Cross-border structures and integration essential for the future of border regions

by: in Law

"It is vital to move from networks to cross-border structures. In addition to vertical integration from the EU, we need to work together on horizontal integration as a structure that connects neighbouring countries to put border obstacles and opportunities on the agenda, analyse them and come to common future perspectives."


It was how Prof Dr Anouk Bollen-Vandenboorn summed up the main message. The ITEM Annual Conference 2022 in Groningen focused on the future of border regions in Europe, given the many challenges at play. During the ITEM Annual Conference in Groningen, experiences were exchanged to support security, healthcare and energy supply in border regions. "For this, governance structures, instruments and cross-border projects are needed.

Multilevel governance: from vertical to horizontal integration
Cooperation with our neighbouring countries is more important than ever, many issues do not stop at the border and often require a slightly different approach in border areas. At the evening before the ITEM Annual Conference 2022, ITEM was happy to welcome the Minister of the Interior and Kingdom Relations, Hanke Bruins Slot, in Groningen. During the dinner, the Minister provided the audience with an interesting and powerful speech on cross-border cooperation, stressing the necessity thereof. Cross-border cooperation cannot be taken for granted, we need to strengthen and invest in it.

“Indeed, we need to strengthen the cross-border cooperation structures. This requires an organized multi-level governance, continuous attention and awareness of policymakers, and effective use and promotion of cross-border projects and instruments. The results of the Annual Conference and the ITEM researches undertaken under the Cross-Border Impact Assessment underline this.”, ITEM-director prof. dr. Anouk Bollen-Vandenboorn reacts.

It is therefore of great importance that cross-border cooperation is also not neglected or taken as granted in the upcoming Provincial elections. “In the upcoming period, everyone must play their part to give the resident of the border region their chances of a liveable and promising living environment to prosper on the border.”, prof. dr. Anouk Bollen-Vandenboorn recalls.

The importance of cross-border cooperation and the horizontal dimension in European Integration was also stressed by prof. dr. Joachim Beck in his presentation. “Cross-border cooperation is underestimated in the European debate, although it is very important”

The report of the Administrative Working Group on Border Barriers endorses the strengthening of problem-solving capacity in border areas and recommends better administrative organisation that includes the border-regional perspective. Prof Anouk Bollen-Vandenboorn: "Our knowledge institute fully supports that proposal. This requires selecting border obstacles, putting border issues on the agenda as early as the decision-making process of central governments with an extended mandate, creating a legal authority to deviate from regulations when appropriate and a firm commitment to more manpower. And this is often lacking at the moment." The three King’s Commissioners coordinating cross-border cooperation, Mr Han Polman, Mr René Paas and Mr Andries Heidema are happy to take responsibility in this. More mandate to give room to reach solutions, a strong joint secretariat and political and administrative commitment to tackle bottlenecks are essential factors here.

The speech by Vibeke Hammer Madson, chair of the Freedom of Movement Council of the Nordic Council of Ministers shares best-practices from Nordic cooperation and confirms that a strong mandate and firm, independent structure are essential. "Freedom to act, with a strong mandate from our governments, that tolerate that we act as an opposition. Members of the FMC can pinpoint why national legislation must be changed." "You need a strong mandate." advised Petri Suopanki, senior adviser at the Nordic Council of Ministers once again.

Projects: the energy transition of border regions
Several themes and projects show the importance of good cross-border cooperation. "Cooperation across parties and boundaries should actually be our second nature. Only then, we will be able to tackle the toughest transition and sustainability issues ahead of us," Stientje van Veldhoven indicated. Earlier this year, ITEM researchers were calling for more cross-border cooperation to achieve European goals. "Cross-border cooperation is at the heart of the European energy issue", thus brought CdK Arthur van Dijk, chairman House of Dutch Provinces in Brussels, to the conclusion of the joint ITEM/HNP event in October.

Even though European directives on renewable energy have been giving member states the option to align their subsidy schemes for years, neither the Dutch, German nor Belgian governments have taken advantage of this option. "Real cross-border projects, such as wind farms with wind turbines on both sides of the border, are almost impossible to realise in this way," said ITEM researcher Martin Unfried. "That would require special border regulations." This also means that until today few attempts have been made to address grid capacity problems in certain border municipalities with local cross-border solutions.

Instruments: cross-border impact analysis and room for deviation
This year's Cross-Border Impact Assessment not only looks at the border effects of the energy transition, but also, for example, those of the Dutch fireworks ban and the EU proposal for a European Health Data Area. All research files can be downloaded here. All files endorse the usefulness of a thorough border effects analysis. What effects are at play for the border region and cross-border cooperation? The ITEM researchers present the studies briefly through a pitch. The Netherlands is the first country in Europe to have an obligation to test government plans for border effects, just as has long been the case for environmental effects. ITEM advised in the drafting of this Guideline Border Effects. And if effects are such or border effects are already occurring, then border regulations are needed. "Don't adapt, but deviate" was the motto of the administrative working group on border barriers, or the need to allow locally deviating policies to prevent or reduce border effects. Instruments that enable solutions are mostly within reach. Read more here in ITEM's reflection.

Today, we got the message from several quarters that this requires structural cooperation and coordination. This is evident from the themes that were discussed, such as the health dossier, but certainly also the area of the energy transition and security. This requires intensive contact on content with neighbouring countries, in this case specifically with Belgium and Germany. Only then can any barriers through measures be minimised for those living and working in border regions.

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