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North-South integration in Ireland

Co-operation, in any language

Moray Gilland

For most normal people, ‘cross-border’, ‘trans-national’ and ‘inter-regional’ co-operation would be interchangeable terms. But for the European Commission they have specific meanings.

Cross-border co-operation is locally based, across either side of a land or, in some cases, maritime boundary. This includes the Republic of Ireland/Northern Ireland border and that between the republic and Wales.

Trans-national co-operation embraces larger groupings, of areas such as the ‘Atlantic Arc’ or the North Sea. Such co-operation tends to have a more spatial approach (although spatial-planning issues can also have a role at local level).

Inter-regional co-operation refers to non-contiguous areas — for example, were Northern Ireland to work with Galicia. These distinctions may seem tenuous, but that is commission English for you.

For the European Union, the overall aim of cross-border co-operation has been and remains that the EU’S borders should not be a barrier to balanced development. The INTERREG initiative (INTERREG and the current INTERREG II) has had a significant role in economic integration and social cohesion. Under its auspices, cross-border projects have been established and networks created between public institutions and private associations. INTERREG has provided a Europe-wide framework, which previously did not exist, for cross-border co-operation.

Although the commission proposed that the number of community initiatives should be reduced from 13 to three for the next round of structural funding, and that the finance available should be reduced to 5 per cent of structural-fund resources from the current 9 per cent, the priority of co-operation is being retained as one of those three community initiatives. This is a strong symbol of the commission’s desire that border regions should not become isolated from other member-states economies or the union as a whole.

Activities in a wide range of domains have been funded under INTERREG II; management systems and economic co-operation between small and medium enterprises (SMEs); tourism, the environment, transport, communications and infrastructure; education, training and cultural issues; health systems and so on. But the key lesson from INTERREG II has been the difficulty in establishing such activities across many of the borders of the union. There has been much more progress on development within border areas themselves than in cross-border co-operation.

INTERREG II has allowed direct relationships to be established between local authorities and communities in different member states, which have learned to work together towards the joint development of border regions. The experience has not been uniform, however. In part, this is because the borders of the union are very diverse: for example, the border between Finland and Russia is very different from those around the North Sea, which are very different again from the border between Spain and Portugal.

Yet, in general, there has been too little interaction between the local and regional partners. The cross-border bodies set up to manage projects have often been dominated by national, rather than local, interests and projects which have been approved have often made little strategic sense.

Moreover, genuine, contiguous cross-border projects have not been numerous, and there have been implementation problems. And sometimes, where infrastructure projects have been supported on either side of the border, INTERREG funding has simply become a supplement to mainstream structural-fund support, without adding any of a key commission concern — added value.

INTERREG II has had some positive effects on countries aspiring to membership of the union. But the lack of resources of those states and the problems of co-ordination with other EU schemes, such as PHARE and TACIS, have limited the effectiveness of co-operation across external borders.

Thus, for the new programming period, there is to be a new community initiative — aimed at cross-border, transnational and inter-regional co-operation — to support the balanced development of the EU’s territory. Action in relation to areas on the borders between member states will be at the heart of the initiative.

The budget for INTERREG II for 1994-99 was 3.6 billion euros. For 2000-06 it is envisaged that, within the reduction in the number of community initiatives, there will be a significant increase in the budget for its successor. But supported projects will have to be genuinely cross-border, a ‘bottom-up’ approach and participation will be required, and projects will have to complement rather than duplicate mainstream structural-fund activity. Hopefully, also, management will be more streamlined.

The commission has proposed that this new initiative be developed through three strands. Strand A, dedicated to cross-border co-operation, would be aimed at developing compact economic and social clusters and would involve co-operation at a very local level. Projects might entail: rationalisation of local transport, telecommunications, water and energy systems; promotion of SMEs; urban/rural developments; local employment initiatives, integrating the labour market and supporting social inclusion; sharing human resources and facilitating education, culture and health; promoting environmental protection and cultural exchanges; and building up human and institutional capacities for cross-border co-operation.

Such actions must be steered by genuinely cross-border co-operation bodies or local authorities, with only occasionally some regional or national representation. These joint bodies would form a single management structure for the programme, dealing with project selection, finance and administration. By giving local authorities a central role in management, it is hoped that genuinely local cross-border projects will be funded, thus ensuring greater value added.

As far as possible, the commission would intend making a global grant to the cross-border structure, which would then select projects and allocate finance accordingly — with joint management structures, joint project-selection systems and joint bank accounts. That won’t, of course, be possible in every border area, particularly at the external borders, but it would be the ideal.

Strand B would look at trans-national co-operation between regional and national authorities, though also involving local authorities where necessary. Given the limited financial resources expected to be available under this strand, a strong focus will be sought in supported programmes. This strand could involve the preparation of trans-national strategies and spatial plans, particularly for improving transport and telecommunications systems — including between the peripheral, less-favoured regions and the central regions of the union.

To secure genuine co-operation, the commission could invite the relevant member states and regional authorities to participate in the definition of a programme that would comprise agreed operational proposals. This programme could be prepared by a joint trans-national body on the basis of proposals from the authorities themselves.

The aim here is, in effect, a continuation of the cross-border approach on a wider scale — which, admittedly, creates more problems if you are trying to create a trans-national structure involving five or six countries rather than two. The commission wants to build on what has been achieved in recent years under INTERREG IIC, where this concept of trans-national co-operation originated.

Finally, under strand C, inter-regional co-operation would be supported to promote development of the less favoured regions — particularly through exchanging experience and good practice on cross-border and trans-national co-operation and through networks embracing a limited number of regional schemes. Most such co-operation is currently supported under article 10 of the European Regional Development Fund regulation, which has the disadvantage of concentrating management in the hands of the commission and of dissociating these efforts from cross-border and trans-national activity under INTEREEG.

We therefore envisage the transnational bodies set up under strand B presenting proposals covering Strand C co-operation. Acting as a network, these bodies could launch calls for proposals and select individual co-operation projects.

Overall, these ideas should allow a change of gear and a relaunch of INTERREG on a more ambitious, yet more effective, basis. There remain, of course, issues to be considered, including the allocation of funding between programmes and how to ensure co-ordination, for example, between INTERREG and pre-accession instruments for the countries of eastern Europe.

The new INTERREG initiative would be funded by a single fund, namely the ERDF — including human-resource actions hitherto funded by the European Social Fund and rural development projects supported by the agricultural guidance fund FEOGA. This would avoid the administrative burden of trying to manage three funds in relatively small INTERREG programmes.

The commission’s ideas for the future of INTERREG give a strong focus to the basic rationale for a cross-border, transnational and inter-regional community initiative. With regard to the cross-border dimension in particular, in comparison with INTERREG II the objective of co-operation at a local and regional level will be much sharper and more explicit — genuine cross-border bodies delivering genuine cross-border projects.

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