17 December 2018
Successful 4th edition ITEM annual conference

Cross-border cooperation: challenges ahead

On 16 November, the fourth annual ITEM (Institute for Transnational and Euregional cross-border cooperation and Mobility) conference took place. Around 120 experts and scientists from several countries gathered in Brussels to discuss the theme 'Cross-border cooperation: challenges ahead'. The conference was organised in collaboration with the European Committee of the Regions and the European Commission's Directorate-General for Regional Policy and Urban Development (DG Regio).

The meeting was opened with a welcome speech and keynote by Prof.Dr. Hildegard Schneider (Professor of European Law and Board of ITEM). Prof. Schneider referred to the 15th anniversary of the Maastricht Treaty, which gave birth to European citizenship. Schneider: "The Maastricht Treaty entered into force 15 years ago. The European Union's promise is a free area without borders, yet it is still often difficult to cross borders because of time-consuming procedures. It is the European citizen who builds the European Union, so it’s important that the citizen has confidence in the EU, not only in the preservation of peace, but also in the organisation of processes that directly affect the citizen, such as free movement, free rights and the ability to cross borders.

Strong networks and mutual trust
The main objective of the meeting was to exchange views in order to support strong networks for citizens and society in European border regions. Networks enable border regions to cooperate in cross-border labour markets, improve information on the impact of legislation on border regions and build mutual trust.  The theme of mutual trust was the common thread throughout the conference and was mentioned by several speakers. They argued that building mutual trust between the borders should receive structural attention. Succesful cross-border collaboration first requires investment before practical challenges can be tackled.

An example is the Nordic Councel, presented by Claes Håkansson. This cooperation in its way of working can provide good advice for other border regions in Europe. In her reflection, Caroline de Gruyter also denounced the investment in mutual trust and cultural cohesion, with specific attention to BREXIT. Mrs. Andersson Pench of DG Regio said in her keynote: "You can't achieve much if you don't have trust on both sides of the border. It is also important to work together in health care and tourism development. Ultimately this will lead to growth and jobs, but it takes time to achieve the main goals. Not only do we need funding, we also need to work on better policies.

The other keynotes were held by Spyros Spyridon (Vice-Chairman of the COTER Commission, European Committee of the Regions) and Eva Tarselius Hallgren (Senior Adviser, Department for the European Union, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sweden).

Several panel and information sessions addressed current problems in cross-border regions. The themes were border impact assessment, recognition of diplomas and governance of cross-border regions in the future.

Border impact assessment
New ways of better assessing the impact of national or EU policies on cross-border areas are being explored at various levels of government. In recent years, ITEM has developed a bottom-up approach to border impact assessment. During the conference this was explained by senior researcher of ITEM Martin Unfried. Prof. Hildegard Schneider presented the ITEM border impact assessment 2018 to MEP Jeroen Lenaers, Secretary General of the Association of European Border Regions, Guillermo Ramirez and Secretary General of the Benelux, Thomas Antoine.  Among other things, it was discussed how border regions can actively contribute with their own resources and the use of their own regional experts. This gives them a 'voice' and enables them to better influence decision-making at national and European level in the light of current European developments.

Recognised diplomas for mobility
Recognition of diplomas plays an important role in the mobility of students and professionals. Unfortunately, many of them encounter obstacles because of the time-consuming and costly recognition procedures. In addition, some diplomas and experience are sometimes not recognised because recognition applications are refused. ITEM scientists and practitioners discussed the recognition process and possibilities for improved mobility from their background.

Governance of cross-border regions
The importance of cross-border areas must be addressed at political level. This panel discussion discussed joint objectives, plans and programmes of public and private bodies that should be coordinated across borders. There is still a diverse range of governance structures, ranging from established and institutionalised Euro-districts or Euro-regions to smaller cooperation structures and ad hoc INTERREG coordination. Questions that were addressed: Is a particular trend discernible? Is organisation important and how do European programmes contribute to institutional cohesion?

The programme ended with a speech by Thomas Antoine, Secretary-General of the Benelux.

 For a more in-depth report with presentations, photo impression and minutes, visit the Annual Conference report page.