Societal impact of UM research

Assessing the consequences of new legislation on border regions

In today’s world, the societal impact of research findings seems more important than getting published in an academic journal like Nature or The Lancet. What impact has research conducted at UM had in recent years? This week: how assessing the cross-border effects of new legislation became standard procedure thanks to UM research.

pim en martin

This article was originally published in the Observant
Written by: Maurice Timmermans | Photo: Ellen Oosterhof

During the Covid-19 pandemic, it became abundantly clear that a ban on consumer use of fireworks results in fewer injuries, fewer patients, and lower demand for healthcare services. This prompted two members of parliament to propose a nationwide fireworks ban. The bill is now ready to be discussed in the House of Representatives. However, the question remains whether such a ban can be enforced effectively. And also: how would it affect border regions?

“Just look at what happened in the Dutch village of Baarle-Nassau last year”, says Pim Mertens, scientific coordinator at the Institute for Transnational and Euregional cross-border cooperation and Mobility (ITEM), which is affiliated with UM. "Massive traffic jams were caused by Dutch people flocking to Baarle-Hertog, just across the border in Belgium, to buy fireworks. The situation was so bad that streets had to be closed, and portable toilets were set up along the roads to deter public urination. It created a lot of tension in the region."

Research by ITEM shows that a nationwide fireworks ban would be almost impossible to enforce in the Dutch border regions. "This is because regulations differ between countries. In Belgium, you can buy fireworks year round; in the Netherlands, you can’t. Countries also have different regulations about what types of fireworks are permitted. That’s why Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg should make joint agreements. I’d say it’s good timing that the Netherlands is chairing the Benelux Union this year.”


ITEM has been studying the effects of national policy and legislation on border regions since 2015, often commissioned by provinces or municipalities. Examples include flexible working legislation (which has long been an issue for UM employees living in Belgium or Germany), cannabis policy, and VAT increases. "In 2019, we examined the impact of the Act on the Standardisation of the Legal Status of Civil Servants (WNRA), which meant that university employees were no longer civil servants as of January 2020. We found that it had significant implications for cross-border workers, particularly when it came to health and retirement plans."

That’s what got the ball rolling, says Martin Unfried, a German researcher who is one of ITEM’s twelve employees. "Members of the Senate suggested that assessing cross-border impact should be standard procedure for introducing new legislation or policy. Shortly after that, the House of Representatives adopted a motion to give greater weight to cross-border effects in policymaking. The Ministry of the Interior then asked us to devise a method to assess cross-border impact.”

Bureaucratic monster

ITEM developed a tool and, since 2021, ministries have been required to assess the cross-border impact of planned legislation. The Netherlands is the first EU country to impose this kind of assessment on itself.

Mertens: "The tool consists of a short list of questions. Policymakers can use it to quickly determine whether planned legislation would affect border regions and therefore require further consideration. We were careful not to create a bureaucratic monster.”

How seriously are policymakers taking the tool? Mertens: "Last summer, we organised a workshop for various ministries." This was quite necessary, as evaluation has shown that policymakers rarely think the cross-border impact of planned legislation necessitates further consideration. “They almost invariably conclude that further consideration is not required. They either don’t see the problem or think it’s too much work. We’re looking into it.”

Cannabis tourism

ITEM doesn’t just work for the Dutch government, but also for the European Commission and currently for the German government. Unfried: "Germany plans to legalise cannabis. This will undoubtedly affect the Netherlands and Belgium, but we don’t yet know how exactly. It’s safe to assume that fewer Germans will come to the Netherlands to buy weed."

Mertens: "The same may go for Belgians. They may start going to Germany instead of the Netherlands. We’ll study the plan from various perspectives. Will Germany attempt to avoid becoming a popular destination for cannabis tourism?"

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