Cross-border regions suffering from the health crisis

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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Restrictions on mobility are an aberration in cross-border living areas, which are true laboratories of European integration. [Kodda]

For more than two years, France, Germany, Europe and the rest of the world have been dealing with a pandemic that has had disastrous consequences. While Covid-19 has put the economic and social fabric of almost the entire European continent to the test, the cross-border regions are among the first to be affected by the border restrictions imposed to contain the spread of the virus, which nevertheless contradicts the spirit of European unity. Despite the insufficient attention paid to cross-border cooperation, the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) is an opportunity to reaffirm the role of border territories as “laboratories of European integration”.

Théo Boucart is media officer at Jeunes Européens Strasbourg.

The unilateral closing of the border between France and Germany from March to June 2020, decided by the German government without any consultation with the French regional and national authorities, has been experienced as a traumatic moment, amplified by the mistrust and hostility that has developed among citizens on both sides of the border. This decision is in total contradiction with the spirit of the Schengen Treaty. The border is once again synonymous with a barrier between people, and it loses its symbolic function of a bridge between territories.

However, restrictions on mobility are an aberration in cross-border living areas, which are true laboratories of European integration. Every day, several hundred thousand commuters cross a border. In Strasbourg, it is natural to go shopping in Kehl, while Germans and Swiss enjoy exploring the alleys of the Alsatian capital’s city centre. This interweaving of border societies is still little considered at the national level, even though a third of the European Union’s inhabitants live in border territories, i.e. almost 150 million people.

Faced with the insidious and permanent return of the border barrier and the resulting sense of mistrust, civil society has not remained passive. As early as May 2020, pro-European associations have been organizing demonstrations from Basel to Schengen. However, no structuring project bringing together citizens, associations and local authorities seem possible to overcome a situation of political, economic and societal stagnation. Thus, except a few local elected officials, French, German and European politicians have been characterised by their total lack of commitment.

Yet the Conference on the Future of Europe was launched on 9 May 2021 in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, in the presence of French President Emmanuel Macron. While in his opening speech the french President regretted the closing of borders during the first months of the pandemic, no concrete reference to cross-border cooperation was made. Similarly, none of the recommendations of the citizens’ panels that will be examined shortly in the plenary session really refer to cross-border cooperation, despite the inclusion of the notion of external borders, in particular to call for the reinforcement of the competencies of Frontex.

Thus, these two years of the pandemic, and the months ahead of us, will have and are already having as a direct consequence an erosion of cross-border cooperation while it should only be increased. This is illustrated by the glaring lack of new structuring projects within our regions. While France and Germany reaffirmed their desire for closer integration three years ago with the signing of the Treaty of Aachen, the consequences of the pandemic in our territories are indicative of a gap in Franco-German cross-border cooperation, in particular in the area of health.

However, a leap forward is more than necessary to offer concrete solutions. The German government of Chancellor Olaf Scholz must be fully aware of this, especially after the signing of a coalition contract strongly tinged with a pro-European spirit. Similarly, the French incumbent president Emmanuel Macron, who portrays himself as notoriously pro-European, must do all he can to revive the European spirit in France, especially in the face of a far-right candidate who wants to reverse the provisions of the Schengen Agreement.

European institutions’ should follow through on the logic of the Conference on the Future of Europe, which will end on 9 May by proposing concrete policies inspired by what citizens have proposed on the platform. The European associations working in the cross-border area were particularly active in Strasbourg, and it would be very regrettable if the cross-border character of our regions were not enhanced at that time.

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