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.

Friday, 31 August 2007

Co-operation keeps you fit

A fine example of a transnational co-operation project is the North Sea Cycle Route (www.northsea-cycle.com), funded, logically enough, through the North Sea programme. Essentially, this is a marketing exercise, selling a group of national cycle routes as a single North Sea trail. The beauty of this is twofold. Firstly, it has been done extremely well, with excellent visibility (the Guinness World Record for the longest cycle route is genius). Secondly, it seems to me that most cyclists are slightly deranged and view the 6000km length of the Route as a total challenge (witness the list of people who have completed the whole route in around 60 days! Mind you, they'll have trouble doing that now since the ferry connection to Shetland from Norway is being stopped).

At the project level, there appears to have been a genuine North Sea partnership created and there is no doubt that the whole exercise has been extremely professional. There are plenty of lessons here for project managers elsewhere.

Taking a broader view, how much impact does such a project actually have on the local populations? It might improve tourism takings marginally; it might make locals more aware of their own cycle routes; but what else? More generally, is this really what is meant by transnational co-operation? Does this provide the added value everyone seems to be looking for?

Even if the answers to these questions are unclear, looking at the overall impact of the project, it can only be considered a major success. Very few co-operation projects ever achieve this level of visibility at the European level and this can only be applauded.

Now, where's my bicycle pump?

Thursday, 30 August 2007

Programme of the week - Central Europe

Rising from the ashes of the, shall we say underperforming, CADSES programme are two new transnational programmes in the form of "Central Europe" and "South-East Europe". The former of these has been quick off the mark with its website design, even if programme approval is not likely before the end of the year, I am told.

The website (http://www.central2013.eu/) is extremely well presented, easy to navigate and packed full of information for project partners. It already contains a long list of project ideas from people desperate to talk to interested partners. I particularly liked the idea of the "Regional eHealth Innovation Network" and "Green building in/and rehabilitation of large housing estates" proposals.

So what are you all waiting for? Go network!

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

A missed opportunity in the Middle East

I did promise to blog a bit on non-European cross-border issues, and I'll start with a sad example. Several years back now, Jenin, Gilboa and Beit Shein in northern Israel and the northern West Bank came together and created "Cooperation North", a cross-border venture based on the organisation of the same name in Ireland (now called "Cooperation Ireland - see here: http://www.cooperationireland.org/). There were co-ordinators in place on both sides of the border* (this word is used deliberately, notwithstanding the fact this is not an international border), and there were ambitious plans for waste treatment and industrial collaboration, as well as economic and social actions.

This was an enormously important, political step forward, and there were grounds for real optimism. There was already a relatively high level of interdependence economically. The number of Palestinians crossing the border to work in Israel was huge, and the Israeli participants freely agreed that the Palestinians were a vital part of their economy. Then the second Intifada started, and co-operation became impossible. The border was closed and the economic co-operation dried up. It became extremely difficult for the partners to meet, and almost impossible for the Palestinian partners to get out of the West Bank to meet potential funding organisations.

It seems that the process has ground to a halt. Only fragments remain on the web about this whole exercise - see here for a brief mention http://www.shalomarchav.be/article.php3?id_article=255. Indeed, this article, though 5 years old, appears to offer some small hope, noting the progress of key actors in the original co-operation. However, nothing seems to have happened since.

I have heard that the authorities in charge of the Ireland-Northern Ireland Peace programme are keen to make their experiences known to a wider audience and are planning some events to publicise their success. Perhaps that could provide some catalytic impulse for other regions around the world.

If anyone has any information or views on this topic, comments are more than welcome.

The Association of European Border Regions

The AEBR (www.aebr.net) was set up in 1971 to provide a voice for the border regions of Europe. With the advent of EU regional policy, the AEBR's role has developed rapidly and it is one of the main regional organisations in Europe. Its role tends to be a cross between a lobbying organisation and a grouping applying for grants. This can cause tensions from time to time, since it tends to end up lobbying and asking for cash from the same body - the European Commission.

However, the lobbying element seems to work well, as there is often a clear AEBR influence on EU cross-border policy. The AEBR's connections with the European Parliament seem to be especially valuable with the last two AEBR President both being members of the EP.

Equally, the funding side of the business is apparently doing well, with the AEBR leading a major consortium in the Change on Borders project (www.change-on-borders.net) funded by INTERREG IIIC. There is a closing conference coming up for this project later in the autumn (see the events tab on the right). Also, for members, there is the AEBR annual conference in mid-September in Eastern Finland.

In my view, the AEBR is a valuable part of the cross-border lobby in Europe and an effective reminder that, with border regions containing over 1/3 of the EU's population, this is not a marginal or minority constituency, but a major player in European regional policy.

Monday, 27 August 2007

Looking ahead

September seems likely to be a busy month in the world of cross-border co-operation. I hear the Commission is very close to approving the first of the new programmes for 2007-2013. Who will be first, I wonder? Ireland-Wales is very well placed according to my sources, as is Spain-Portugal. Whoever it is will be a new champion, as the Finnish-Swedish programmes that were adopted 3 months before anyone else in 2001 are not quite in the first wave this time.

One point that I have heard several times recently is the importance of getting the programmes up and running quickly. There is momentum to build and and eager project partners waiting for contracts to get started. So maybe the prize should really be for the programme which can get projects selected first? In this case, keep a watch on the Ireland-Northern Ireland-Western Scotland (www.seupb.ie) programme. They appear to have done an awful lot of pre-development work and could well have projects in place later this year.

Interesting times

Friday, 24 August 2007

Measuring cross-border success

One of the great challenges facing cross-border co-operation is proving that it actually works. This is sometimes a difficult problem to explain, as anyone involved in such co-operation is usually pretty convinced that it is a good thing. After all, how can it not be positive to bring people together and improve the living conditions on each side of the border?

Well, of course, that is positive, and the Border Crosser is not going to disagree. But there is a specific difference between knowing in your gut that co-operation works and proving that it does. The INTERREG programmes frequently come under pressure to demonstrate that they are delivering "added value" (such a great phrase - as opposed to subtracted value, I suppose?)

The EU's traditional approach to this question has been to throw indicators at programmes and hope that some stick in a positive manner. The problem with this approach is that successful indicators for regional programmes do not often help in a cross-border context. Numbers of jobs created, improvement in GDP, or increase in tourist numbers, for example, do not really address the issue of whether the co-operation as a whole is working.

There are some ideas out there which have some potential: some of the Nordic programmes have been counting the number of cross-border networks created; this could be combined with the number of such networks which outlast the funding from the programme perhaps. There must be more project level measurements that could be developed along these lines.

Another direction that should be explored is measuring the mechanics of the programmes themselves: number of split decisions in programme committees; length of committee meetings; number of projects which are delayed by more than x months; number of projects with changed partnerships. These are all factors which could be used in measuring the overall success of the cross-border programmes. Any results would probably have to be calculated into a single weighted score, whch would allow comparisons from programme to programme. Such a comparative aspect could be the best way to assess co-operation as a whole.

It's unlikely that there is a perfect system out there. If a programme scored very highly on co-operation, someone would claim that they are so good that they would not any more funding. However, indicators are here to stay and programmes need to start looking at them as an opportunity to demonstrate success, rather than seeing them as an adminstrative burden.

Well, that's far too serious and long a post for a Friday afternoon! Let me know what you think.

Hidden Europe

I have just discovered the marvellous magazine "Hidden Europe" (www.hiddeneurope.co.uk), the title of which is, I hope, fairly self-explanatory. They travel to the corners and out of the way regions of Europe and report back every two months. The quality of the writing is extremely high, as is the quality of the insights that they provide on the places they visit. One recent set of articles on Nagorno-Karabakh was especially fascinating.

As our favourite subject on this blog, cross-border regions, are very often off the beaten track, they feature pretty regularly in the magazine. The latest issue features the Narva river between Estonia and Russia, the Saimaa Canal between Finland and Russia, and the Slovenian-Croatian border, to name but 3 articles.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Silence is golden...

but it's good to talk. Please feel free to add comments to any of the blog entries here - whether it is to agree, disagree, explain, expand, question, or any other verb that you wish to use. There's no need to register in order to leave a comment, and it would at least convince me that somebody out there somewhere is actually reading this.

Crazy, crazy cross-border maps

I have been browsing the back entries on the excellent Strange Maps blog (already mentioned below), and found this entry (http://strangemaps.wordpress.com/2006/09/11/6-market-reef/#more-16) on an island jointly shared by Sweden and Finland, with a surreal border running across the island. Of course, being in the Nordic region, there is a perfectly sensible and pragmatic reason for the border. The island is also the westernmost point of Finland, which is pretty useless - but nevertheless strangely compelling - information.

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Another cross-border blog!

When this blog started earlier this month, it seemed pretty clear that it would be fairly unique - there couldn't be that many cross-border blogs out there, could there?

Well, there may not be many, but there are some. Your attention is drawn to the Centre for Cross-Border Studies website (http://www.crossborder.ie/home/ndn/index.php) where there is an excellent monthly blog looking at cross-border issues from an Irish perspective. I am not sure about the Ireland-Scotland bridge, I must admit (see August 2007 entry), but at least it should stimulate some discussion!

Incidentally, make sure you have a good browse around the CCBS site. It's packed with useful information and reports on Irish-Northern Irish cross-border issues and there are many good ideas that could be borrowed for other regions.

Getting Balkan with it

I noticed that, when the forest fires were threatening Dubrovnik a week or so back (see 9 August news story opposite), the Croatian government was moaning that they had not received enough assistance from their neighbours. Hmm, I thought to myself, do they mean cross-border assistance? What a good idea!

Indeed, co-operation among emergency services is a particularly appropriate issue for cross-border actions. The mechanics of it are perhaps more complicated than first appears (e.g. drive a fire engine over the border, put out the fire, go home). There are issues related to insurance, accident protection, health coverage which cause potential problems (not to mention the minefields still in place along some borders).

The Council of Europe has been taking forward a regional agreement between the South-East Europe countries on mutual assistance in the event of disasters occurring in border areas which should create a solid framework for enabling this co-operation. However, as is often the case, only close long-term contacts, built up over a period of time, will enable organisations and people to work together effectively. For this, regular meetings, planning events, co-ordination seminars will need to be organised. Cross-border co-operation is occasionally criticised for being a talking shop - but how else do we learn from each other and share knowledge and ideas?

Sometimes, it's good to talk.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Programme of the week - Atlantic Area

The Atlantic Area has just obtained a spiffy new website (http://www.coop-atlantico.com/en/programa.php) and sources tell me that it is on its way to being the first of the new transnational programmes to be approved by the Commission. This is a far cry from previous periods, when the programme was pretty much last at everything.

The new managing authority in Portugal seems to be doing an excellent job, and the programme document is very well written. However, the real challenge starts now. Can the programme partners actually work effectively together to make the new programme a success? In the past, it seemed sometimes as if they were all working at cross-purposes. Also, looking at the website, some of the previous projects seem a bit wishy-washy - time for some more concrete activities, methinks.

Monday, 20 August 2007

Jobs in Budapest with the new South-East Europe Co-operation Programme

Anybody interested? Several opportunities in this programme, which has lots of potential, with the Danube, other transport links, co-operation with the Western Balkans etc. See here for post descriptions: http://www.cadses.net/en/news.html?news_id=311

Lies, damned lies, and Daily Mail Journalists

Now, this is an old Daily Mail story from last autumn about evil EU plots to redraw the map of Europe , but the intriguing Strange Maps blog has just deconstructed the story rather nicely here: http://strangemaps.wordpress.com/2007/08/05/163-europe-wipes-britain-off-the-map/ , so I thought I'd add my views.

Now, I could deconstruct the story some more - even without referring to the fundamental point that INTERREG is all about helping neighbours work together. I could point out that the Daily Mail made the map up themselves; I could point out that they've mixed up cross-border and transnational areas (which is a bit like mixing football and rugby teams); and they patently don't know what they're talking about. Is it worth it, however? Never let the truth get in the way of a bad story, as they say at Mail HQ.

While you browse Strange Maps (and you should), you might come across his thoughts on Euroregions: http://strangemaps.wordpress.com/2007/03/06/85-a-map-of-germanys-euroregions/ An interesting piece, but even here, there are worrying inaccuracies. Euroregions are nothing to do with the EU - it doesn't create them, it certainly doesn't name them, although it might give them a bit of money through an INTERREG programme from time to time, but only if they have a decent project to be supported. Just to be clear - Euroregions are very much a creation of the Council of Europe (http://www.coe.int/t/e/legal_affairs/local_and_regional_democracy/documentation/library/default.asp#TopOfPage) and are supported by the Association of European Border Regions (www.aebr.net). They are created by regions and districts on each side of a border who want to work together, and who think that they might have more in common with their neighbour across the border than with regions in their own country. Not such a bad thing, surely?

Friday, 17 August 2007

The end of one-way co-operation?

Over on the right in the news section is a link to a Romanian story about the relaunch of a PHARE CBC call between Romania and Bulgaria (17 Aug). Why in Romanian, you ask? Well, aside from the fact that we should all learn a foreign language (Buna Ziua to my Romanian readers), the story seems to be available only in Romanian.

Not very useful for the Bulgarian partners, you might say - and you'd be right. This is symptomatic of the old way of doing cross-border co-operation: you do your projects, and I'll do mine. I should add that it is not entirely the countries' fault - PHARE CBC was never the most user-friendly programme in the world. And I hear very good things about Romania and Bulgaria's preparations for the new round of programmes starting later this year. However, it's still a bit depressing to see such blatant national approaches to co-operation in 2007. Let's make it the last time...

Thursday, 16 August 2007

The influence of blogs

Well, well, well, how influential am I? There I was, banging on about the importance of information and publicity and websites, and the next day I find that the Commission is organising a major conference on Communicating Cohesion Policy (see http://ec.europa.eu/regional_policy/country/commu/conferences/november07/index_en.cfm). Now, of course, it is just possible that these two issues were not directly connected (perish the thought), but nevertheless, it is good to see such an emphasis on selling the policy at this early stage of the new programmes. And it is very good to see such a visible element dealing with co-operation being included.

Now, I must go and bask in the power of blogging for a while. Normal service will be resumed later.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

How good is your Scandinavian?

Why do I ask? Well, some of the best cross-border co-operation programmes are in the Nordic countries, and they also have some of the best websites as well - mainly in the local language, of course. So, if you can read Scandic, I can heartily recommend http://www.interreg.no/, which is the national INTERREG site in Norway. Yes, I know Norway is not in the EU, but they are hugely enthusiastic about all things INTERREG (more than some Member States if truth be told).

Another top site is http://www.interreg-sverige-norge.com/ for the Sweden-Norway programme. Both sites are well-designed, clearly laid-out, and contain lots of information for potential project partners. Admittedly, the lack of English information makes them less interesting outside the North to some extent, but they do demonstrate a positive use of the Internet that other programmes should aspire to.

There are many good, interesting sites out there - too many to mention in one blog entry (www.ctc.ee is another I have just discovered). Has anyone any favourite co-operation websites they would like to share? Let me know in the comments section.

Monday, 13 August 2007

A (not so) calm and peaceful August

The traditional peace and tranquility of the European summer has descended on the cross-border world - or has it? In fact, there is much frenzied activity going on: finishing touches are being put to most new programmes, some of the laggards are desperately trying to catch up, and the Commission is trying to zip through the first of the new decisions.

Admittedly there are a few people who have taken holidays (disgraceful behaviour) and there is the occasional sound of running feet as people try to find someone who can sign off on a text, but most people seem to be working right through this year.

It appears that cross-border co-operation is pretty non-stop these days. So if anyone out there is reading this on a beach (and, if you are, you really need to get a life), hurry up and get back to the office. There's programmes to implement!

France-England: New programme public consultation launched

After a slow start ("for reasons outwith the regions' control", shall we say), the new France-England cross-border programme is running to catch up, and has just launched its major public consultation exercise, which will run for 3 months - from 9 August to 2 November. There will be series of public consultations on both sides of the Channel, so get reading, and get contributing!

See here for more info: http://www.interreg3.com/EN/i4_consult.asp

Friday, 10 August 2007

Cross-border news stories on the increase

Very interesting... while starting to set up this blog, I did quite some trawling through the web, and there are a lot more stories on cross-border issues that one might think. There are quite a few stories on INTERREG projects in particular, which is good news - projects seem to be taking publicity seriously nowadays. I'll keep the news elements updated on the right-hand side regularly and I might put a few in the main blog if they are of special interest.

Welcome to the cross-border party

Thanks for joining me on this blog which keeps an eye on all things to do with cross-border co-operation. This is a fascinating subject, with lots of programmes and projects on-going - in Europe and throughout the world - helping people living on either side of national dividing lines to come together and to work to meet common challenges and to defeat common problems.
The idea of the blog is to try and give a flavour of what is happening out there, with stories, links and examples from the cross-border world.
All feedback is gratefully received!