because my right to reside in his country of origin has expired. Thank you for protecting my freedom of movement, which not only allows me to be here, but also allows me to rent an apartment without price discrimination, start a master’s program without having to pay an extra fee, work and know that my worker’s rights apply, pay my taxes here, access health care facilities, join clubs, establish companies, or, in other words, live my life to the fullest (ignoring that family law still discriminates LGBT+ couples in half of the Union, which, obviously, is a huge burden on the freedom of movement)
  • I’m glad I’m not dead due to famine, thirst or severe food poisoning. Thanks for the protection of my rights as a consumer, for the protection of our public health, for our agricultural policies, which, highly problematic as they are, have always provided plenty of food throughout my life, and the trade policies, which have made all sorts of healthy and nutritious products affordable and available, at least in my region. These policies may need some serious rewiring today, but I’d be insane not to appreciate the tremendous progress in terms of food security that has been achieved between the generation of my grandparents and my own.

Crumbling foundations 

At the same time, I’m concerned about the stability of these rights and benefits. I grew up thinking they were pillars, so strong they could easily carry all the burdens of the future. I no longer believe this. As we’ve been taking our temple for granted, a toxic mold has grown all over it. Today, on Europe Day 2020, EU leaders released a collective video expressing their commitment to European cooperation. It shows Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán filming himself with a mobile device (yes, someone is literally filming how he films himself), sharing the inspiring words: “there has never been greater need for cooperation among European countries than there is today.”[4] He finishes his video with a dubious “Good luck, Europe!”. Good luck? Why does the prime minister believe we need luck? Is it, perhaps, because he’s been actively undermining European cooperation ever since he gained and sought to maintain a supermajority in parliament? Is it a sinister hint to Europe’s minorities, virtually all of which have been demonized by his party’s propaganda campaigns? Or does the prime minister warn us for the possibility of other states following his example in dismantling the rule of law and democratic institutions, without any real repercussions coming from other member states or supranational institutions? Whichever it is, we’ve been warned.

Continue watching the video and you’ll hear Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki remind us that “Europe is a promise of the future in which the fundamental rule of action is solidarity.” We may wonder what definition of solidarity the prime minister has in mind. His party’s domestic policies certainly seem to indicate that solidarity only comes within clearly defined, subjective and discriminatory boundaries. Under his government’s rule, critical judges have been silenced, judicial reforms are threatening the rule of law, and minorities have become increasingly marginalized. Those regions and municipalities that have officially adopted anti-LGBT measures together cover about a third of the country’s surface. [5] At this very moment, in our EU of solidarity, Polish authorities target already marginalized groups of citizens, limiting their freedom, destructing their sense of belonging, and instigating public hostility towards them. And although I do feel a sense of solidarity towards those groups, for me, there’s little solidarity to be found in the Union that Morawiecki envisions.

This is a video of leaders who are bound together by the fragile threads of newborn institutions, hiding their divergent takes on even the most fundamental issues. It shows us the leader who steadily and publicly built the first ‘illiberal democracy’ in the EU, encouraging us to believe in the spirit of cooperation.[6] This video is not an invitation to celebrate peace and unity. It’s nothing but a sad illustration that terms such as ‘cooperation’ and ‘solidarity’ are empty words that you can use to cover up even the greatest divisions.

Now what?

If this video doesn’t fill you with gratitude or hope for the future either, there are ways in which you can express your concerns about Europe. And that communication does not always have to take the form of interaction with European institutions or MEPs (but it sure can). You can let your own MPs know that you care about what happens elsewhere in this Union. There are so many ways to reach out nowadays. Encourage your national parliament to hold your government accountable for what happens elsewhere in the European sphere. You may wonder: if fellow Union citizens are being marginalized by undemocratically behaving governments, why doesn’t my government take a stronger stance against this? If you live in a partner city of a Polish LGBT-free municipality, you could ask your local authorities what their stances on this issue are. It may also be worthwhile to check with which parties your national party forms an alliance in the European Parliament, and, if you have questions about this cooperation, hold your representatives accountable by reaching out to them or even by adjusting your voting behaviour. You are allowed to question the policies of another member state and so are your representatives. By sharing your opinion, you do not breach the concept of sovereignty.

At a more personal level, I believe everyone could contribute to breaking down the taboo against political conversations among friends and family. Many of us have opinions that we’d sometimes like to share, or questions to ask, but we don’t, because we don’t want to be that friend. Naturally, nobody likes to kill the mood. And we’re all a bit scared of opening topics we don’t think we have enough expertise on. But knowledge is gained by sharing, and opinions become more nuanced through conversation. What is the purpose of all our contact, our friendly smiles, our joyful parties, when our self-imposed indifference allows the foundations upon which that happy life is built to crumble? We’d be dancing on a volcano, ignoring the first signs of a massive eruption.

Mateusz Morawiecki says Europe is all about solidarity. Maybe he’s right after all. In the spirit of Europe Day, I would like to ask anyone reading this blog post to send me a short letter of support, addressing an unknown fellow European citizen from the LGBT+ community living in one of Poland’s LGBT-free zones. Write about some hardship you’ve had to face in your life, how it got better at some point, or your ideas for a brighter future. With your permission, I’ll post some letters on my blog, but I will also do my best to reach out to activists or progressive politicians in the targeted areas to see if they can share your letters of support among the right audiences. Europe Day may not be a time to party, but it could be a great reminder that in our very imperfect society, there’s always someone, somewhere, who could use some support.

tim-marshall-cAtzHUz7Z8g-unsplash (2)

[1] In Freedom House’s 2020 report on nations in transit, Hungary dropped from being a semi-consolidated democracy to a transitional/hybrid regime, while Poland dropped from being a consolidated democracy to being a semi-consolidated democracy:   https://freedomhouse.org/report/nations-transit/2020/dropping-democratic-facade

[2] The WWF scrutinizes EU policies in the area of biodiversity protection: https://www.wwf.eu/what_we_do/biodiversity/

[3] Explanation of the LGBT ideology-free zones: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT_ideology-free_zone

[4] Video of EU leaders on Europe Day 2020: https://www.euronews.com/2020/05/09/long-live-europe-our-home-european-leaders-celebrate-europe-day-in-renovated-cooperation

[5] The Atlas of Hate showing the municipalities and regions endorsing the LGBT ideology-free zones: https://atlasnienawisci.pl/

[6] Already in 2015, Orbán openly defended the idea of an illiberal state: https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/06/hello-dictator-hungary-orban-viktor-119125

 

The Avocado Sprout

Avocado_sproutA silent outburst, so you awake

giving expression to life itself

And a cloudy memory whispers:

reach towards that distant source

and by its gentle warmth you’ll tell

your metamorphosis has begun

 

There, you grow towards that distant star

which is around you and within you

Be a mirror in that dazzling spectrum

and reveal the crispy green of novelty

Such patterns entrusted to you by generations

no more concealed in wooden casket

 

And as I place you in your earthy throne

the smell of Petrichor surrounds us

permitting me just briefly

to understand who you are

and what you mean to me

 

Your magic unfolds before me

a new Creation on my windowsill

What distances you must have gone

now to drop your morning dew

on the same floor that I walk on

breathing out the air I live from

 

How I ended up in Prague – the full version

Have you ever visited a zoo and wondered whether the animals on the other side of the glass were looking back at you, observing you, possibly judging you? This morning a magpie was staring at me as I gazed through the window, waiting for the percolator to start gurgling and fill the room with the sweet smell of morning coffee. The magpie and I enjoyed this false mirror for a while, until she decided to collect the seeds she came for and spread her wings. I reminisced about our summer in Belgium, where we spent much time in the garden just to observe these clever, noisy birds. It was a beautiful reminder of how things change and yet stay the same. Why did I choose to abandon the magpies of the past just to meet new ones here in Prague? I came to this city last October after having lived in Belgium for about two years. Since my arrival, I have been running from one activity to another, not sure about my motivations for moving here and without concrete plans for the near future. Mrs. Magpie encouraged me to sit down and reflect a little: why am I here, what do I want to gain from my time living here, and most importantly, how can I live more mindfully, truly experiencing the great adventures of life, instead of just letting them happen to me?

magpie.jpeg

The simplest version of an answer to that first question would be that I followed my partner as he moved to Prague in pursuit of educative and professional opportunities. This answer is incomplete and too focused on external influences to derive personal growth from. Indeed, I probably wouldn’t have taken this step if it weren’t for him, but we have made the decision to move here together – and I had my own reasons for it. Most of all, I felt the urge to change things, a little bit inspired by Henry Ford’s “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” Now that I’ve arrived here, however, I still find myself doing all the things I’ve always done, and yet expecting the results to be somehow different. I’ve already spent days criticising my own inability to change, but eventually concluded that in order to truly change my own habits and expectation-mismanagement, I need to open up, express myself, and listen to the feedback of others. I’m reopening my blog, because writing is a tool for self-expression I feel comfortable with. By putting my thoughts into words, I hope I’ll find structure in the chaos of my own mind, while, with a bit of luck, activating others to do the same or creating little moments of recognition.

The story behind my decision to move to Prague involves grief, love and a painful wake-up call. I experienced my first panic attack about year ago, at home and in a safe environment, while watching comic television. The situation was free of any imminent threats, and yet my body was responding to one. To me, the experience can best be described as a sudden and profound sense of death, paired with breathing difficulties, numbness of body parts, heavy sweating, and chest pains. At that time, I had never heard of the concept and was doubting whether I had developed a sudden allergic response to the nuts I was eating, not at all knowing what that experience must actually feel like. I spent the night touching my fingertips, persuading myself I still had control over my body. What I did not know at that time, was that this attack would be followed by many more over the course of the year, and that it was, in fact, a huge wake-up call. I was pursuing an unsustainable lifestyle.

Before the first attack, I was living in a void. I observed the world around me, but lost all connection with it. I had observed myself from an outsider’s perspective too often, and had come to believe that my emotions were not truly mine, my behaviour staged, and eventually lost the ability to experience any emotions at all. It was numbing to perceive my own feelings as fraudulent. Forging emotional engagement with others to cover up my detachment seemed easy at first, but I soon grew tired of my own acting. Living on my own in a foreign city allowed me to save-up my energy for the very occasional meeting with friends or colleagues. If I wasn’t out in the world, pretending that I was getting back on track after my mother’s passing, I would follow a daily routine in which I would get home from work, deliberately induce a food coma from overeating, fall asleep, and the next day drag myself to the gym out of a sense of guilt. Eat, sleep, repeat. I was aware of the dullness, but didn’t see a way out.

The way out came in the form of a person, now my life partner. We met just before my lifestyle of emotional repression culminated in that first panic attack. The timing was terrible and perfect. I might have been longing for a reliable companion, but I was completely incapable of feeling, or showing, genuine romantic emotions. He stuck around, however, embarrassing me by having fancy food delivered to my office and, bit by bit, pushing me to talk about my past. He was only just getting on top of his own anxieties, in the face of which I felt incredibly useless. The first test, so to speak, was a strenuous one: one of us hitting rock bottom, the other only carefully containing his own mental foes. In a near-mythical way, the universe pushed us to live together in the same house and work for the same institution. These were life changes I could barely cope with in the state I was in, but they proved to be incredibly valuable. The new house provided a new beginning in which I learned to see my mental struggles as part of my path towards a happier future. At the new job, I got to share an office with an incredibly smart, supportive and communicative co-worker, now a good friend. In the darkness of the moment, I found new forms of stability, which helped me look forward. When I first told my partner I loved him, there had been no sign of butterflies, no rainbows, no pink clouds. For me, it was more of an expression of profound trust, gratitude, and a nearly telepathic connection. I still consider it magical that this love of mine, so deprived of romance and early happiness, was not only accepted, but also reciprocated.

It may not be recommendable to start a PhD project while being in a state of mental distress; for it is common knowledge that the former imposes the latter upon even the brightest of characters. As my panic attacks started following up on each other ever more frequently, however, this is precisely what I decided to dedicate my life to. Feeling encouraged by my new acquaintances, but mostly attracted to the easy self-validation I could derive from the prospect of a new degree, I embarked on this scientific journey. Although constantly doubting whether I’m up to the task, I still believe this was a good decision. The ongoing job of formulating a research proposal has helped me realise that there still are topics I passionately care about. I desperately want to learn more about Europe’s natural heritage, while helping to protect it, reinvigorate it, and provide input to the public debate about it. Even though I’m still unsure about my ability to continue the research here in Prague, my work for the university has given me a stronger sense of direction in terms of professional goals. The job also made me understand that doing things you’re good at can help you feel better, even if you’re stuck and confused. I love teaching, presenting and discussing in groups. Working with students made me feel more alive than I had felt in a very long time.

All this positivity put forward a new question: now that I have a loving companion, new contacts and a stable job, why am I still experiencing panic attacks? Sure, panic attacks trigger more panic attacks because they’re scary and generate anxiety complaints. But even after I had become aware of their symptoms and had developed coping mechanisms to end them faster, they kept coming back. They were a wake-up call, and I finally picked up: if I wanted to feel better, I would have to change my own patterns of thinking and behaviour in the first place. I’d need to dive into the memories of my formative years, and connect them to the reality of the present. As I came to this realisation, my partner invited me to join him in the City of a Hundred Towers, where the glories and troubles of the past are still tangible, and where society is constantly reinventing itself. What better place to come to terms with the past, I thought, than Prague?

I have been raised by a mother with a progressive degenerative brain disorder, in a family that increasingly fell apart, partially because of the disease. There was love in our home, but I always experienced it in connection to a fear of loss and a lack of safety. As the disease progressed, its implications became more intense. At the time of my mother’s passing in 2017, I had come to see the whole thing as a single traumatic shock, which I could target, process and forget. But I now understand that I spent most of my life, most of my childhood, developing and internalising behavioural tools adjusted to the specificities of the situation. An accumulation of survival mechanisms has codetermined the formation of my personality. I don’t believe that my history is just a part of me; it’s all of me. But it does not have to be an indication of what the future will be like. I have recently come to realise that talking about my memories is not a betrayal of my love for my mother and my family, but a key towards the formation of a new self, unchained from the experiences of a little boy in the past. It has been through interaction with others that I have developed patterns in the past, and it will be through interaction with others that I will learn to redevelop myself.

I still haven’t managed to actually change my thinking and behavioural patterns, but I am more confident than ever that it’s possible to do so. Together with a therapist, I am trying to unravel why I’ve developed certain behavioural and cognitive tendencies. By recognising them and contextualising them in the here and now, it will be possible to see they are no longer necessary, nor fitting.

I’ve spent the first 25 years of my life building a structure without an end-goal in mind. Short-term goals, such as getting good grades in school, had priority over long-term goals. At home, I spent more time being concerned for the well-being of our family than developing tools to be in touch with my own feelings and desires. Where does this leave me now that I no longer need to get good grades and live in a situation in which my coping mechanisms have turned against me? I’ll have to figure out what personal structures I’ve been building over time, and to what extent this status-quo fits with the person I want to be. In the words of my therapist: “Search, search, search!” I’m sure this quest will trigger feelings of recognition for most people my age. All around me, people are starting families, buying property, progressing in careers, but really very few of us have the self-confidence to fully stand behind the decisions we’re taking. This constant doubt undermines our ability to live mindfully. It’s so easy to get stuck in just-ok routines, every day lowering our expectations of life and still not living up to them. Our 100 billion brain cells are constantly mixing memories of the past with expectations for the future. An endless circle of learning, copying, adjusting and reproducing, most of the time without us being aware of these processes. My generation has been granted more freedom than ever to make its own choices, but we’re not always aware of the ways in which we have been trained to measure our self-worth against socially predetermined criteria. And as we bump into the walls of our uncertainty, it’s only natural that we start asking questions about our past, searching for alternative futures.

Right now, I’m going to continue searching in Prague, lucky enough to have a stable basis of loving friends and family back home in the Netherlands. The key figure in my coming-of-age story happens to be Czech, and I’m excited to discover his country and past, while looking at my own from a little distance. Being here, I have time to focus on personal growth. Throughout the course of my life, regardless of the situation, I have jumped from one study into the next and from one job into another. Each step has given me valuable experiences, friendships, and life lessons, but I would like to learn to be more mindful about future decisions. Opening a new, personal blog with this post to begin with is a first attempt at learning to better connect with myself through interactions with others. Being here on a journey without return-date has surely contributed to me taking that first step. Sometimes all it takes to realise that, is the steady gaze of a magpie.

Symposium GrasGoed: kansen voor natuurbeheer

Op 25 januari organiseerde Interreg-project ‘GrasGoed: Natuurlijk groen als grondstof’ een mini-symposium bij Avans Hogeschool in Breda. Hier werden de eerste projectresultaten en verwachte uitdagingen gepresenteerd en bediscussieerd. Een drukbezocht evenement met een duidelijk thema: kansen voor natuurbeheer. 

Bij het onderhouden van natuurgebieden ontstaan ‘groene’ reststromen, zoals maaisel van rietlanden, graslanden of vochtige heide. Jaarlijks genereert het Vlaams-Nederlandse natuur- en landschapsbeheer duizenden tonnen maaisel! Deze reststromen worden vaak niet of beperkt benut. Dat is lastig voor beheerders, want het verplaatsen en storten van maaisel is een kostbare aangelegenheid. De GrasGoed-partners willen dit probleem aanpakken. Zij zijn van plan om maaisel een tweede leven te geven, bijvoorbeeld als brandstof, bodemverbeteraar, veevoer of vezels voor verpakkingsmateriaal. Hierdoor kan een regionale, circulaire economie rond de reststromen ontstaan: duurzaam en economisch interessant!

Twee landen, één systeem

Tijdens het symposium illustreerde Alexander Compeer, onderzoeker bij het Centre of Expertise Biobased Economy, hoe de eerste stappen binnen GrasGoed inmiddels zijn gezet. De potentiële reststromen uit de drie deelnemende natuurlijke landschappen,  Altena-Biesbosch/Vlijmens Ven, Grenspark De Zoom-Kalmthoutse Heide, het Dommeldal en Vallei van de Zwarte Beek, zijn inmiddels in kaart gebracht. Voor deze inventarisatie is een grensoverschrijdend systeem bedacht. “In Nederland en Vlaanderen worden verschillende typologieën voor vegetatie gebruikt. Dat kan in ons project nog wel tot verwarring zorgen,” legde Compeer uit. “Daar hebben we nu een oplossing voor gevonden!” Door de Nederlandse en Vlaamse vegetatietypes te vertalen naar de uniforme Van Meerbeek-classificatie, gebaseerd op biomassapotentieel en optimale maaicycli, heeft het onderzoeksteam de focus van 85 vegetatiesoorten naar 11 types kunnen reduceren. Uitgaande van deze types zou er alleen al in de provincie Noord-Brabant jaarlijks zo’n 42.000 ton maaisel met economisch potentieel beschikbaar zijn.

Een veranderende wereld

Projectpartners en belanghebbenden zagen tijdens het symposium hun kans om meningen en visies uit te wisselen. Natuur- en landschapsbeheerders creëerden zo bewustzijn rond de dagelijkse realiteiten binnen hun vakgebied. “Maaien kan slechts op bepaalde momenten. Bovendien is het leveren van een constante kwaliteit met reststromen uit echte natuur niet altijd mogelijk. Hier zal bij het ontwikkelen van waardeketens zeker rekening mee moeten worden gehouden,” klonk het vanuit de zaal. Een volgende deelnemer kon dit zeker beamen, maar vroeg de aanwezigen wel rekening te houden met de toekomst. “We redeneren vaak vanuit het hier en nu en kijken naar de baten en lasten van vandaag. Het doel van dit Interreg-project is echter ook om te anticiperen op een veranderende wereld. Als we straks CO2 toeslagen moeten betalen over onze verwerkingsprocessen, dan gaat er van alles veranderen. Daarom moet er ook binnen onze sector geïnnoveerd worden.”

Om de duurzaamheid van projectrealisaties na de projectperiode te kunnen garanderen worden waardeketens ontwikkeld waarin alle actoren ten minste een kostenreductie realiseren. Het project GrasGoed wordt dan ook gedragen door zowel partners uit de wetenschappelijke wereld als natuurbeheerders en bedrijven uit de machine- of verwerkingssector. De partners en experts die deelnamen aan het symposium werden uitgenodigd om in discussiegroepen na te denken over de toekomst. Zo werd er gesproken over kansen en uitdagingen ten aanzien van ketenontwikkeling en marketing, het inkuilen en bewaren van gras voor bewerking en mogelijkheden voor verbreding van het project naar andere biomassastromen. Rond dit laatste thema werd onder anderen nagedacht over het benutten van invasieve plantsoorten. “De Japanse duizendknoop hoort niet thuis in onze regio, maar groeit tegenwoordig toch overal. Dit zou een stabiele, complementaire bio-reststroom kunnen worden,” vond een van de deelnemers. De participanten gingen hier unaniem mee akkoord.

Een stukje natuurbeheer in huis

Hoewel de GrasGoed-partners nog veel uitdagingen tegemoet zien, levert het project al mooie resultaten. Zo kan iedereen in een online tool bekijken waar bepaalde vegetaties voorkomen en waar de dichtstbijzijnde verzamel- en transportpunten liggen.

Door hecht samen te werken met natuurbeheerders en bedrijven aan weerszijden van de grens, zijn al een aantal mooie test-productieketens ontwikkeld. Tijdens het symposium ontdekten deelnemers al een variatie aan gras-gebaseerde eindproducten, van eierdozen tot isolatiemateriaal. “Hier liggen zeker ook marketingkansen,” bespraken de deelnemers ten slotte. “Aan de hand van een stempel of certificaat kunnen we consumenten tonen dat ze met hun aankoop regionaal natuurbeheer ondersteunen.” En zeg nu eerlijk, wie wil er geen Biesbosch-eierdoos of Dommeldal-melkpak? Dankzij GrasGoed haalt de Vlaams-Nederlandse consument straks een stukje natuurbeheer in huis.

Solidariteit en de overheid: stimuleren of negeren?

Vorige week stuurde een collega een al wat ouder artikel van NOS. Ik heb er sindsdien nog wat vragen over gekregen. Wat denk ik als vrijwilliger binnen het Europees solidariteitskorps bij het lezen van dit artikel? Hier enkele gedachten:
 
Het artikel had wat mij betreft best mogen vermelden dat ondanks de tienduizenden aanmeldingen voor het korps, het niet altijd makkelijk is om mensen met de juiste competenties en motivaties op de juiste plek te plaatsen. Om het korps goed te laten werken zijn niet enkel gemotiveerde jongeren nodig, maar moeten organisaties het ook durven een vrijwilliger in hun team op te nemen en begeleiden. Dat dit binnen het startjaar meer dan tweeduizend keer is gelukt, lijkt me een feit waar de lezer vervolgens zelf haar mening over zou moeten mogen vormen. Ook een analytische blik op dit bepaalde aantal plaatsingen was wat mij betreft welkom geweest. Waarom zijn er niet meer plaatsingen en waar liggen nog ontwikkelkansen? Maar gezien de specifieke onderwerpkeuze en het suggestieve karakter van de titel (“vrijwilligerswerk voor een circus op kosten van de EU”), was dit denk ik nooit de doelstelling van het artikel.
 
Zelf ben ik dankzij het Europees solidariteitskorps in een professionele werkomgeving opgenomen (Interreg Vlaanderen-Nederland) waarin ik heb mogen leren en experimenteren binnen het kader van mijn opleiding: internationaal beleid. Bovendien heb ik als amateur-verslaggever voor dit Europese investeringsfonds mogen bijdragen aan de Europese cohesie, al is het maar een beetje. Door met passie en toewijding deel te nemen aan het korps heb ik uiteindelijk ook een werkplek gevonden binnen het team dat mij als vrijwilliger heeft omarmd.
 
Volgens Judith Tielen van de VVD, geciteerd in dit artikel, is de EU er enkel “voor veiligheid, voor handel en voor welvaart.” Zo’n unie is wat mij betreft gedoemd om ineen te storten. Als je de EU reduceert tot een economische wonderkamer waar je in en uit kunt stappen, ondermijn je de stabiliteit op momenten dat het politiek en economisch gezien minder gaat. Als solidariteitskorps-vrijwilliger voor Interreg Vlaanderen-Nederland heb ik ook aan thema’s als handel en welvaart mogen werken, maar dan op basis van een intrinsieke motivatie – zonder hier op financieel vlak iets aan over te houden. Ik heb mijn best gedaan om eurosceptici indirect tegen te spreken door mooie Europese projecten, bijvoorbeeld op het gebied van technologische innovatie, energie en milieu een beetje aandacht te geven. Alle projecten binnen Interreg Vlaanderen-Nederland kunnen uiteindelijk bijdragen aan de veiligheid, handel en welvaart, maar alleen omdat ze gedragen worden door mensen die in eerste instantie voorbij grenzen en directe economische belangen denken.
 
Tielen vindt dat we solidariteit beter aan de EU lidstaten kunnen “overlaten”. Wat dat precies betekent weet ik niet. Solidariteit ligt niet in handen van staten en politici. Het bestaat enkel in de harten en gedachten van individuen en gemeenschappen. Als overheid kun je ervoor kiezen om burgers hierin te stimuleren of te demotiveren. Juncker kiest in dit geval voor dat eerste: zijn initiatief voor een solidariteitskorps stimuleert en faciliteert. De Nederlandse politici vermeld in onderstaand artikel kiezen voor dat laatste. Een gemiste kans, lijkt me.
 
Welke politieke strategie er ook achter het korps ligt: voor mij (en andere enthousiaste jongeren die zich wél aanmelden) heeft deze ervaring niets met natie-staten of soevereiniteit te maken. Juíst niet. Misschien is dat wat nationale politici zo tegen de borst stuit? Het was voor mij puur een kans om kennis te vergaren en praktijkervaring op te doen in een maatschappelijk betrokken omgeving.
 
Soms ontstaan er mooie ideeën bij de nationale overheid, soms bij de gemeenten of regio’s, soms bij burgers, soms op Europees niveau. Die ideeën kunnen enkel groeien als we kritisch blijven, maar ook enthousiast samenwerken. Eén ding heb ik tijdens mijn werkzaamheden binnen het korps zeker geleerd: gekonkel tussen overheidsorganen komt de burger nooit ten goede. Een actievere en positievere houding van Nederlandse politici (en media) naar Nederlandse jongeren die graag blijk willen geven van een gevoel van wederzijdse solidariteit zou dit project al een stuk verder op weg helpen.

Waterstof tanken en patiënt-specifieke heupimplantaten – 2018 wordt alleszins een grensoverschrijdend jaar

In 2017 hebben ruim 40 Interreg-projecten in de Vlaams-Nederlandse grensregio gewerkt aan slimme, groene en inclusieve groei. Hiermee anticipeert en reageert het programma Interreg Vlaanderen-Nederland op de grote maatschappelijke uitdagingen van onze tijd. Begin januari is het tijd om na te denken over voortlopende uitdagingen en behaalde successen, maar vooral ook om enthousiast naar de toekomst te kijken. Wat leert 2017 ons en hoe kijken we naar 2018? Bram de Kort, algemeen directeur van het programma, heeft zin in 2018. “We gaan dit jaar heel wat mooie, tastbare resultaten zien,” verwacht hij. 

Het is een kunst om regio’s en steden niet enkel met een veranderende toekomst te laten meebewegen, maar ook hun capaciteiten om verandering in een positieve richting te sturen ten volle te benutten. In de EU wordt er in regio’s en steden geïnvesteerd via het cohesiebeleid. Dit beleid heeft als doel om de werkgelegenheid, de concurrentiepositie van ondernemingen, economische groei en duurzame ontwikkeling te ondersteunen en de levenskwaliteit van burgers te verbeteren. Binnen de budgetperiode 2014-2020 wil de EU bijvoorbeeld tot minder dan 10% voortijdige schoolverlaters komen, een gemiddelde werkgelegenheid bereiken van tenminste 75% en een vermindering van broeikasgassen in de EU van 20% realiseren ten opzichte van 1990. Om samen met regio’s en steden deze doelstellingen te behalen is 351,8 miljard euro gereserveerd. Dit is bijna een derde van de totale EU-begroting. Interreg Vlaanderen-Nederland investeert een deel hiervan in grensoverschrijdende Vlaams-Nederlandse projecten, die ieder op regionaal niveau bijdragen aan bovengenoemde doelen.

Interreg Flanders the Netherlands region
Het programmagebied van Interreg Vlaanderen-Nederland 

De grensregio is verbonden met wereldwijde veranderingen en uitdagingen. De Kort ziet het terugtrekken van de VS uit het klimaatakkoord van Parijs als de tegenvaller van 2017. “Even ontstond het schrikbeeld van een ‘terugkeer-van-nooit-weggeweest’ van vervuilende industrieën. Niet enkel in de VS, maar ook in andere landen, vooral in Oost-Azië, waar de vrees kan ontstaan dat de VS concurrentievoordeel zouden kunnen halen uit het zich niet hoeven te conformeren aan de omslag naar een duurzame economie.” In het programmagebied Interreg Vlaanderen-Nederland wordt klimaatverandering steeds tastbaarder. Het toenemende verkeer in de grensregio draagt bij aan global warming, maar lijdt er ook onder. Hagelstormen, zware regenbuien en sneeuwstormen lagen het afgelopen jaar vaak ten grondslag aan de vastgelopen wegen. Files op de Vlaamse en Nederlandse wegen waren in 2017 niet alleen langer dan ooit, ze traden ook steeds vaker op buiten de spitsuren. Het zal veel weggebruikers dan ook verbazen dat Vlaanderen en Nederland door een hoge bevolkingsdichtheid toch een relatief waterschaars gebied vormen. Daarvan zijn de regionale industrieën en boeren, die in 2017 opnieuw stuitten op een tekort aan bruikbaar grond- en oppervlaktewater, zich zeker bewust. De warmterecords en sneeuwstormen zijn vooral ook lastig voor ouderen, die in het vergrijzende Vlaanderen en Nederland een steeds groter deel van de bevolking vormen. Maar klimaatuitdagingen sijpelen ook op minder directe wijze naar andere sectoren door. Zo bleek afgelopen oktober uit een studie van de KU Leuven dat de Belgische tongpopulatie, toch al onderhevig aan een sterke visserijdruk, door klimaatverandering een sterke afname tegemoet gaat. Wie stilzittend toekijkt, speelt niet meer mee.

Community2
De Kort opent het community-building evenement ‘Energie & Gebouwen’ 

De noodzaak om onze maatschappij en economie steeds weer toekomstbestendig te maken lijkt over het afgelopen jaar dieper tot het collectief bewustzijn te zijn doorgedrongen. Volgens De Kort realiseren ondernemers en aandeelhouders zich steeds meer dat er juist kansen liggen in de groene economie. “De reactie van Europese en Chinese beleidsmakers op Trumps klimaatuitstap is bemoedigend,” vindt hij. “Op onze schaal zien we hetzelfde: er zijn veel nationale, regionale en lokale overheden en ondernemers die zich niet te veel aantrekken van een stuiptrekking als die van de Amerikaanse president. Zij ruiken hun kans om als eerste een kostenvoordeel te halen uit de verduurzaming van transport, energie of productie.”

Het Interreg-project 2B Connect is een sprekend voorbeeld van deze ontwikkeling. Binnen dit project krijgen bedrijven de kans om hun terrein te vergroenen door biodiversiteitsingrepen toe te passen. Dit gebeurt bijvoorbeeld door de aanleg van een poeltje, bepaalde bloemen of een vleermuizengrot. Zo versterkt het project de grensoverschrijdende ecologische structuur en realiseren bedrijven een aantrekkelijke werkplek. “Je zou denken dat de initiatiefnemers van zo’n project stad en land moet afreizen om ondernemers geïnteresseerd te krijgen om te investeren in dat soort ingrepen. Het tegendeel blijkt het geval, ondernemers staan in de rij!” Ook in projecten als Demi More, SEE2DO! en Grenspark Groot-Saeftinghe ervaart De Kort dat steeds meer mensen op lokaal niveau inzien dat het collectieve voordeel van een gezonder milieu volledig in lijn ligt met hun individuele noden of wensen. “We zijn er nog lang niet, maar we zijn op de goede weg en het is mooi om te zien dat we met Interreg daartoe een bescheiden bijdrage kunnen leveren.”

Zelf is De Kort in 2017 vooral geïnteresseerd geraakt in de opkomst van artificiële intelligentie, zeker in combinatie met big data, machine learning, automatisering en robotisering. Hij ziet ook op dit vlak mogelijkheden en risico’s voor de grensregio. “Het ene moment zie je een toekomst voor je waarin alles ontzettend slim en efficiënt geregeld wordt, maar het andere moment vraag je je af wat de mens nog moet doen als machines alles beter kunnen.” Het World Economic Forum roept 2017 uit tot het jaar van de artificiële intelligentie (AI). Het Forum ziet zeker voordelen in de AI-ontwikkelingen, maar waarschuwt onder anderen voor het risico op een toename in de werkloosheid. Volgens NV Tyagarajan, CEO van Genpact, is het daarom van cruciaal belang om overheden, bedrijven en werknemers te betrekken bij het inclusief maken van AI. Zijn boodschap: omarm de technologie, maar creëer bewust kansen voor iedereen in het tijdperk ‘Man + Machine’. Volgens De Kort is het ook in de grensregio tijd om na te denken welke vooruitgang we als maatschappij willen en waar de overheid zou moeten bijsturen. “Binnen Interreg investeren we in de competenties van mensen en hun kansen op de arbeidsmarkt,” licht hij toe. “We hebben het niet zomaar over groei, maar streven bewust naar inclusieve groei. Projecten als Grenzeloos Biobased Onderwijs, Skills Navigator, Train4SmartServices en Educavia leggen de verbinding tussen een innovatieve economie en kansen voor mensen om daarbinnen een belangrijke rol te kunnen blijven spelen.”

In het afgelopen jaar hebben de Vlaams-Nederlandse samenwerkingsprojecten allerlei sectoren verfrist en versterkt. Begin 2017 ging bijvoorbeeld SYN-ERGIE van start, dat inzet op synchromodaal vervoer om het goederentransport tussen het oosten en westen van de grensregio te verduurzamen. Binnen het project Waterstofregio 2.0 werd in 2017 ook geïnvesteerd in de verduurzaming van regionaal transport, bijvoorbeeld door het aanleggen van waterstoftankstations. Om in te spelen op de vraag naar duurzame visteelt hebben de partners van het project AQUAVLAN 2 zich in 2017 onder andere aquacultuur-opleidingen georganiseerd. Voor boeren en industrieën die steeds vaker te maken hebben met langdurige droogte zoeken de projecten IMPROVED en F2AGRI  naar oplossingen. Bij IMPROVED is in 2017 een mobiele waterzuiveringsinstallatie getest die restwater zuivert tot de vereiste kwaliteit voor een bepaald industrieel proces. Binnen F2AGRI zijn er over het afgelopen jaar tientallen boeren verenigd in een coöperatie waarbinnen restwater uit nabijgelegen industrieën benut wordt via een water-verdeelsysteem of irrigatienetwerk.

Ook de zorgvraag in de Vlaams-Nederlandse grensregio verandert snel. De Vlaamse provincies Antwerpen en Limburg en de Nederlandse provincies Zeeland en Limburg vormen de snelst verouderende gebieden van de Benelux. “Door de vergrijzing ontstaat druk op ons zorgsysteem,” licht De Kort toe. “Voor mij zijn de meest fascinerende projecten die op dit moment gefinancierd worden door Interreg, en dus Europa, dan ook de ‘life sciences projecten’. Ik denk bijvoorbeeld aan Prosperos, waarin nieuwe patiënt-specifieke implantaten voor rug en heup ontwikkeld worden. Deze implantaten versnellen het genezingsproces en helpen het lichaam om zelf beschadigd of verwijderd weefsel te regenereren.” Andere voorbeelden van projecten op het gebied van de gezondheidszorg zijn Biomat on Microfluidic Chip, CrossCare en I-4-1 Health. Binnen CrossCare zijn in 2017 weer nieuwe zorginnovatietrajecten gestart, waarbij onder anderen de onderdiagnose van slaap apneu wordt aangepakt. België alleen al verliest zo’n €1 miljard aan kosten die geassocieerd worden met de onderdiagnose van apneu. Dit deelproject heeft daarom als doel een toestel te ontwikkelen, niet groter dan een muntstuk, dat de aandoening snel en eenvoudig kan vaststellen op basis van signalen zoals hartslag. En zo worden er in CrossCare tientallen zorginnovaties gerealiseerd.

Vanaf 2018 zullen veel projecten concrete resultaten gaan opleveren, verwacht De Kort. Op de agenda staat bijvoorbeeld de opening van een vernieuwd waterstoftankstation in Halle, Vlaams-Brabant. Waterstofvoertuigen zijn emissievrij en veroorzaken geen geluidsoverlast. Hun actieradius en tanksnelheid ligt dicht bij die van conventionele voertuigen. Zolang waterstof wordt geproduceerd zonder gebruik van aardgas, bijvoorbeeld op basis van zonne- of windenergie, is het dus een duurzaam alternatief voor fossiele brandstoffen. Samen met tankstations in Antwerpen, Breda en Helmond zal dit station het openbare netwerk van tankinfrastructuur in de Benelux uitbreiden. “Binnen Waterstofregio 2.0 heb ik de inspanningen van projectpartners van nabij mogen ervaren,” deelt De Kort. “Het duwende bedrijf binnen dit project concludeert dat investeren in waterstof niet enkel het milieu, maar ook de eigen marktpositie ten goede komt. Het project wordt bovendien gesteund door een gemeente die volop helpt om zo’n waterstoftankstation effectief van de grond te krijgen. Ze redeneren, wat mij betreft terecht, dat de nieuwe economie er komt en je dan maar beter in de cockpit kan zitten.”

Kunnen we nog meer van 2018 verwachten? Zeker. Alle lopende Interreg-projecten gaan door met het verder ontwikkelen en testen van hun respectievelijke innovaties. Er wordt veel gedaan op het gebied van demonstraties, zowel aan ondernemers als aan overheden en burgers. SYN-ERGIE organiseert bijvoorbeeld ‘serious games’, waarin ondernemers en medewerkers in het logistieke veld worden uitgedaagd om deel te nemen aan een spel dat de voordelen van synchromodaliteit introduceert. Zich inlevend in de rol van een logistiek planner, krijgen de spelers na iedere ronde hun scores op het gebied van kosten, CO2 emissies en klanttevredenheid te zien. SEE2DO! hoopt door middel van demonstraties van straatscans, woningscans en luchtfoto’s overheden en burgers te overtuigen van de noodzaak om energiebewust te renoveren. De straatscans die afgelopen jaar in Kortemark, Oostkamp en Lo-Reninge gemaakt werden, zullen in 2018 richting de burger worden gebracht. Daarnaast zullen leerlingen van het Technisch Atheneum Keerbergen komend jaar nieuwe woningscans maken in de omgeving van Mechelen en Keerbergen. Scholieren en studenten zullen bovendien bij meerdere Interreg-projecten betrokken worden. Bij Revivak ontdekken leerlingen via Virtual Reality wat de job van een ambachtsman in de bouw- en renovatiesector precies inhoudt. Via leer-werkplekken kunnen de leerlingen opgedane kennis ook in de praktijk brengen, bijvoorbeeld bij de restauratie van een monumentale schuur in Raamsdonk.

Het programma Interreg Vlaanderen-Nederland V loopt tot 2020 en opent in 2018 nog een vierde oproep voor nieuwe projectaanmeldingen. “Dat wordt weer spannend,” vindt De Kort. “Uit tientallen fascinerende ideeën zal ons Comité van Toezicht de beste projectvoorstellen selecteren. Een nieuwe garde projecten die onze grensregio slimmer, duurzamer en inclusiever maken, zodat iedereen kan profiteren. Het draait allemaal om thema’s waarin Vlamingen en Nederlanders elkaar kunnen aanvullen. Zo zal de grens tussen Vlaanderen en Nederland in 2018 weer iets meer poreus worden. Grenzen zijn de ‘littekens van de geschiedenis’, maar ook littekens kunnen vervagen…”

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.

Eten in de grensregio: een vruchtbare toekomst

Van boomgaard tot appeltaart: er wordt in Vlaanderen en Nederland heel wat voedsel geproduceerd en genuttigd. Maar hoe toekomstbestendig zijn onze eetgewoonten? Interreg Vlaanderen-Nederland investeert in innovatieprojecten die werken aan een gezonde, duurzame en rendabele voedselindustrie. 

Toen de hertogen van Bourgondië omstreeks 1400 een groot deel van de Nederlanden regeerden, bestempelden zij met hun uitbundige levensstijl het hedendaagse Vlaams-Nederlandse grensgebied voorgoed tot regio van de levensgenieters. Anno 2017 worden inwoners van de Zuid-Nederlandse en Vlaamse provincies nog altijd geprezen om hun Bourgondische passie voor eten en drinken. Hoewel dit cliché de tand des tijds heeft doorstaan, is de voedselmarkt in bijna alle opzichten veranderd. De menselijke consumptiemachine is meegegroeid met landbouwinnovaties, industrialisatie, kolonisatie, wereldhandel en de opkomst van de verzorgingsstaat. De meest exotische kruiden komen vandaag uit Zaandam, tomaten uit Mexico. Bovendien kennen we van vrijwel al onze maaltijden en midnight-snacks de ingrediënten en voedingswaarden en weten we dat ze aan de algemene gezondheidsnormen voldoen. De Vlaams-Nederlandse keukenkastjes staan vol met smaakvolle wetenschap.

Voedselinnovatie in een EU van regio’s

Toch bestaan er nog veel maatschappelijke vraagstukken met betrekking tot de voedselindustrie. Voedselzekerheid en verduurzaming van de voedselmarkt zijn belangrijke onderdelen van Horizon2020, het onderzoeks- en innovatieprogramma van de EU. We willen graag dat Europese voedselproducenten competitief zijn op de wereldmarkt, maar verwachten ook dat ze gezonde voeding produceren en oog hebben voor natuur en klimaat. Daarom financieren Europese fondsen onderzoek naar alle fases binnen de voedselproductieketen: van productie en verpakking tot afvalverwerking en bijproductwaardering. De Europese voedselmarkt kent verschillende gezichten in verschillende regio’s. Zo is in Vlaanderen en delen van Zuid-Nederland de glastuinbouw groot, maar staat de kweekvissector nog in de kinderschoenen. Door op regionaal niveau te investeren in innovatie hoopt de EU uitdagingen als overbevissing en klimaatverandering aan te gaan met oog voor de diverse sociaaleconomische structuren van haar regio’s.

Vanuit het hedendaagse hart van de Bourgondische Nederlanden investeert het Europese programma Interreg Vlaanderen-Nederland in innovatie binnen de regionale voedselmarkt. Sommige Interreg-projecten houden zich direct bezig met ons eten, anderen leveren op indirecte wijze een bijdrage. De projecten brengen producenten, kennisinstellingen en overheidsorganisaties van weerszijden van de grens bij elkaar om innovaties te ontwikkelen en door te voeren. Ze haken in op verschillende punten in de productieprocessen van een breed scala aan voedingsproducten. Zo wordt er gewerkt aan bodemverbeteraars, duurzaam gekweekte vis, bio-gebaseerd verpakkingsmateriaal en bij-vriendelijke fruitplantages.

Uitdagingen en innovatie in de Vlaams-Nederlandse grensregio

Een van de sectoren die Interreg Vlaanderen-Nederland ondersteunt is de aquacultuursector. De visteelt in Europa stagneert en ook in de grensregio hebben ondernemers moeite om staande te blijven in een zeer competitieve wereldmarkt. In de periode van 2009 tot 2014 onderzocht het project ‘AquaVlan’ daarom hoe de regionale visteelt uitgebreid en verduurzaamd kon worden. De partners ontwikkelden een systeem waarbij restenergie van de glastuinbouw gebruikt kon worden voor het verwarmen van kweekbassins. Investeringen in onderzoeksinfrastructuur hebben geleid tot de duurzame kweek van twee vissoorten, de Omegabaars en de Yellow Tail Kingfish, evenals een optimalisatie van de teelt van zilte groenten en zeekraal. Sinds 2016 zet ‘AquaVlan2’ de trend voort. Dit project ontwikkelt bijvoorbeeld een alternatief voor vismeel, waardoor visvoederbedrijven minder afhankelijk worden van de sterk fluctuerende vismeelprijs.

In een andere sector zijn Vlaanderen en Nederland koplopers: de insectenteelt. Insecten kunnen afvalstromen omzetten in waardevolle voedingsstoffen, zoals proteïnen en vetten. Ze hebben weinig ruimte nodig en produceren bovendien geen broeikasgassen. Het zijn daarmee de ideale partners in de zoektocht naar een duurzamere en toekomstbestendige voedselindustrie. Aangezien niet alle EU-lidstaten weg zijn van het idee van insectenconsumptie, vindt Interreg-project ‘Entomospeed’ het belangrijk dat Vlaanderen en Nederland elkaar in deze sector versterken. Door de markten aan elkaar te verbinden en de verschillende wetgevingen naast elkaar te leggen wordt de afzetmarkt voor toekomstige producten vergroot. ‘Entomospeed’ ontwikkelt een centraal infoloket voor betrokken bedrijven en begeleidt hen bij hun zoektocht naar een afzetmarkt.

Hoewel de kweekvis- en insectensector relatief weinig fysieke ruimte nodig zullen hebben, blijft het Vlaams-Nederlandse landschap toch gekenmerkt door haar groene vergezichten met melkkoeien en fruitboomgaarden. Maar ook tradities evolueren. De landbouwproductie per hectare nam de afgelopen decennia enorm toe, ten gevolge waarvan de bodemkwaliteit is gekelderd. Interreg-project ‘Leve(n) de Bodem’ moedigt daarom een transitie aan in het denken en doen van landbouwondernemers. Het project verbindt Vlaamse en Nederlandse ondernemers en kenniscentra om via onderzoek en experimenten tot een optimalisatie van de bodemgezondheid te komen. Dit is onder anderen relevant voor de vele Nederlandse en Vlaamse fruitboomgaardhouders. Die krijgen er binnenkort bovendien een handige tool bij: het project ‘Intelligenter fruit telen’ ontwikkelt een online instrument waarmee fruittelers kaartgegevens van eigen percelen kunnen raadplegen met informatie over bijvoorbeeld gewasontwikkeling, fruitproductie, ziektedetectie, bodemstructuur, of het bodemvochtgehalte. Voor die optimale fruitteelt is de aanwezigheid van een gezonde bijenpopulatie wel cruciaal. ‘Meer natuur voor pittig fruit’ is een project dat daarom telers stimuleert om naast honingbijen ook wilde bijen aan te trekken. Inmiddels zijn meer dan 100 telers bij deze missie betrokken en ontstaat er meer dan 500 hectare aan bij-vriendelijk gebied. Dankzij ´Growing a Green Future´ kunnen de vruchten in de toekomst bovendien de markt op in bio-gebaseerde en lokaal geproduceerde verpakkingen.

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Water- en voedselverspilling

Ook externe veranderingen oefenen druk uit op de regionale landbouwsector. Door klimaatverandering kampen veel boeren met verdrogingsproblematiek. ‘F2AGRI’ zet zich daarom in om industrieel gezuiverd afvalwater ter beschikking te stellen voor akkers van land- en tuinbouwers. Een grote bierbrouwerij en een groenteverwerkend bedrijf koppelen hun afvalwater aan een verdeelsysteem en irrigatienetwerk. Dit levert zeker 120 landbouwers, verenigd in een coöperatie, zuiver water op in droge tijden. Naast het verminderen van waterverspilling is ook een minimalisering van voedselverspilling een Europees doel voor 2020. Het project ‘Triple F: Food from Food’ ontwikkelt een overzicht van vraag en aanbod met betrekking tot het hergebruiken van reststromen uit de consumptie. Zo kunnen onbenutte wortels, bieten en aardappelen in Nederland en prei, tomaten en witlof in België een herbestemming vinden door gedroogd, gevroren of verhit te worden. De 80 tot 100 kiloton preiresten die jaarlijks op het veld blijven liggen na het oogsten zitten boordevol inuline, zwavelcomponenten, polyfenolen en eiwitten. Onder het mom van ‘afval bestaat niet’, kan die potentie straks ten volle benut worden.

Om ook in de toekomst te kunnen blijven genieten van hun eet- en drinkcultuur zullen de Bourgondiërs hun voedselmarkt constant moeten innoveren. De projecten binnen het programma van Interreg Vlaanderen-Nederland duwen de lokale voedselindustrie in de richting van de Europese ambities voor 2020 en daarna. Door nieuwe beroepen te ontwikkelen en bestaande sectoren te verfrissen kunnen we straks duurzamer en gezonder eten. Bovendien blijven producenten uit de grensregio door hun efficiënte en duurzame technieken onderscheidend in de wereldmarkt. Zo kan de rest van de wereld ook iets meepikken van het grensoverschrijdende, Bourgondische gedachtengoed.