Border regions matter and the EU must continue looking after them despite planned cuts for Cohesion policy funding, particularly as some of those regions remain under-developed, participants at a recent EURACTIV event said, highlighting a good example of Romania-Bulgaria cross-border cooperation.
The event ‘Common borders, common solutions’ brought together representatives of the two Balkan countries, the European Commission, Parliament, NGOs and industry, focusing on cooperation between Danube regions in EU members Romania and Bulgaria.
“European border regions matter, from the social, economic and territorial cohesion point of view. About 30% of EU population live in border regions. They are not insignificant and we should look after them,” said Nathalie Verschelde, deputy head of unit in DG Regio.
Referring to the Cross-border cooperation programme, that is part of Interreg [European Territorial Cooperation], she said it “has made a difference in border regions,” and more specifically the programme around Giurgiu (Romania) and Ruse (Bulgaria)
“A lot has been done, particularly on risk management, response to disasters. As a result, the population in border regions is much safer, tourism is a massive investment area. The Danube is both an asset and an obstacle in daily life. The region is a perfect demonstration that we are stronger together, and you can see the reality if you go there.”
Strahil Karapchanski, the vice-mayor of Ruse, the biggest Bulgarian town on the Danube, said the Danube region belongs “to the poorest and least developed in Europe”.
“Here, the added value of cross-border cooperation can be seen. Commissioner Hahn said that CBC [cross-border cooperation] regions are laboratories of European integration. I can confirm that this is really the case.”
Supported by the European Regional Development Fund, European cross-border cooperation provides border regions and stakeholders in Romania and Bulgaria with the possibility to boost the growth potential of their border areas through shared management and a common strategy.
Learning to live together
Before the EU programme was implemented, there was little cooperation between the border regions of the two countries, which joined the EU in 2007. Now, Karapchanski said, “we have started talking to each other, learning the language, taking interest in the way of life of the other side, started identifying that we have so many things in common”.
They also started drafting common development strategies and syncronising their priorities, he said.
Calin Chira, the coordinator for Cohesion at the Permanent Representation of Romania to the EU, said there have been “about 150 projects under implementation in the 2014-20 period, with 25 already finalised. We can say the results we have so far are not negligible.”
“The most import achievement is that we succeeded to have cooperation. Traditionally, there was no history of cooperation. Now we have more than 70 partnerships between universities, research institutes, businesses.”
Chira warned that Cohesion policy was facing cuts in the EU’s new seven-year budget, possibly up to 13%. “It is a very difficult choice but it’s up to the EU leaders to decide. Nevertheless, we’re trying to make most of it with money that we have”.
Verschelde also said that the regions should strive to become more sustainable.
“There is life beyond funding, people should not become reliant on EU funding for their development. It is a welcome input to regions but it’s not enough, that’s why the Commission in the last three years worked very hard on policy aspects of border cooperation and life in border regions,” she said.
One of the most concrete results is a new bridge on the Danube, only the second along the almost 500-km river border. For comparison, in Austria there are bridges almost every 30 km and, according to Michaela Kauer, director of Vienna’s liaison office in Brussels, the capitals of Austria and Slovakia, Vienna and Bratislava, have created one ‘functional area”.
The core of this area, she said, “is river transport. We have a twin city line, a fast boat”.
Conversely, Bulgaria and Romania had “one bridge, built in the 1940s, and we are now celebrating the second bridge,” said Bulgarian MEP Peter Kouroumbashev. He also highlighted the importance of building dykes along the Danube to regulate the flow and prevent flooding.
“It must be financed by the EU, or by the Chinese Communist party,” he said, referring to China’s growing investment in infrastructure in the Balkans.