On the added value of cross-border co-operation: The view from EUBORDERREGIONS

Cross-border co-operation (CBC) can be defined as political projects carried out by state, private and third-sector actors with the express goal of extracting benefit from joint initiatives in various economic, social, environmental and political fields.

Through new forms of political and economic interaction – both institutional and informal – it has been suggested that greater cost-effectiveness in public investment can be achieved, economic complementarities exploited, the scope for strategic planning widened and environmental problems more directly and effectively addressed. Furthermore, research interest in CBC has been spurred by the momentous political changes of the past two decades.

While the concept of CBC is not new, it is the context of post-Cold War change that has elevated CBC to the paradigmatic status it now enjoys. ‘De-bordering’ within the enlarged European Union and new cross-border relations in Central and Eastern Europe indicate that not only states but citizens, communities and regions have chosen to open new avenues of communication with their neighbours across national boundaries. Furthermore, in those contexts where states have (re) gained their independence and new borders have emerged, Euroregions, cross-border city partnerships and similar co-operation vehicles have also come into being. CBC within the EU and at the EU’s external borders aim at managing issues that transcend the confines of individual communities, issues such as social affairs, economic development, minority rights, cross-border employment and trade, and the environment. CBC also involves attempts to exploit borderland situations, using borders as a resource for economic and cultural exchange as well as for building political coalitions for regional development purposes.

If the practice of CBC has been a long-standing element of the EU’s border politics as a means of consolidating political community, it has been employed vis-à-vis neighbouring states in order to enhance the EU’s external role as both a stabilizing and a transformative force in post-Soviet and Mediterranean regional contexts. Announced with much fanfare in 2003, the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) promised a new dimension in regional co-operation and interstate relations between the EU and its direct neighbours to the east and south. The geopolitical vision that underlies the EU’s concept of Neighbourhood is that of ‘privileged partnership’; that is, of a special, multifaceted and mutually beneficial relationship with the EU. A further indication of this are the roles attributed to civil society and CBC. In particular, the strengthening of a ‘civil society dimension’ within the Neighbourhood context has been promulgated by the European Commission, the Council of Europe and the European Parliament. Some evidence for the redoubled efforts of the EU to promote co-operation with its immediate neighbours is provided by ENPI.

The project EUBORDERREGIONS has shed critical light on how related CBC at the EU’s external borders functions in practice. Our research confirms that the EU has attempted to create new contexts for social development, economic growth and innovation. In addition, CBC has been framed as a region-building process across borders. The EU’s political uses of borders, moreover, have been highly idealistic, despite the complex practical agenda of Cohesion and Neighbourhood policies within which co-operation discourses are embedded. A central logic of Interreg and other support mechanisms of CBC has been the creation of new communities of interest and geographically flexible networks, and to break down territorial/administrative constraints to the exchange of ideas. It is perhaps not an exaggeration that the EU has envisaged a project of European construction through the transcendence of local particularisms and boundaries. However, this idealistic element of the EU’s border politics coexists uncomfortably with the Realpolitik of implementation. CBC within the EU is embedded in Cohesion Policy and is highly territorialised: spatially defined indicators, goals, remits and responsibilities create their own barriers to interaction. At the same time, national implementation of Cohesion Policy remains guided by a fixation on physical investment and development and not on the development of co-operative networks across borders. As a result, different border logics inform the EU’s politics of borders.

Based on fieldwork and interaction with stakeholders our research raises a number of issues of particular policy relevance.

  • Understanding the border as a resource. It is clear that national contexts and the gaps between them still very much influence policy-oriented behaviours at the national and sub-national levels. Despite three decades of support, CBC is by no means a self-evident resource for territorial development; it is also not a process that can be understood as inherently ‘rational’, based on common-sense economic, social and/or cultural logics. The informal economy appears to understand the border quite well, but formal governance structures oftentimes do not, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe and in neighbouring countries. One reason for this is the lack of incentives and (still) high transaction costs that are associated with CBC. As a result of this situation, we have observed in EUBORDERREGIONS that stakeholders generally affirm the desirability of CBC but that actual implementation remains patchy.
  • Critically interpreting CBC as filling gaps in Cohesion and Neighbourhood Policies. Our research reflects tensions between realist regional policy concerns related to national development and more idealistic policy imperatives that seek to create alternative, border transcending territorial contexts for regional policy. Cohesion policies and ENP are nationally oriented and highly territorial. Furthermore, funding and policy marginality affects CBC at the external borders – where we also find the poorest border regions – to a much greater degree; here, co-operation networks are highly localized and not well developed. Generally, some parts of ‘core Europe’ do much better in this respect. Sustainability and a high degree of self-referentiality have been achieved, for example, in the Dutch–German case even if funding is low.
  • Highlighting the dilemma of ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ development factors. The one-sided focus on ‘hard’ factors and physical investment is problematic. Regional policy tends to be positivistic, based on an ‘objective’ and containerized picture of territorial conditions, assets and structural relationships. CBC, on the other hand, is highly networked, often ‘de-territorialized’ in the sense that interaction between different actors is the main driving force. n Emphasizing the role of civil society actors. Civil society needs to be a more important part of the ENP–Cohesion–CBC nexus. This is a rather long-term concern and reflects the problem that, despite rhetorical assurances to the contrary, actors that represent societal and community issues have very limited opportunities to access CBC promotion structures.
  • The gaps between local-level needs and interests and the high level (geo)politics that governs the management of borders. Rarely do border communities have the political and economic influence to negotiate special border regime conditions with central government agencies. However, a degree of local control can be achieved through local networks that create bridges across hard borders. Furthermore, and in the long term, local-level and people-to-people co-operation can play an important role in supporting the high politics of interstate dialogue.
  • Drawing attention to the need for new forms of data collection for policy purposes. Much of the basis for developing regional policies is provided by quantitative and criteria-based methodological approaches. The assumption underlying these traditional approaches is that regions are ‘given’ and exist objectively as spatial categories. While necessary for general policy purposes, these are broad-brush methods that ignore the social, immaterial, non-quantifiable and networked na ture of territorial relations. There are methodological issues to consider. Many socio-spatial phenomena can only be described, explained or traced; they cannot be meaningfully measured, counted or ‘correlated’ in a positivistic manner. Studies with a ‘soft’ approach focusing on perceptions and representations also have the benefit that they critically challenge the researcher’s own preconceptions. Our research indicates that bordering processes serve as important sources of insight for policy-relevant research on spatial planning and regional development. This is clearly most relevant in relating the significance of CBC and other flexible territorial arrangements to European Cohesion Policy.

Finally, what might be the future of CBC as a project of de-bordering? At the level of EU Cohesion Policy, the direct coupling of CBC with regional development goals appears to be shifting towards more territorially flexible arrangements and a focus on place-based strategies and ‘integrated territorial investments’ that can be potentially implemented in cross-border and transnational contexts. Nevertheless, the overall resources available for genuinely border-transcending regional development are but a small fraction of the overall EU structural funds budget that is targeted largely at newer and poorer member states. As has been suggested above, CBC needs to be understood as more than just filling the gaps between national development strategies; it is a cultural context for cohesion beyond traditional nation-centric modes. Furthermore, cross-border integration need not be all-encompassing but centred on specific networks that create trust and sustainable working relationships. If the role of CBC as an element of European Territorial Cohesion is to be taken seriously, the policy aim should be less focused on fulfilling ‘objective’ quantifiable targets and more on the capacities of CBC to develop according to its own dynamics. This includes more support for civil society actors and their networks; together with other local-level actors, these groups can in effect create regional geographies above and beyond traditional state-centred administrative territoriality.

For more information regarding the EUBORDERREGIONS project please visit the official website: www.euborderregions.eu

For further reading:
Bachtler J. and Taylor, S. (2003): The Added Value of the Structural Funds: A Regional Perspective, IQ-Net Thematic Paper on the Future of the Structural Funds, Glasgow.

Hanell, T., Aalbu, H. and Neubauer, J. (2002): Regional Development in the Nordic Countries 2002, Nordregio Report 2002:2.

Hörnström, L. and Tepecik Diş, A. (2013): Crossing Borders – Linkages between EU Policy for Territorial Cooperation and Nordic Cross-border Cooperation, Nordregio Working Paper 2013:2.

Hörnström, L., Smed Olsen, L., & Van Well, L., (2013): Added Value of Cross-Border and Transnational Cooperation in Nordic Regions, Nordregio Working Paper 2012:14.

Lindqvist, M. (ed.) (2010): Regional Development in the Nordic Countries 2010, Nordregio Report 2010:2.

Mairate, A. (2006): The ‘Added Value’ of European Union Cohesion Policy, Regional Studies, 40, 2.

This article is part of Nordregio News #1. 2015, read the entire issue here.

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