Cross-border Assessment 2021
Dossier 3: The effects of national Corona crisis management on cross-border crisis management in the Euregio Meuse-Rhine (follow-up study)
The entire dossier is available here in Dutch and English
Dr. Jaap van Lakerveld
As in 2020, the effects of the coronavirus crisis have again been investigated as part of the ITEM Cross-Border Impact Assessment. This year, the investigation focused on the consequences of national crisis management on collaboration in the border region in the areas of the various local and regional crisis teams. It remains too premature to make any fundamental statements on the socio-economic effects in the border region. This became clear in 2020 due to a lack of data. After the first wave of coronavirus in spring 2020 was characterised by impairments to cross-border mobility with associated problems for residents in the Euregio Meuse-Rhine, national governments, together with the regional government of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia, succeeded in preventing similar impairments from occurring in subsequent waves. Consequently, fewer questions have since been raised regarding European freedom of movement rights and the potential discrimination of border residents, which is examined within the context of impact assessments in respect of EU integration. In terms of cross-border coordination of financial assistance for groups such as the self-employed, there has been no significant change since the first wave either. Accordingly, the focus of the investigation was, as stated, on the effects for Euregional crisis management. The report is based on an study carried out in 2020/2021 as part of the INTERREG project ‘Pandemric’. In this context, ITEM worked with colleagues from Leiden University and Ockham IPS to assess cross- border crisis management, particularly with regard to areas of tension between national governance and Euregional necessities.
Effect on Euregional crisis management as an expression of Euregional cohesion
As in the first wave, it did not prove possible to coordinate national (regional) measures as the crisis progressed. In practice, this meant that there was no synchronisation in the closure and opening of shops, schools, and other facilities or in the rules regarding curfews in the cross-border region. Specifically, it was not possible to coordinate exceptions from certain regulations for residents in that region. This led to complexity with regard to the various rules, demonstrated by the fact that on 24 August 2021, the EMRIC Network sent out the 111th edition of its regular overview of measures. This meant that details or key principles underpinning Covid measures in the three Members States (or the corresponding regions of North Rhine-Westphalia, Flanders, and Wallonia) were changed every few days. Characteristic for this development is the statement by representatives of EMR and EMRIC that there was so much to do to resolve the practical problems arising from the different measures that actual cooperation in the healthcare sector suffered as a consequence.
One indicator for the coordination of measures is the occurrence of infection. It could be assumed that cross- border coordination of policy and geographical proximity could cause some convergence in the progression of infections. The persistently differing infection rates for the sub-regions of the EMR, however, reflect the extent to which crisis management in the Euregio Meuse-Rhine was characterised by national measures. . The respective regional figures (see Figure 4 below), in fact, attest to the fact that the occurrence (and recording) of infections was influenced national measures alone, whilst geographical proximity played a lesser role.
In this respect, the national measures also dominated the regional progression of infections in the sub-regions of the EMR. For example, the noticeable spike in infections rates for Belgium around October 2020 are also reflected in the Belgian areas of the EMR. The same is true of the spike in figures for the Netherlands during the second and third waves when compared with North Rhine-Westphalia/Germany. The unique spike in July 2021 – following political decisions in the capitals in spring – when compared with Belgium and Germany again is visible in the Dutch areas of the EMR. We can, therefore, conclude that the sub-regions of the EMR follow the national figures over time.
A further indicator for integrated crisis management is the exchange of medical capacities, particularly intensive care beds. The alignment of national strategy to national capacities in the healthcare sector, as established in the first report issued in 2020, also manifested in subsequent waves. The exchange of patients in need of intensive care remained the exception in the second and third waves as well. It was dominated by national/regionally overarching agreements and coordination and not by structural cooperation between Euregional partners in healthcare (as represented in the EMR by the EMRIC Network). In effect, the relevant actors in the EMR viewed the overarching coordination of cross-border intensive care beds rather as a hindrance, as it was centrally coordinated from Münster in NRW, for example. This form of coordination was not designed geographically to ensure cross- border care of patients closer to home in the EMR, but it was more emergency-oriented and designed to cushion national capacity problems. In the second and third waves, too, political agreements on the exchange of patients were motivated by concerns about national bottlenecks and much less by structural cooperation.
For this prolonged crisis, then, it is characteristic for cross-border solidarity to play a positive role only in emergency situations. When hospitals in the town of Liège were nearing their capacities in October 2020, it was possible to transfer patients to North Rhine-Westphalia, to Uniklinik Aachen, for example. This was made possible thanks to positive relationships between players at the political level of the EMR and existing cross-border cooperation between hospitals. Nevertheless, it cannot be said that there was any structural exchange of patients close to the border during the second and third waves.
Quality and responsibilities of cross-border crisis teams
In terms of the organisation of crisis management, further questions addressed the quality and responsibilities of different cross-border bodies. Indicators here were their tasks, working methods, and the practical results.
As in the first wave, the Coronavirus Taskforce, set up at governmental level between Belgium, the Netherlands, and North Rhine-Westphalia (Lower Saxony and Rhineland-Palatinate were affiliated), was able to support the exchange of information. It became clear that the proactive coordination of national measures was not one of the responsibilities, but that information and consultation were in the foreground. In this respect, it was not possible to prevent the problems and uncertainties that arose for commuters, such as testing, quarantine, and registration requirements, because of the introduction of national measures at short notice. Most noticeable was how the introduction of obligations at short notice caused a lack of information and uncertainty among citizens and authorities alike. This in turn led to situations in which, as an example, cross-border information points (GrenzInfoPunkte) were unable to sufficiently inform border residents of which rules were in force and when. The reason behind this was an often uncertainty regarding applicable information. border information points and Euroregions were able to signal these problems through direct access to the Taskforce, but delays in the provision of information repeatedly caused uncertainty.
The unreliability of information provision clearly demonstrated the importance of the contacts in the EMRIC Network and EMR, which the partners had built up over many years. During the crisis, experts at crisis team level were therefore able to rely on the structures of EMRIC. Its office effectively turned into a headquarter for the exchange of information, also because the weekly overview of national measures represented a wealth of cross- border knowledge. In the process, EMRIC and the EMR Secretariat took on tasks in the area of local cross-border crisis management that were not actually provided for in their terms of reference. This was achieved mainly through informal contacts, due to a lack of formal authority. Consequently, there was informal crisis management at expert level.
What was missing, however, was a place for Euregional crisis management at the political level. The political leaders of the crisis teams (such as Dutch security region [Veiligsheidsregio, NL] or the district/city crisis teams) did not have a platform of regular political exchange and anticipated coordination of measures. Accordingly, In this sense, there was also a lack of Euregional political coordination with regard to the work of the Taskforce. Likewise, the investigation revealed a lack of vertical integration of the regional crisis teams with the Taskforce. This means that although EMRIC and EMR were able to communicate with the Taskforce at the technical level, there was no structural exchange within the Taskforce’s respective national framework to the respective regional or local crisis teams. This meant that politicians at regional level had little contact with the Taskforce. In short, there was both a lack of vertical connection from national to regional crisis management at national level as well as a lack of a political Euregional crisis team at Euregional level.
Surprisingly, further unprecedented complexity of rules, which were subject to frequent change, also characterised the second and third waves of the pandemic for residents in the cross-border region of the EMR, and particularly for cross- border commuters. As late as July/August 2021, the rules on border crossings changed weekly, and the quality of information provision on the part of the national authorities showed considerable deficits.
Classification of the individual phases
The full report is dedicated to the different problem situations during the various waves of the coronavirus pandemic, as summarised below.
As was the case with the investigation into the first wave, the follow-up study showed that the systemic national orientation of measures sometimes counteracted the Euregional solidarity. Euregional actors, such as the EMRIC Network, were not set up for a crisis of this scale and for this length of time, primarily because of a lack of protocols and detailed agreements for a pandemic crisis. Consequently, an important task once the crisis is over will be to develop cross-border protocols and agreements for pandemics in the Euregion, and to structure cross- border cooperation between players in the healthcare sector. This is the only way to ensure flexibility for cross- border cooperation in the future, in spite of national crisis management. This will only be possible with the full support of national and regional governments.
- The active role of crisis management was taken over by national authorities, overlaying the role of Euregional players.
- In the second and third waves, too, the joint NRW/NL/BE Taskforce did not contribute to joint decision making and coordination of measures, but served only as a point of information/advice. EMRIC/EMR supplied input for the Taskforce, but there was no direct vertical political coordination between the regional crisis management teams and the Taskforce.
- In many cases, regional and local players at political level often did not know their contact persons (responsibilities/mandate).
- There was also a distinct lack of a joint narrative/framework concept for cross-border pandemic management at national government level (except that, after the first wave, the borders remained open).
- EMRIC did manage to succeed in the exchange of information on national measures, but there was a lack of joint analysis and follow-up measures.
- With support from EMRIC and EMR, many practical problems that could be attributed to a failure to coordinate national measures were tackled and resolved (‘repair efforts’).
- Differences in data, data systems, and dashboards hampered communication.
- During the crisis, there was no joint reflection with respect to experiences (with the exception of the two
- Pandemric mini conferences).
- There was and remains a need for a joint, cross-border map/dashboard with joint definitions for the Euregio Meuse-Rhine.
- There is a need for a future cross-border Taskforce at government level with a genuine mandate for proactive coordination of national measures and with clear vertical integration with crisis management teams in different Euregions.
- There is a need for a current inventory of relevant contacts in each region/country in the respective crisis teams.
- There is a need for a Euregional crisis management structure, a location, a mandate, and personnel with a limited number of relevant experts and decision makers (under the umbrella of EMR or BENELUX).
- There is a need for an EMRIC unit with authority that can act as an information platform. Development of new agreements or protocols for cooperation in pandemic situations – e.g. cross-border solidarity mechanisms for intensive care capacities.
See https://pandemric.info/nl/maatregelenoverzicht-nl/ (only available in Dutch, German and French).