The four regions – Rhône-Alpes in France, Catalonia in Spain, Lombardy in Italy and Baden-Württemberg – combined forces in 1988 to defend their mutual economic interests in Brussels, and alone account for 8% of Europe’s GDP, more than Portugal, Ireland and Greece combined.
Now Paolo Alli, international relations secretary for Lombardy, has called for the “successful regions to be rewarded for their excellence” in research and innovation policies, which are set receive a bigger chunk of EU regional funding in the 2014-2020 budget period.
Meeting on 9 July in Lyon, representatives from the four regions completed the presidency’s transition from the Rhône-Alpes region in France, which had come to the end of its one year term, to Baden-Württemberg.
The German state, which lies on the east of the Upper Rhine, has been led by an unprecedented coalition of Greens and Social Democrats since 2011. Its president, Winfried Kretschmann (Greens), has said he wants civil society to be at the forefront of the regions’ agenda for the coming year because the European crisis is a “crisis of confidence”.
Germans to welcome unemployed Spanish youth
One aspect of the four region's cooperation is to ease labour movements across borders.
The sovereign debt crisis has created ever widening gaps between Spain and Italy and their northern neighbours. While almost half of Catalonia’s youth is unemployed (43%), the figure is 2.5% in Baden-Württemberg.
Faced with a lack of qualified staff and an ageing population, the German state is developing schemes to bring over foreign apprentices.
This has been viewed as a perfect way out for Catalan leaders unsure what do with their vast dormant labour force.
“If these young people go to Baden-Württemberg, it’s not a brain drain but a principle of individual freedom,” said Catalonian External Affairs Sectretary Senén Florensa i Palau.
To take the region forward, Baden-Württemberg is also trying to get a development strategy off the ground with other regions surrounding the Danube. In June 2013 leaders are expected to gather in Serbia along with business heads from their respective regions.
The stated goal is to gain a market share in the Danube area, but the sector is yet to be defined.
A similarly ambitious project took place under the Rhône-Alpes presidency, with a dialogue set up between the 'four motors' and four Latin American regions interested in biotechnology.
"We have to develop win-win partnerships with these new world powers", said Rhône-Alpes President Jean Jack Queyranne
More subsidies for rich regions?
These attempts at regional bridge-building are also formed through a lobbying campaign in the EU institutions, with the four regions getting a word in over every Commission proposal on cohesion policy, agriculture and research in recent months.
In a proposed joint roadmap, Baden-Württemberg has demanded a bigger allocation of EU regional funds. Since the original aim of these funds was to reduce inequalities between regions, the 'four motors'' proposal has raised a few eyebrows.
But Rhône-Alpes Vice President Bernard Soulages contends that Europe should also encourage its strongest territories to develop further instead of "merely seeking equality within the EU".
By 2014 a budgetary redeployment of some €40 billion, he said, could take place to fund competitiveness policies in rich regions. Other French departments, including Languedoc-Roussillon and Lower Normandy, are counting on a slice of those funds under the aegis of "transitional regions".
But since the rich areas are home to dynamic, advanced industries and enterprises - like automotive industries in Baden-Württemberg and nano-technology in Rhône-Alpes - cohesion policy is not the only possible source of funding.
The quartet are increasingly looking towards European research and innovation programmes for a cash windfall, and making notable advances in the fields of energy and electric vehicles.