The Concello of Tomiño (Galicia) and the Câmara of Vila Nova de Cerveira (Portugal) are two municipalities located on opposite banks of the Miño river, at the northern border between Spain and Portugal, separated by only 180 metres width of the river. The long-standing relationship between Galicia and Portugal are based on common historical background and traces back to 1985, when Portugal and Spain were about to join the European Economic Community. The imminent disappearance of the border between the two States pushed for the deepening of cross-border relations through a Friendship Protocol, which materialised in a “Ponte da Amizade" (Friendship Bridge) in 2004 and the establishment of the Eurocidade Tomiño-Cerveira. It has long shared facilities and services such as a swimming pool, a municipal music school, sport programmes, common free parking etc.
Further cooperation is promoted through the project, “Cross-border Cooperation Agenda - Friendship Cerveira-Tomiño”, which aims to develop sustainable growth that improves the quality of life and social cohesion of the population. It does so by exploiting the potential of common resources, such as the Rio Miño, preserving and intelligently promoting the natural, cultural and ethnographic values and features of the region, and the sharing and optimisation of public facilities and services.
In the framework of this project, the Ombusdswoman’s Office for cross-border citizenship of Cerveira-Tomiño, a pioneering body of cooperation between Galicia and Portugal, was created in 2017 with the purpose of guaranteeing the defence, protection and pursuit of the rights and particular interests of all residents in Tomiño and Cerveira as cross-border European citizens. It receives complaints, claims and suggestions regarding cross-border relations between the two municipalities and issues reports, recommendations and suggestions within its powers.
It became more relevant than ever with the closure of the border during the COVID-19 health crisis which significantly affected the lives of the cross-border inhabitants. In order to understand and thereby be empowered to address the numerous problems caused by the border’s closure, the Ombudswomen set up mechanisms to collect information on the difficulties arising. This data on the impact of the closure was collected via personal testimonies, newspaper articles, by email as well as through the questionnaire posted on the Eurocidade Cerveira-Tomiño Facebook page which gathered more than 250 cases. The main group affected by the closure was cross-border workers who had to travel hundreds of kilometres, taking much longer with consequent increased costs to reach the single border crossing in Valença and Tui. Other issues were related to increased economic costs, inability to use some essential public services located on the other side of the border, like education and health services or sports facilities, and serious struggles related to family care. Main findings from the survey, together with other studies were brought to the attention of local authorities, regional, state and European authorities and were used to inform immediate reactions to minimise the difficulties for cross-border citizens.
Northern border between Spain and Portugal.
The “Cross-border Cooperation Agenda - Friendship Cerveira-Tomiño” project has been co-financed in the framework of Interreg VA Spain-Portugal, with and ERDF contribution of about EUR 380,000. The project partnership is composed of the two towns municipalities, led by Câmara Municipal de Vila Nova de Cerveira (PT).
The project, and in particular the Ombudswoman’s Office for cross-border citizenship of Cerveira-Tomiño is a successful example of democratic participation. The initiative gives a voice to the cross-border citizens and helps alert relevant local administrations of the daily-life administrative and legal challenges they face. The increase in citizens’ active and direct participation in civic life has been achieved innovatively via the platform, called OPT, which involves the citizens of the two neighbouring municipalities in the formulation of solutions for common needs. Associations and organisations from both municipalities are able to suggest cooperation proposals which are submitted to the popular vote through the OPT website and the most voted for option receives financial support for its execution.
Previous successful initiatives carried out by the Ombudswomen include a report recommending the removal of barriers to cross-border mobility of children and young people, which had many positive repercussions and allowed the European Commission and the Association of European Border Regions (AEBR) to establish, in 2019, possible alternatives to this problem on their B-solutions programme. The International Observatory on Democratic Participation (OIDP), based on the labor of the Ombudswomen, awarded the Eurocity Cerveira-Tomiño with the prize “Good Practice in Citizens Participation” in 2019.
These initiatives can be replicated elsewhere at cross-border level as a means of deepening and consolidating institutional relations through joint and shared programming and management of different public services, and the involvement of citizens in the formulation of common solutions for the resolution of common problems.