On Thursday 10th March, the Border Focal Point Network organised the seventh episode of the “Beyond Borders: Breakfast Debates” series. Border cities (also known as twin cities) offer unique examples of cross-border cooperation and the challenges, opportunities and benefits that exist in border regions. These cities truly do act as living labs of European integration and offer a multitude of insights relevant to the wider cross-border region, and Europe as a whole.
This episode opened with remarks from Nathalie Verschelde, from DG REGIO, who argued that border cities can be seen as at the forefront of European integration: EU objectives, such as freedom of movement, are tangible on a day-to-day basis in these cities. She also noted the value of hearing the perspectives of both citizens and academics specialising in border cities. She emphasised that both groups have much to learn from each other, offering different ways of looking at the issues and solutions that emerge in these areas.
Following this opening the audience was shown the results of the first poll, launched at the beginning of the event. In response to the question ‘What are, in your opinion, the main advantages of cross-border cities?’, we were delighted to see that not a single attendee chose ‘None, living in a cross-border city is mainly a source of problems not advantages’ as their answer. Rather, there was an almost equal response to remaining options: respondents saw the enhancement of trust amongst people either side of the border, getting the best of the two countries, being truly European and language and cultural exposure as advantages of living in these cities.
Off the back of this positive response to the first poll we heard from two citizens of border cities, namely: Hanna-Leena Ainonen, from Haparanda (Sweden)/Tornio (Finland), and Olga Afonso, from Vilar Formoso (Portugal)/Fuentes de Oñoro (Spain). Hanna-Leena's explained how cooperation manifests in Haparanda/Tornio convincingly arguing in favour of the importance and benefit of border cities cooperating as it enables better services for citizens at lower costs. She noted that the enthusiasm and motivation of politicians either side of the border is a key element in the successful cooperation of her cities.
Olga Afonso, speaking of her experience living in Vilar Formoso/Fuentes de Oñoro on the border of Portugal and Spain presented an example of border towns that were less well integrated. She argued that there was need for further cultural interaction and exchange between these towns, which is currently sorely underdeveloped. Looking forward, one of the priorities she identified was the development of a cross-border integrated tourist network which she believes would benefit these towns and the wider cross-border region cities hugely.
Having heard these personal experiences of life in border cities the audience were presented with the results of the second poll. This poll, enquiring about the biggest perceived challenges facing cross-border cities, identified incompatible legal frameworks as the biggest barrier, followed closely by lack of coordination of public administrations.
The discussion then moved onto four academic interventions. Professor Eduardo Medeiros set the scene by asking attendees to consider why border cities are so significant: cities are hubs of innovation and growth, from which benefits seep into the surrounding regions. Discussing what makes a border city a border city he encouraged us not to define border cities in terms of measurable distance from a border but instead in terms of cross-border interdependencies. Christophe Sohn then introduced the utility of considering borders in terms of their symbolic meaning. He presented three different strategies to mobilise borders: showcasing, valorisation and the invisible-isation. However, he noted that these methods must be carried out hand-in-hand with the material transformation of the border areas involved.
The final two interventions came from Bernard Reitel and Martin Klatt. Bernard Reitel presented a case study of the Strasbourg-Kehl conurbation (France-Germany) and highlighted that border cities across Europe use not only the Interreg programme but other programmes to develop cross-border projects. While Martin Klatt speaking of the Danish-German border region of Schles highlighted that a result of closing of the border due to Covid has been an increased awareness of the need to keep borders open and to think about the opportunities posed by connecting border cities.
Professor Eduardo Medeiros closed this fruitful discussion with a reflection on the numerous ways that border cities’ relationships can manifest and the importance of continuing to work to overcome the barriers they face and build trust.
If you could not join us for this event or if you would like to watch it again, the recording is available here:
The 'Beyond Borders: Breakfast Debates' series has been designed to highlight ways in which cross-border regions can be supported in tackling specific problems, building on their many assets. The debates will provide the opportunity for stakeholders and policy experts to convene and discuss the continued challenges and obstacles to cross-border cooperation.