Cross-border Assessment 2016
Dossier 3: INTERREG programmes
The entire dossier is available here in Dutch and English.
Cross-border cooperation Investigation of INTERREG programmes on the Dutch border
In 2015, the European Union’s INTERREG programme celebrated its 25th anniversary. INTERREG, the funding programme for improving cross-border cooperation, has been serving the EU since 1990. It is part of the larger European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), and it has taken various forms and gone through various periods since the start of its implementation in the border regions. The current INTERREG VA programme, with a term of 2014-2020, is the fifth programme period. The budget of European funding made available for cross-border cooperation within Europe continues to increase steadily. For the current programme period, this means that there is approximately €6.6 billion available for cross-border cooperation in Europe.
The border regions working with this programme over its several periods have gradually changed their organizational structure and implementation processes. Through these changes, the basic concept, the promotion of cross-border cooperation with INTERREG resources as ‘driver,’ has remained unchanged. It would appear that the significant changes lie primarily in adjusting to the continuing movements in the legislation on the European side. This has, for example, necessitated a geographic restructuring of the programmes. It has also changed other aspects, such as the procedures for preparation of the programme, decisions within the programme and the process of closing projects. As the programme progresses, we are also gaining a perspective across multiple programme periods, and this reveals that the requirements and codetermination needs of the regional and national partners for the implementation of the programme are taking on an increasingly significant role.
The research within the cross-border impact assessment is a survey and comparative study of the three INTERREG VA programmes on the Dutch border. The research framework was defined to include the INTERREG programme Germany-Netherlands, the INTERREG VA programme Euregio Meuse-Rhein (a German-Dutch-Belgian programme) and the INTERREG VA programme Flanders-Netherlands. The research focuses firstly on a comparison of the progress in the programmes (reference date 1 August 2016). The next step is a comparison of approval and closing procedures for the project within the programme. Thirdly, the research concentrates on the most significant differences in the implementation of the programmes in comparison with the previous programme period INTERREG IVA. Finally, the research presents an assessment of the image of INTERREG VA in general on the part of the programmes themselves. Because the European Commission has been working for years to simplify programmes like INTERREG, the research within the INTERREG dossier is also intended to determine whether the regulations of INTERREG VA have actually been simplified, and whether as a result the implementation of cross-border projects has been simplified in comparison to the preceding programme. Additionally, with this research ITEM is making a first attempt to look at the cause of the objections (which were also identified by parties in the field in the survey for the ITEM cross-border impact assessment 2016) and determine whether they might also still apply for the current INTERREG VA programme.
This research includes, alongside the literature survey, depth interviews with programme and project coordinators of all three programmes. The indicators, formulated to serve as a guide for these interviews were based on a ‘big picture’ perspective of the three programmes, and cover both quantifiable and not directly quantifiable indicators. The quantifiable indicators include the exhaustion/reservation of the INTERREG VA resources, the number of approved projects, the average application time, the changed regulations and procedures on approval and closing of projects, and the consideration of the programme as a whole. Not directly quantifiable indicators include indicators like the interest in the INTERREG VA programme (in comparison to INTERREG IVA), the cooperation of the programme partners (as compared to the past), and the image of the programme. These general indicators reflect an assessment of the interview partners.
This research is a limited, overview study that only assesses (of all management layers cooperating within the INTERREG VA programme, being local/regional, national and European) the local/regional level, being that the discussions were only conducted with the various actors at the level of the programme management. This means it is a comparison in the performance of the programmes, without incorporating any analysis of the geographic, demographic, or economic characteristics of the areas or the various different forms of administration of the programmes. The various different administrative forms of the programmes are only highlighted where they proved to be of influence on the procedures of a programme. A more comprehensive follow-up study could incorporate input from the various administration and policy layers cooperating with each other vertically and horizontally across the border.
It can be concluded that the INTERREG programme Germany-Netherlands, as well as the Flanders-Netherlands programme, are more on schedule in the performance of the current programme, given that now, some one-and-a-half years after the start of the programme, approximately 50% or more of the total budget has already been committed. This is notably ahead of the programmes running via the INTERREG VA programme Euregio Meuse-Rhein. As it became clear in the interviews, this has nothing to do with any increasing administrative burden under European regulations. Virtually all interview subjects confirm that the European regulations on the implementation of INTERREG VA have actually become simpler. Likewise, in the programmes themselves, there is the desire to continue the simplification, so the ultimate beneficiaries of the programme (the project backers and partners) experience a reduced administrative burden and carry more independent responsibility in the projects. However, it is at this level in particular that future projects will have a long way to go. One such area of improvement might be more transparency of the procedures of the various programmes. Additionally, it should be possible to set the national rules aside somewhat more. There might also be a potential for better coordination of the programmes between each other and a reduction of the burden for project backers and partners, which at present have to set new regional regulations and/or coordination procedures for each programme and sub-programme.
Despite the reductions in burden and the renewed application, monitoring, reporting, and closing structures for projects in INTERREG VA (which are discussed in great detail in the dossier), the image of ‘administratively onerous’, ‘difficult to implement in practice’, and ‘procedurally complicated’ still hovers over the INTERREG VA programme. The underlying causes of this are, to some extent, explained by the interview subjects themselves in several ways. From there, it appears that we can generalize reasons based on experiences from programmes in which things go wrong, and these can be projected onto all programmes. It also appears that experiences from the past with INTERREG IIIA and INTERREG IVA are being carried over into the new programme. It must also be noted that other funding programmes involving public or European funding may not be any less draconian.
Further it became clear in the interviews that if many programme partners have to make decisions together and the procedures in each individual programme are just a little bit different, the structure of INTERREG A in its entirety remains complex and not particularly transparent. Nonetheless, most interview subjects agreed that it is in fact the shared, cross-border administration by programme partners on each side of the border that makes the INTERREG A programme unique. This makes the programme in itself the very model of cross-border cooperation.
 The Interreg Community Initiative (INTERREG for short) is a European programme working towards breaking down borders in Europe. With European Union funding, INTERREG tries to promote cooperation between regional areas in different countries as part of a broader strategy of strengthening the economic situation and cohesion across the European Union.
 See, for example, CEC Simplifying Cohesion Policy for 2014-2020 in DG Regio.