By Marie-Thérèse Sanchez-Schmid - 7th October 2012
At a time where European institutions are bargaining over the future cohesion policy, it was appropriate to recognise its success
Territorial cooperation is the most European aspect of cohesion policy and brings the most added value, writes Marie-Thérèse Sanchez-Schmid
Why should we celebrate cross border cooperation, when polls everywhere on the continent show a growing reluctance to think and act beyond national or regional boundaries? Europe is not only facing a huge economical and social crisis, but also a crisis of confidence in the EU as a whole, and its ability to bring us together around a common future and a common project.
Borders are historical scars. They were for a long time considered as risky areas where foreign invasions could threaten the integrity of the motherland. We were obsessed with border-line, and a victim of the “flat earth syndrome”, where, beyond the boundaries, the world stopped, where trains, police and cars were turned around.
Europe is divided into 27 member states and 271 regions, meaning plenty of administrative borders which define different political and legal systems. According to sociologists, a border is a political object which creates distance where there is proximity. Conversely, the EU wishes to create proximity where history had created distance, misunderstanding and sometimes hatred. Indeed, a second movement emerged with the European integration and unification of the continent. The European Union, abolishing borders in treaties, declared that they no longer existed. However, we frequently forget that these boundaries are still very much present in the lives of our citizens, and our structures were not adapted to this radical openness.
Over 196 million people, almost 40 per cent of the total EU population, live in border regions. These are often peripheral, underdeveloped or marginalised areas. The credibility of European action depends on the development of assets of cross-border territories and the living conditions of their inhabitants. I am convinced that border regions are the very places where EU progress is embodied in its most remarkable way. These territories should play the role of European laboratories for facing the crisis, to test new integration phases and to become the driving forces for an ever closer union.
Since the beginning of the 1990s, around 30,000 cross border projects have received investment from the EU, through the European territorial cooperation objective, a part of the cohesion policy previously known as INTERREG. They have delivered huge benefits to people living in Europe by repairing and (re)building cross-border roads, cycle paths or bridges; investing in cross-border waste systems, medical equipment, research centres, anti-flood measures, and managing jointly natural or tourism sites or developing common services for the local population.
Territorial cooperation is, in my opinion, the most European objective of the cohesion policy, and has the highest European added value. Still, few are aware of its potential. And a non visible policy is a threatened policy. In the report that I drafted in 2011, the parliament was asking for a better communication on the successes of territorial cooperation. Notably, the members were claiming for a campaign in border regions that would raise the profile of territorial cooperation, and would break down the ‘mental borders’ that still set citizens apart one from another;
On Friday 21 September, after months of preparations, programmes responded to the wish of the parliament, and the first “European cooperation day” has been celebrated all over Europe. Under the slogan “Sharing borders, growing closer” almost 40 countries have come together to celebrate the cooperation and bridge-building between their countries, regions and territories. All along this week, more than 200 events were organised everywhere in Europe to promote territorial cooperation.
At a time when European institutions are bargaining over the future cohesion policy, it was appropriate to recognise its success and its right to celebrate cross border achievements. The parliament is on the same line, and made it clear. During its vote in the regional development committee meeting July 2012, members asked for the budget for the ‘territorial cooperation’ objective to increase from 2.5 per cent in the current programming period to at least seven per cent of the overall cohesion policy budget for the next programming period. The European assembly has now to convince the council that territorial cooperation is not a luxury, but an urgent necessity.
The crisis we are facing needs common responses to our common challenges. European territorial cooperation may be an essential tool to tackle those challenges and thus unlock a smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. But this will only be achieved if we manage to strengthen it by raising its funding, simplifying its delivery and improving its results.
“Europe will not be made all at once or through overall integration; it will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity” said Robert Schuman. On 21 September, we renewed his statement: it is by sharing borders that we can grow closer.
Marie-Thérèse Sanchez-Schmid, MEP, recently hosted the European cooperation day even in the European parliament