Cooperation at the borders goes beyond Member States

Anna Kananen, Journalist, Youth4Regions programme alumna

The first thing one thinks of when the word ‘border’ is mentioned may be crossing it. 
For some, borders may symbolise violence. People are stopped at borders for various reasons: some for simply forgetting their passport, some for lacking the correct visa and some for having a ‘wrong’ appearance.

Although it is not necessarily made explicit that the additional questioning or ‘randomised’ security check is conducted because of one’s skin colour, racist procedures are constantly carried out and encountered in places where two states meet.

For an EU citizen, crossing an internal EU border is easy. People, goods, education and labour move quickly across the borders. EU citizens do not even have to worry about their passport expiring, as a national identity card is sufficient, if they are asked for a document at all.

What a freedom! For some, of course.
Many agree that freedom of movement is one of the greatest things the Union has achieved. In addition to people and goods passing through, the EU also aims for other things to happen at borders.

Cooperation in over 200 regions
The EU carries out cooperation projects in many of the world’s border areas. The projects extend to regions beyond the Member States, even as far as the Amazon, the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean, to name a few. These are not among the first places one would expect to find an EU project, right?

But why are we discussing borders?
‘Many people in the world live in border areas of their country. This is especially the case for many Europeans. If you have services and cooperation on both sides of the border, your life is a lot easier,’ summarises Nicolas Garnier, a project manager for the Interact programme, which assists on Interreg projects.

One of the cooperation programmes, Interreg IPA (Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance), involves 14 programmes that promote cooperation between 212 regions in the EU and countries with candidate status (mainly the countries in the Western Balkans).

For example, as part of the programme, two day centres for the elderly were opened: one in Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and one in Garešnica, Croatia. The project aims to improve the availability of health and social services in the cross-border area, which is exactly what Garnier referred to: many live in border areas, and if services are available on both sides of the border, one’s life becomes a lot easier. 

Apart from the Member States, the programme currently involves six candidate countries: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey, explains Besiana Ninka, a project manager for the Interact office in Vienna. Moldova and Ukraine are still part of a different subproject due to organisational issues and periodic work, which is currently scheduled between 2021 and 2027, even though the countries were granted candidate status around a year and a half ago.

But is there a downside to cross-border cooperation?

Critical views on the bloc
Although enhancing cooperation in the border regions has achieved a lot of good, not everyone has a purely positive opinion of the EU. When talking to people in the Western Balkan countries, it becomes clear that many are frustrated.

Many were even more frustrated back in June 2022, when Moldova and Ukraine were granted candidate status only a few months after application. At that point, Bosnia and Herzegovina had been waiting for years.
Finally, in December 2022, the Union decided to grant candidate status to Bosnia and Herzegovina, too, after six years of waiting. The case was similar for other Western Balkan countries too, as Albania, Montenegro and Serbia also waited years before receiving candidate status.

The cooperation projects aim to assist, not frustrate.
‘The main goal of the cooperation is to bring these countries closer to the Union,’ says Ninka, although she admits that people in the Western Balkans might indeed feel frustrated. But she also believes that many are strong believers in the EU.

And do the Interreg programmes help with the frustration that people might feel?
‘Absolutely,’ she states, and continues: ‘Interreg programmes are about people; they are about building trust.’

Kosovo faces challenges
While they manage to reach many parts of the world, there are regions to which the cooperation projects do not extend. This is the case in the Western Balkans, as Kosovo is left without candidate status and thus is excluded from Interreg projects.

‘Kosovo has bilateral projects between other countries in the Western Balkans, but we do not have a programme between Kosovo and a Member State,’ explains Ninka. ‘The question comes down to the timing, a lot,’ she believes.

The country declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and applied for membership in 2022. However, as Serbia and a few other Member States do not recognise its independence, the country might have to wait years to be granted candidate status. This presents issues with regard to cooperation projects.

‘Now is an important phase for presenting ideas and potential issues in the types of programmes that will be built in the future,’ states Marko Ruokangas, an expert from the Interact office in Turku.

This article appears in Thriving Regions Stronger Together

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