18 August 2021

Lessons from a border region

Borderlessness is one of Maastricht’s unique selling points. Home to the Netherlands’ most international university and one of the EU’s defining treaties, the city bustles with employees and shoppers from neighbouring Belgium and Germany. But the pandemic has called into question the idea of a Europe without frontiers. Sarah Schoenmaekers and Martin Unfried—specialists in EU law and Euregional cooperation, respectively—search for answers.

Unfried Schoenmaekers

So is Europe not a reality in the hearts and minds of its people? “Europe has never been about emotions; it’s about mechanisms for guaranteeing solidarity. The health services are national and there was a striking lack of cross-border structures,” Unfried says. “Whereas there are protocols for industrial accidents near borders—people have concluded that coordinated cross-border collaboration is the best way.”

If anything, national corona policies have impeded existing structures for collaboration, such as an agreement between the Dutch city of Vaals and Uniklinik RWTH Aachen, which are separated by a mere 20 minute walk—plus an international border. “It should be normal to have a European exchange system for patients, and we had some agreements in place. But not for COVID.”

Bordering on the absurd

Guidelines around the pandemic are not harmonised across the EU, and regions have little freedom to be flexible. “It’s down to the division of competences,” Schoenmaekers explains. “Member states need to give the EU a mandate; otherwise it can’t just step in. The many political sensitivities have jeopardised public health. At the same time, national governments have upended longstanding local and regional collaborations.”

Cross-border commuters, for example, find themselves in a legalistic steeplechase. At one point, the curfew was 9 p.m. in the Netherlands, 10 p.m. in Wallonia, and midnight in Flanders. Those three lines meet on the edge of Maastricht, which throughout 2020 also hosted thousands of Belgian and German day trippers, simultaneously bemused and pleased to be able to remove their facemasks. 

“Even I can’t keep up,” admits Unfried, citing as an example the quarantine rules of North Rhine Westphalia. “If you were in the Netherlands for less than 24 hours, you don’t need to quarantine—but the Netherlands insists on quarantine for everyone except cross-border workers and students.” The policy is not evidence based: at the time of writing, the infection rate in the Netherlands was more than twice that of Germany.

It should be normal to have a European exchange system for patients, and we had some agreements in place. But not for COVID.
Martin Unfried
Unfried Schoenmaekers

The PANDEMRIC team regularly produces side-by-side comparisons of the constantly changing corona measures in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. There are now more than 85 editions, running to 25 pages each. If nothing else, it makes a powerful case for a more integrated approach.

Respecting regional realities

Thinking along the lines of the 19th century nation state may not make sense in the current situation. “National borders were closed,” Unfried says, “but borders between provinces were not, even though in epidemiological terms that would have made a lot more sense. The situation in Rotterdam is more than twice as bad as it is in Aachen, so restricting travel between South Limburg and South Holland would have been better.”

“It’s understandable that mapping the pandemic along national lines was our default position, but by the second wave we should have had a better system in place,” Schoenmaekers says.  Unfried: “Established interregional networks tell national governments in what ways the strategies aren’t working for them, and there are now bilateral agreements to solve some cross-border issues. But there are still plenty of problems.”

Better coordination

One of the biggest problems initially was the sourcing and distributing of personal protective equipment, such as gloves and facemasks. Left to fend for themselves and with established suppliers unable to fill the shortfalls, hospitals had to find creative solutions to ensure the shortage of materials would not affect the quality of care. After the chaos of the first wave, more established structures are now in place, Schoenmaekers says. “But for the next pandemic, we need to build up large stocks of medical equipment and up-to-date lists of certified suppliers. We also need protocols to avoid national protectionism and members states bidding against each other. Of course, it would be best to bargain on an EU level as was done with the vaccines. Then again, acting on the local level allows for more flexibility. In any case, in the future much better coordination and planning will be necessary.”

It’s understandable that mapping the pandemic along national lines was our default position, but by the second wave we should have had a better system in place
Sarah Schoenmaekers
By: Florian Raith (text), Arjen Schmitz (photography)