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, 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.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Unusual outbreak of common sense in the UK

In search of better border news, I noticed this refreshing story from London, where the Government has been prevailed upon by Parliament to drop the frankly ludicrous idea of introducing passport checks between the UK and Ireland (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/8150930.stm). I know that we are in an era of "increased security concerns" [(c) anyone wanting to introduced greater restrictions on civil liberties], but if the UK never introduced passport checks for visitors from Ireland during the Troubles, then they have absolutely no excuse whatsoever for doing it now.

Of course, the Government evidently feels very uncomfortable about the Common Travel Area, which is essentially a mini-Schengen for the British Isles. They must feel it runs counter to their emphasis on the need for increased security and "fortress UK" [(c) the Border Crosser]. However, Parliament has fortunately seen how much of a backward step this would have been, and have squashed it.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Cross-border libraries

A short report from last September from the Centre for Cross Border Studies was missed here at Borderlands HQ. The CCBS is one of the biggest hitters in cross-border co-operation research and has produced a huge amount of material on the Ireland-Northern Ireland border situation. At least, that's my excuse for missing this briefing paper first time round.

The report (http://borderireland.info/discuss/?p=98) focuses on co-operation among public libraries on the island of Ireland, where formal co-operation goes back over 30 years. There are lots of good cross-border project examples included in the report, with the key conclusion being why has this been possible for libraries, but not for other public services.

From a wider perspective, it would certainly be worth looking at whether any of the lessons could be transferable elsewhere in Europe - or indeed whether there are good practices out there waiting to be discovered. Evidently, where there is a common language on both sides of a border, it would make library co-operation more desirable, but it would not be a pre-requisite. This Canadian-US example is probably quite unusual, but is very positive (until the Department for Homeland Security builds fence through the middle of the building): http://en.wikinews.org/wiki/Canada,_U.S._to_tighten_security_between_'cross-border'_library

Monday, 13 July 2009

The Onion skewers US wall building

The Border-Crosser has a preference for www.thedailymash.com for a good dose of news-related humour in the morning. However, sometimes www.theonion.com manages to hit the nail 100% on the head. This is its brilliant take on the the US-Mexico border barrier: http://www.theonion.com/content/video/mexico_builds_border_wall_to_keep?utm_source=a-section

Friday, 3 July 2009

Positive news from the Baltic

This blog seems to have been mostly about negatives recently, what with the Slovenes and Croats, and Americans and Mexicans, all increasing border tensions rather than easing them. So, to add a more positive light on events, check out the excellent new project brochure from the Baltic Sea Region transnational programme here: http://eu.baltic.net/redaktion/download.php?id=845&type=file

As usual with the BSR programme, you get a good, clear description of what the project is about and what it intends to achieve. The Border-crosser particularly likes the extra info about how each project links to the Baltic Sea Region Strategy and the extra stamp that Strategy flagship projects receive.

I also have the impression that the projects seem a little more "concrete" than in the past, especially the innovation-related ones. Maybe the Strategy is already beginning to have an impact on funding.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Wrong direction

Not sure how many of you have taken a closer look at Bruce Berman's border-blog, a photo blog on the border cities of El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico - the link is in the interesting blog list on the right. The Border-crosser was especially struck by this entry - Welcome to Juarez - showing the "reinforced pathways" of bars that people have to follow to cross the border between two parts of what is essentially the same city.

This is not how things are supposed to be.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

A Baltic Strategy

The Commission will today publish its Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region which is aimed at providing the region with a policy framework delivering better results for the EU citizen.

Why the Baltic? Well, on one level it's an obvious choice. The institutional system in the region is packed with international and interregional organisations, like the Nordic Council, the CBSS, HELCOM, the BSSSC, the UBC, the BEAC and a whole host of other acronyms. Indeed, you might ask, if the Baltic is so good at being organised across national borders, why does it need a strategy at all?

The answer is twofold. Firstly, having so many organisations in one region can be a disadvantage when it comes to agreeing on actual action. All these organisations have slightly different focuses, subtly different priorities. Getting them all pulling in the same direction at the same time is none too easy.

The second issue is often a consequence of the first. Since it is difficult to get everyone to agree on a joint approach, it is all too common that the discussions do not lead to sufficient action on the ground. And this is what has been seen in the Baltic. For all the talk and broad, political agreement, the environmental state of the Baltic Sea itself keeps worsening, the transport links do not improve sufficiently quickly, and economic development is still divergent.

The Baltic Sea Strategy offers the chance to better co-ordinate what is already in place and to guide future co-operation work more effectively - in short, to provide the overall framework into which actions and projects can be fitted and organised coherently.

Boiled down to these basics, it's a remarkably straightforward and sensible idea. The uncharitable might ask why it took so long to get around to it, but the role of the Commission in the process provides the response to that. The Member States were unable to come up with this together and needed the Commission as an impartial player to take the lead role in co-ordinating the work. In this, it can be seen as an expansion of the role the Commission often plays in the cross-border programmes in the region. And it could be the start of something much bigger - other regions in Europe are watching with much interest.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Plus ça change...

Regular readers will notice that the Border-crosser has been on an extended break recently, but, in some areas at least, it is as if he hasn't been away at all. Slovenia and Croatia continue to drift along in mutual incomprehension, despite a fairly determined effort by the Commission to haul them back to their senses.

The post below (25 Feb) sets out the background to this dispute, but it is the on-going intransigence which is perhaps the saddest part of the story. We all know the recent history of the Western Balkans and the dangers involved in inflaming nationalist sentiments. If ever there was a need for cool heads and a dedramatising of the situation, then this is it. And yet, we get the exact opposite: consider this scary article http://www.javno.com/en-world/mp-zmago-calls-serbia-bosnia-against-croatia_262530

"Then weapons will fire"?? Have we learned nothing? The answer, apparently, is no.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

A great leap backwards

As of yesterday, Americans and Canadians crossing the longest continuous land border on the world require a passport or equivalent document before being allowed to actually cross. The usual arguments on security, control of national borders, the post 9/11 world have all been trotted out to justify this development. Yet, to the Border-crosser at least, this seems, sadly, another step backwards for cross-border co-operation.

How can the introduction of such travel restrictions on a border long regarded as one of the most fluid in the world be necessary, when Europe is moving rapidly in the other direction? Is Europe less safe as a result of Schengen? Is being able to travel from the south of Portugal to the north of Finland without the need for a passport a fundamental danger to our continent? And, since the answer to both questions is no, what is going on?

It seems that North America, essentially driven by the USA of course, is over-reacting to the events of recent years. As a result, North America has become a little bit more closed, a little bit more divided, and a little bit less co-operative than it was. This piece, on Alaska-Yukon border crossings makes the point rather well: http://newsminer.com/news/2009/jun/02/island-effect/

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Squabbling in the Balkans

Another year, another bout of unedifying squealing and squabbling about borders in the Western Balkans. This time it is two supposedly better-behaved children, Slovenia and Croatia, that are in dispute. While they have not come to blows (yet), there is much unpleasantness in the air, and the Slovenes are holding Croatian accession negotiations to the EU hostage as a result.

The argument is over the Gulf of Piran (of course, the name has now become controversial as well, with both sides arguing about what the real name should be) and the consequences of the break-up of Yugoslavia. This very clear map (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bay-of-Piran_maritime-boundary-dispute.jpg) illustrates things better than I can describe, but essentially, in Yugoslav days, ships could sail from Slovenia through Yugoslav waters and reach international waters directly. With the break up of Yugoslavia, Slovenian ships would have to sail through another country's waters in order to reach international waters.

Both sides' positions appear to have oscillated back and forth since 1990, but currently Slovenia is insisting on having about 3/4 of the bay and a corridor to international waters, while Croatia would have an "exclave" of national waters on the other side of the corridor to maintain a maritime boundary with Italy (which is apparently not allowed under international law). This is the scenario depicted in the map link above.

Even if this situation appears highly favourable to Slovenia, the two governments initialled an agreement along these lines in 2001. However, the Croatian government was unable to obtain parliamentary support for the agreement, and the process has foundered since. As often happens, positions have hardened, with Slovenia insisting on the agreement being adhered to, and Croatia going back to the 50:50 option combined with the offer of unfettered access through Croatian waters for Slovenian ships.

Looking at this objectively, and from normal international law principles, I would say that Croatia has the more reasonable case here. The fact that Slovenia does not want to take this to legal arbitration suggests that they know this.

However, the Croatian position is weakened by the fact that their Prime Minister initialled the agreement in 2001 to hand over most of the bay to Slovenia. More fundamentally, the realpolitik means that Slovenia holds the upper hand as they are already in the EU and NATO and can block Croatian accession. Maybe one compromise option would be to go back to a 50:50 split of the bay but to combine that with a corridor for Slovenian shipping. Unfortunately, at the moment, compromise is not a word that is in wide circulation.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Headless chickens?

A very short, minor modifying decision was quietly eased out by the European Commission on Wednesday. Nothing so unusual about that, you might think. Happens all the time. However, this decision was unusual, by anyone's standards.

The decision increased the amount of closure flexibility for 2000-2006 Structural Funds programmes from 2% to 10%. To explain a little: Structural Fund programmes are divided into priorities and the amount of money available in each priority is fixed. It could be modified up to 2006 but not after. The closure flexibility allows programmes which have slightly overspent in one priority to be able to claim that overspend from the Commission, provided it is balanced with an underspend in another priority.

Of course, the word "slightly" was only appropriate when the flexibility was 2%. With the new decision allowing five times that amount, the correct adverb is now " massively". The 2% flexibility was fair - projects inside priorities often underspend, and well managed programmes will budget for this by slightly (that word again) overcommitting funds per priority. A 10% flexibility basically allows extremely poorly managed programmes to cover huge spending gaps in their finances and drives a coach and horses through any kind of attempt to ensure sound financial management.

More worryingly, the whole saga seems to suggest that the Commission has lost a degree of its independence vis-a-vis the Member States. The Commission is supposed to be the guardian of the treaties - not the bender of rules to assist incompetent Member States to recover funds. It fits into a wider pattern, with the current comprehensive revision exercise on the Structural Funds regulations being carried out in the name of the world financial crisis when it has nothing to do with that at all - as can be seen by some of the proposed changes being pushed by the Member States. Someone, somewhere needs to lift their head up from the short-term and look at the medium- and long-term damage being done to cohesion policy through incessant tinkering with rules and kow-towing to Member State demands.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Progress in the Black Sea

Last week, the International Court of Justice fixed the Romania-Ukraine maritime border in the Black Sea. The dispute had festered for almost 20 years over a rocky outcrop called "Serpent Island" which, depending on whether it was designated an island or a "cliff" would impact upon where the maritime boundary would lie. It appears that the Court has leaned towards the Romanian position, although not all the way. The issue of the actual sovereignty of the island was not presented to the Court, although there are still some in Romania who want the island back from Ukraine, on the basis that it was appropriated by the Soviet Union in 1948. However, both governments seem willing to accept the ICJ decision and to consider the situation finalised.

This is good news for on-going Romania-Ukraine cross-border co-operation, but there are still issues to be addressed. The most serious would appear to be the spat about the Danube Delta and which of the channels through the delta can be used for shipping. This is often presented as an environmental argument, but there are evidently economic undertones - i.e. who gets paid for allowing ships to go through the delta. In any event, progress is required here if future co-operation on Danube issues is not to be impeded.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Naughty Irish cross-border drivers

I quite enjoyed this story on the BBC this week about drivers from Ireland running up thousands of pounds in driving fines in Northern Ireland (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/northern_ireland/7852597.stm). In fact, it's a bit cruel really - the UK economy needs every penny it can get at the moment.

Actually, the EU is trying to address this issue through the snappily-titled proposal for a "Directive facilitating cross-border enforcement in the field of road safety" (http://preview.tinyurl.com/chf7uj). In fact, the proposed Directive only covers the following at present: (a) speeding; (b) drink-driving; (c) non-use of a seat-belt; (d) failing to stop at a red traffic light and not parking fines - it's more difficult to justify bad parking as a road safety issue perhaps, although when you see the idiots that park on pedestrian crossings or in bus lanes, I think a case could be made. I am certainly surprised that using a mobile phone while driving is not on the list: that is clearly a safety issue.

I can see the road lobby moaning vociferously about this, but the Border-Crosser has very little sympathy - why should you be allowed to drive badly with impunity just because you live across the border? After all, there's an even easier way of avoiding a fine - don't break the law.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Happy New Year - and a late Christmas present

A bit late I know, but it's been a hectic couple of months in the cross-border world. Not content with trying to get the late starters among the new 2007-2013 co-operation programmes moving, the Commission suddenly sprang a big surprise by offering 6 month extensions for the old 2000-2006 programmes which were meant to close down at the end of 2008.

This last-minute knee-jerk reaction approach is, unfortunately, too often the case with the Commission. Programmes were caught unprepared; even those that could react had mostly closed down projects anyway, so an extra 6 months does not really help project spending very much (apart from amongst those real laggards who still had projects running up to 31 December, of which there were a few.)

However, there is one key positive element to come out of all this. Programmes will now get some help in paying their closure costs. It has always seemed bizarre that expenditure eligibility finished at the end of 2008, but the deadline for closure documents was 15 months later. Certainly, it takes time for such documentation to be compiled and prepared, but who was meant to pay for the 15 months work? The Commission's answer (up to last month) of "the Member States" might be okay for national programmes, but was never a fair response for multi-country programmes. So the programme extensions should be seen as allowing some of the closure costs to be an eligible expense, and programmes should still aim to submit documents by March 2010.

Next time though, a little more warning would be nice.