“It is very important to move from networks to cross-border structures. In addition to vertical integration from the EU, we need to work together on horizontal integration as a structure that connects neighbouring countries to put border obstacles and opportunities on the agenda, analyse them and arrive at common future perspectives.”

This is how Prof. Dr. Anouk Bollen-Vandenboorn summed up the main message. The ITEM Annual Conference 2022 in Groningen focused on the future of border regions in Europe, given the many challenges involved. During the ITEM Annual Conference in Groningen, experiences will be exchanged to support security, healthcare and energy supply in border regions. “This requires governance structures, instruments and cross-border projects.

Multilevel Governance: from vertical to horizontal integration

Cooperation with our neighboring countries is more important than ever, many issues do not stop at the border and often require a slightly different approach in border areas. In the evening prior to the ITEM Annual Conference 2022, ITEM was pleased to welcome the Minister of the Interior and Kingdom Relations, Hanke Bruins Slot, to Groningen. During dinner, the minister gave the gathering an interesting and powerful speech about cross-border cooperation and emphasized its necessity. Cross-border cooperation cannot be taken for granted, we need to strengthen it and invest in it.

“We must indeed strengthen cross-border cooperation structures. This requires organized governance at different levels, constant attention and awareness of policy makers, and effective use and promotion of cross-border projects and instruments. The results of the Annual Conference and the ITEM studies in the framework of the Border Impact Assessment underline this,” ITEM Director Prof. Dr. Anouk Bollen-Vandenboorn responded. It is therefore of great importance that cross-border cooperation is not neglected or taken for granted even in the upcoming provincial elections. “In the coming period, everyone must do their part to give the inhabitants of the border region their chances of a livable and promising living environment on the border,” recalls Prof. Dr. Anouk Bollen-Vandenboorn.

The importance of cross-border cooperation and the horizontal dimension in European integration was also emphasized by Prof. Dr. Joachim Beck in his presentation. “Cross-border cooperation is underestimated in the European debate, although it is very important.”

The report of the Administrative Working Group on Border Barriers endorses the strengthening of problem-solving capabilities in border areas and recommends improved administrative organization that includes the border regional perspective. Prof. Dr. Anouk Bollen-Vandenboorn: “Our knowledge institute fully supports that proposal. This requires selecting border obstacles, putting border issues on the agenda as early as the decision-making process of central governments with a broader mandate, creating a legal authority to deviate from regulations when appropriate, and a firm commitment to more manpower. And this is often lacking at the moment.” The three coordinating state lords for cross-border cooperation, Mr. Han Polman, Mr. René Paas and Mr. Andries Heidema are happy to take their responsibility in this regard. More mandate to give space to reach solutions, a strong joint secretariat and political and administrative commitment to tackle bottlenecks are essential factors in this.

The speech by Vibeke Hammer Madson, chair of the Freedom of Movement Council of the Nordic Council of Ministers shares best-practices from Nordic cooperation and confirms that a strong mandate and fixed, independent structure are essential. “Freedom to act, with a strong mandate from our governments, that tolerate that we act as an opposition. Members of the FMC can pinpoint why national legislation must be changed.” “You need a strong mandate.” advised Petri Suopanki, senior adviser at the Nordic Council of Ministers once again.

Projects: the energy transition of border regions

Several themes and projects demonstrate the importance of good cross-border cooperation. “Cooperation across parties and boundaries should actually be our second nature. Only then, we will be able to tackle the toughest transition and sustainability issues ahead of us,” Stientje van Veldhoven indicated. Earlier this year, ITEM researchers were still calling for more cross-border cooperation to achieve European goals. “Cross-border cooperation is at the heart of the European energy issue,” thus brought CdK Arthur van Dijk, chairman House of Dutch Provinces in Brussels, to the conclusion of the joint ITEM/HNP event in October.

Even though European directives in the field of renewable energy have been giving member states the option to align their subsidy schemes for years, neither the Dutch, German nor Belgian governments have taken advantage of this option. “Real cross-border projects, such as wind farms with wind turbines on both sides of the border, are almost impossible to realize in this way,” said ITEM researcher Martin Unfried. “That would require special border regulations.” This also means that until today few attempts have been made to address grid capacity problems in certain border municipalities with local cross-border solutions.

Instruments: border effects analysis and room for deviation

This year’s Border Effects Report not only looks at the border effects of the energy transition, but also, for example, those of the Dutch fireworks ban and the EU proposal for a European Health Data Area. All research files can be downloaded here. All files endorse the usefulness of a thorough border effects analysis. What effects are at play for the border region and cross-border cooperation? The ITEM researchers present the studies briefly through a pitch. The Netherlands is the first country in Europe with an obligation to test government plans for border effects, just as it has done for environmental effects for many years. ITEM advised on the drafting of the Guideline on Border Effects. And if effects are such or border effects are already occurring, then border regulations are needed. “Don’t adapt, but deviate” was the motto of the Administrative Working Group on Border Effects, or the need to allow locally deviating policies to prevent or reduce border effects. Instruments that enable solutions are mostly within reach. Read more here in ITEM’s reflection.

Today we received the message from several sides that this requires structural cooperation and coordination. This is evident from the themes that were addressed, such as the health dossier, but certainly also the area of energy transition and security. This requires intensive contact on content with neighbouring countries, in this case specifically with Belgium and Germany. Only then can any obstacles through measures be minimised for those who live and work in border regions.