Everyday tales and stories from the border regions of Europe and beyond, with the aim of explaining why we border-crossers are as obsessed as we are about this subject, why it is important to all of us, and why the co-operation community needs a little bit more visibility than it normally gets.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Co-operation programmes co-operating about co-operating

The 13 transnational co-operation programmes have got together to organise a massive joint conference in Katowice next week (15-16 Sept) on what transnational co-operation has achieved so far and what the future might hold.  Details are available here at the impressive website of the event.

The Border-crosser thinks this is an excellent initiative.  By its nature, co-operation is evidently much more geared towards working across boundaries and looking at what others are doing than other types of programme.  And yet, getting even co-operation programmes to work more effectively with other co-operation programmes is not always so easy.  There are certainly good examples out there: the cross-border programmes on the French-Belgian border involve each other in their programme meetings; the North Sea and Northern Periphery programmes have worked very well together on the Northern Maritime Corridor project.  However, these examples stand out to some extent because they are the exception rather than the rule.

So, anything that gets programmes talking to each other can only be a good thing.  And an event like this, with almost 700 people taking part, and backed strongly by the Polish Presidency, is a very good thing indeed.  And with proceedings being broadcast on the web, even those who can't make it Katowice can follow what's going on.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

How lies the land?

As the Border-Crosser wakes from a very extended period of hibernation, he looks around and asks himself "how lies the land?" Where does co-operation sit in autumn 2011? What has happened since the last time the Border-Crosser put fingers to keyboard?

Well, the big news to start with is that the Commission's financial proposals for the 2014-2020 are out (click here). They were issued in June, and will be followed by all the draft sectoral regulations before the end of 2011. Then the fun starts, as the whole process gets pulled apart in the Council and the Parliament until some time in 2013 (springtime, if you want the Border-Crosser's best guess).

So how did co-operation do from a funding point of view? All told, pretty well it must be said. A proposed allocation of EUR 11.7 billion, equivalent to an almost 40% increase on the current figure (when you put them into comparable prices.) Certainly not as much as some in the co-operation world were hoping for, but in the overall economic context, and in the general EU budget squeeze, not to be sniffed at.

Certainly, it's not as much as the Commission proposed last time, but we know what happened when that proposal reached the Council (slashed, for those that don't know.) This time round, the proposal looks a more realistic starting point. In addition, the much stronger role of the Parliament is likely to help, as there are a lot of friends of co-operation in the Parliament, especially on the REGI Committee. That should mitigate Council (and some Commission) tendencies to cut away at the co-operation budget when savings are required. Finally, the development of the macro-regional strategy approach provides a stronger justification than has existed before for increasing the transnational co-operation funding in particular.

So, grounds for optimism.  However, there needs to be proof that co-operation is delivering now, otherwise there will undoubtedly be pressure to squeeze the budget during the negotiation phase.  Therefore, over the coming weeks, the Border-Crosser will be looking at what has been happening in the ETC programmes over the last year or so to assess progress.  Feel free to chip in and comment on what you have seen as well.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Just what is to be done with the Mediterranean?

As promised a couple of posts ago, we return to the subject of co-operation in the Mediterranean. Or perhaps we should say "non-co-operation" as it is not a pretty story. 15 years on from the start of the Barcelona Process, any hopes for real co-operation are bogged down in undiplomatic squabbling about who will be Secretary-General or Deputy Secretary-General or head tea lady of the successor structure, the "Union for the Mediterranean" (UfM). There has been no real progress on delivering actual content on the ground, and the UfM looks like a talking shop with not much talking going on. (They do, according to Wikipedia, have a flag - how on earth did they agree on that?)

So what has gone wrong? Well, I suspect there are two basic problems. Firstly, there is an insufficient history of co-operation among the countries of the Mediterranean. Of course, if you go far enough back in history, you can find much co-operation and many shifting borders, but among the states that exist today, there are simply not enough close linkages to form a solid base for co-operation. The gold standard here is the Baltic Sea, and the huge network of international organsiations established over the last 20 years.

The second problem is that, in the Med, the countries have mixed the political level with the practical level. The UfM is trying to be all things to everyone, and is only succeeding in being nothing to no-one. Looking again at the Baltic, the political dimensions are separated off into the Council of Baltic Sea States or the Nordic Council, while delivery is left to other groups. Have a giant political grouping of all countries if you want (43 members!), but have a delivery system for content which focuses on the countries around the Mediterranean.

Of course, Sarkozy's original plan was to have the political level involving Mediterranean countries only, but Merkel and others didn't like that idea. However, very quietly, the French are looking at recovering some of this lost ground. They have suddenly become extremely interested in the European Commission's current work on macroregional strategies in the Baltic and Danube regions, and are beginning to encourage the Commission to consider a Mediterranean strategy next.

Based on the assessment above, on first glance this looks a reasonable proposition. On second glance, it is less attractive. Firstly, the amount of work involved in creating these strategies is huge. It seems doubtful that the Commission could prepare two at the same time - the Danube is going to prove enough of a challenge as it is.

Secondly, while a Mediterranean Strategy would provide a more focussed delivery system for results, it cannot overcome by itself the first problem identified above - the lack of a real history of co-operation. For a strategy to have any chance of success, there must be something solid to build on.

So, what to do? Quite simply, let's focus on building trust, on building real, long-term partnerships with good results. And here the EU has already provided the tools. There are two Mediterranean co-operation programmes operating - the cohesion policy MED programme (http://www.programmemed.eu/) which supports co-operation mainly among the EU Member States along the north of the Mediterranean, and the ENPI Mediterranean cross-border programme (http://www.enpicbcmed.eu/) which focuses more on north-south links. Both programmes have around EU 200 million between 2007 and 2013, which offers huge opportunities to start working together effectively. If all that funding can actually be put to good use, maybe - just maybe - there will be a case to be made for a more strategic approach in future.

But I'm not holding my breath.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Baltic Sea excitement

It's evidently Strategy time on the Tales from the Borderlands blog, as today the Baltic Sea takes centre stage. The Finns, in their usual quiet, effective way, put together the Baltic Sea Action Summit (http://www.bsas.fi/) which took place last Wednesday. The guest list was truly impressive, with at least 3 Presidents, 5 Prime Ministers (including Putin), not to mention the Swedish King, accompanied by his environment minister.

Also taking part was the new European Commissioner for Regional Policy, Johannes Hahn. I can't help thinking that President Barroso should really have been there as well. Yes, there is the very good explanation that 10 February was the first day of work for the new Commission, but - if the event had been covering the south of Europe, do we still think Barroso would not have been present?

On content, there were strong messages from all participants, demonstrating a genuine commitment to cleaning up the Baltic. The Border-crosser is not often considered an idealist, so here's hoping that my feeling - that a lot of what was said went further than is normally the case - is accurate. There will be a need to link up many of the individual commitments to the EU's Baltic Sea Strategy, and also to the HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan, but that looks doable.

The one off-note of the day came from Putin, who delivered a longish lecture about how wonderful the Nordstream gas pipeline is going to be for the Baltic environment. He was a little short on proof for backing that up, unsurprisingly, but his very presence was still a positive signal, and he had a whole series of bilateral meetings in the margins which can only have helped as well.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Danube Strategy days

The Border-crosser has been in Ulm for the launch of the consultation phase of the EU's new, all-singing, all-dancing Danube Strategy. At least you would think it was going to be all-singing, all-dancing, when you heard some of the speeches. Most of them included wishlists that were significantly longer than seems sensible and a reality check will need to be introduced at some point. A serious discussion on what can actually be done, and when, will need to happen at some point. The Serbian Deputy Prime Minister, Bozidar Djelic, made this point better than most of the Member State politicians.

Nevertheless, the Danube is an interesting case for such a macro-regional strategy. It is not the most obvious choice for such a strategy (if you had asked me a year or so ago which region would follow the Baltic, I would have guessed the Alps, or maybe the North Sea). It does not have a great history of co-operation, barring very specific examples like the Danube Commission on navigation. Certainly, it cannot offer anything to compare with the multiplicity of networks which exist in the Baltic.

However, it is not an inherently hopeless case, like the Union for the Mediterranean (more on this in a future post.) The effective lobbying at national and regional level which led the European Council to ask for a Danube Strategy last June has built up much good will and commitment. Getting 450 people to Ulm in the middle of the German winter certainly points to enthusiasm, if nothing else. Current EU co-operation programmes in the region have improved a lot compared to the past, and there is a lot of interesting, if as yet rather unco-ordinated, work going on.

Next up for the Danube is the Budapest Summit at the end of February, where prime ministers are going to turn up, wax lyrical about the river, and give an added political boost to the Strategy's preparations. Should be fun.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

People make the difference

The Border-crosser has been rather distracted of late, and the blog has fallen into disuse. However, we have entered a new year, and so greater effort can, should and will be made to communicate.

And what better way to start than with a good news story, this time from Ireland. The Irish Times reports (http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2010/0118/1224262564584.html) on the friendship between the husband of the Irish President and the brigadier-general of the UDA. Now, one single relationship might not make or break cross-border co-operation by itself, but no relationships at all means no co-operation at all. And this particular partnership gives off more politically positive messages than most.

Small steps...

Thursday, 3 September 2009

To Hell in a Cross-Border Handbasket

Sometimes you just have to turn your back for a metaphorical minute, and the whole place goes completely crazy. After a very well-earned summer break, the Border-Crosser returned to business to find cross-border co-operation appears to have given up and gone into hiding over August. Outbreaks of "we hate the neighbours" have popped up all over Europe. It's all very strange.

As a quick summary, the Danes are unhappy with the Swedes about setting low expectations from the Copenhagen climate talks in December; the Slovaks refused entry to the Hungarian President because he was going to unveil a statue in a mainly Hungarian speaking town; the Slovenes have fallen out with the Italians about a new LNG terminal on the Adriatic; and Flanders is shouting at the Netherlands because the Dutch won't dredge the Scheldt as they promised in 2005 as a result of environmental protests. All of this, of course, is in addition to the on-going sniping on the Greece-Macedonia and Slovenia-Croatia borders.

Is this just the silly season kicking in? Or is there a wider trend here? Probably, we are somewhere in between. Most of the squabbling should settle down, although the Dutch will have to find some clever compromise between treaty obligations and court decisions. The situation in Slovakia is perhaps most worrying, especially when the recent law apparently restricting the use of the Hungarian language is taken into account.