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The Greater Region acts as a European Laboratory during the COVID-19 crisis

Roland Theis

In the Greater Region, we are accustomed to perceiving crises collectively as opportunities and, day by day, to creating together through concrete actions the Europe envisaged by Robert Schuman. During the coronavirus crisis, we have shown and continue to show that even stronger bilateral and unilateral cooperation is possible and meaningful - something that is true to the motto of the current Saarland Presidency of the Summit to 'promote the Greater Region together'. We imagined our Presidency of the Summit taking a different path. However, this crisis has, once again, made it absolutely clear what matters and has strengthened our cooperation even further.

“Never before has this been so obvious to us as in the last few months: cross-border cooperation saves lives!”

Cross-border cooperation in healthcare provides a great opportunity to this end. Never before has this been so obvious to us as in the last few months: cross-border cooperation saves lives! Cross-border cooperation is not art for art's sake but an important contribution to the wellbeing of all Europeans.

For example, for the Saarland State Government, reacting quickly during the crisis and providing care for French COVID-19 patients occurred as a matter of course. These actions were and are possible thanks to the commitment of many people. To achieve further improvements, the Executives of the Greater Region decided, at the interim summit held on 18 June 2020 by videoconference, to devise a joint pandemic plan to be prepared for future crises. The plan is currently being discussed by experts in the field.

A further aim is to establish a sustainable plan for cross-border healthcare that also works beyond times of crisis and has fewer administrative barriers for citizens to overcome. Cross-border cooperation of the emergency services will play a particularly important role in achieving this goal. For this reason, we are now also examining whether or not we can increase the number of cross-border air ambulance services, whose use has proved to be an efficient course of action during the pandemic.

Since the beginning of the crisis, we have realised that we want and need to exchange even more information to be able to assess and respond to the situation properly. That is why, in its Presidency of the Summit, Saarland instigated measures early on to ensure that information on COVID-19 cases from the subregions, for example on infection numbers and individual strategies for dealing with the virus, is collected and made available.

This serves to create transparency and helps to clarify questions concerning the possible location of hotspots. At an operational level, we formed a coronavirus task force that has allowed us to exchange information by telephone conference at least once a week since the beginning of the crisis on the developments in the individual regions, so that we have an early warning system in place. The Federal Ministry of the Interior and the Federal Foreign Office also take part in these conferences. Luxembourg's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the French Regional Health Agency are also on board.

Closing the borders not only was a painful watershed for us as committed Europeans but also demonstrated how important our cooperation is and how important it is for us to do all we can to ensure it continues.

Europe is not to be taken for granted; on the contrary, it needs new life breathed into it day by day. This also applies to open borders, a freedom that is to be valued and protected. As a result, we are working together now, as we will be in the future, to find solutions other than closing our borders to the coronavirus pandemic. Keeping longstanding borders in mind, we must find a way to gain control over potential hot spots other than by shutting down free movement within a region in a completely arbitrary manner.

Innovation does not relate only to the urban environment, but to the determination and willingness to think ahead and lead the way.

For us to be able to work together even more closely in the future, it is important to remove legal and administrative barriers. In their joint statement at the interim summit, the Executives of the Greater Region called upon national legislators and decision-makers to take the benefits and features that are specific to the Greater Region into consideration when implementing European directives and legislative and regulatory procedures.

On the occasion of this interim summit, we also exchanged information on other areas in which we would like to cooperate more closely. Moreover, this interim summit showed us clearly that, in our capacity as the Greater Region, we want to be and can be an incubator for Europe.

Innovation does not relate only to the urban environment, but to the determination and willingness to think ahead and lead the way. As we want to do this together, we have decided on additional crucial steps to further promote the Greater Region together. This applies in particular to digitalisation, which offers excellent opportunities. My vision is that the Greater Region develops into a hub of innovation in Europe.The foundations for this have already been laid by creating the University of the Greater Region, and the most recent Franco-German cooperation in the field of cybersecurity and artificial intelligence fills this vision with life.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus crisis is not over - on the contrary, we are right in the middle of it. This is why cross-border coordination is even more important now than before. It has steered us onto the right path, which we will continue to follow together.

This article appears in the A regional geography of COVID-19 Issue of TerritoriALL

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This article appears in the A regional geography of COVID-19 Issue of TerritoriALL