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Document 52000IE1401

Opinion of the Economic and Social Committee on "PRISM — Cross-border initiatives (Single Market Observatory)"

OJ C 116, 20.4.2001, p. 7–13 (ES, DA, DE, EL, EN, FR, IT, NL, PT, FI, SV)


Opinion of the Economic and Social Committee on "PRISM — Cross-border initiatives (Single Market Observatory)"

Official Journal C 116 , 20/04/2001 P. 0007 - 0013

Opinion of the Economic and Social Committee on "PRISM - Cross-border initiatives (Single Market Observatory)"

(2001/C 116/02)

On 28 January 1999, the Economic and Social Committee decided, under Rule 23(3) of its Rules of Procedure, to draw up an opinion on "PRISM - Cross-border initiatives (Single Market Observatory)".

The Section for the Single Market, Production and Consumption, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 27 September 2000. The rapporteur was Mr Malosse.

At its 377th plenary session on 29 and 30 November 2000 (meeting of 29 November) the Economic and Social Committee unanimously adopted the following opinion.

1. The ESC Single Market Observatory's PRISM Project

1.1. In 1999, the Economic and Social Committee's Single Market Observatory (SMO) embarked on a European survey known as "PRISM" (Progress Report "Initiatives in the single market") of the practical measures introduced by both national and local authorities and socio-economic interest groups to adjust to the new challenges of the single market (e.g. changeover to the euro, sharper competition, new areas of cooperation, and obstacles to information and communication).

1.2. The aims which the Observatory set for PRISM are:

- to foster an innovatory, bottom-up approach to the single market to supplement the traditional Brussels "top-down" approach;

- promote and publicise best practice "in the field";

- on the basis of the above, list the EU political and regulatory measures needed to encourage, back up and develop those initiatives;

- ensure an original and operational ESC contribution to the debate on the single market and the Internet: this will be the ESC's own specific initiative;

- in this way, consolidate the ESC's role as mediator between the socio-economic players and the EC institutions.

1.3. In the view of the ESC Observatory, the measures under consideration, which directly concern adjustment to the European single market, would seem to fall into four categories:

A. Information and support

- operational information for users (publications, symposia, Internet, training, media);

- targeted assessment of the situation vis-à-vis the single market (studies, opinion polls, media).

B. Problem-solving processes

- mediation to cope with obstacles and problems experienced (approaches at national, cross-border, Brussels levels; direct negotiation of solutions to specific problems).

C. Partnership

- European partnerships to facilitate openness (twinning, exchanges, partnerships, agreements, mergers);

- pooling of resources to sharpen competitive edge (centres, sponsorships, SME clubs, linguistic back-up).

D. Agreements and codes of practice

- streamlining of administrative procedures (one-stop centres, mutual recognition, codes of practice);

- enhancement of image to cope with competition (qualification, certification, designation of origin, label, diploma, charter).

2. Work programme for the study group on PRISM - Cross-border initiatives

2.1. As a contribution to the PRISM project, an initiative has been launched to identify the main features of best practice in border areas, in tandem with a series of activities to identify best practice at the national and regional levels. We therefore need to determine precisely which type of initiative specific to border areas can be put forward and, to do so, we had to analyse the new issues confronting the border areas.

2.1.1. With this in mind the general hearing held in Brussels on 21 April 1999 was followed by a hearing in Trieste on 15 November 1999. This hearing clearly highlighted both the constraints of the exercise (difficulties in selecting the best projects, conflicting views on project quality) and the existence of many border obstacles in a region adjoining a non-EU country. Following this hearing it was decided to focus on sets of criteria making it possible to measure the impact of border initiatives more accurately and to frame recommendations for making best practice widely known. The aim of the hearing organised in Luxembourg was therefore to test this new approach in the field on the basis of carefully defined criteria.

2.1.2. The Luxembourg hearing, organised on 21 July 2000 under the auspices of the Economic and Social Council of the Saar-Lor-Lux region, was a huge success. A number of completed, ongoing or planned projects were assessed according to the set of criteria that had been defined and projects that are examples of "good practice" and likely to be transposed and promoted as part of the Single Market Observatory's work were presented. Some of them inspired the proposals to be found in this opinion. This hearing also provided an opportunity to test a methodology for identifying the factors on which the success of the best projects depends, highlighting possible causes of failure and proposing ways of publicising best practices. On the basis of this, the study group will also be able to draw up a series of suggestions for European programmes to advance cross-border cooperation - such as Interreg, which has been defined as the technical and financial frame of reference - and thereby develop the European and national legislative framework.

2.2. The proposals already drawn up by the Committee in its opinion on benchmarking(1), which advocated a regional approach over a national one, are therefore also relevant in this area. Indeed, the national approach adopted by the Commission has to date had very limited results. Yet this method was relaunched in spectacular fashion by the extraordinary European Council meeting in Lisbon in March 2000 when it proclaimed "benchmarking" to be the EU's new working method par excellence. The Single Market Observatory's PRISM initiative is consistent with this new climate of opinion in advocating a new "benchmarking" approach for the single market. This approach will be based on identifying methodologies - rather than examples - that have produced significant and lasting results.

3. Analysis of the issues confronting border areas

3.1. Historical factors affecting cross-border regions

3.1.1. Today's frontiers are the result of the rise of the nation state from the 19th century onwards. Previously, despite transport difficulties, border areas were essentially areas of mobility and cultural, human and economic interchange. Hence a non-European visiting Europe will be struck by the architectural and cultural similarities in the Provence/Mediterranean and Rhine and Danube regions, Flanders, the Balkans, etc. The erection of administrative frontiers and, in particular, the organisation of "self-centred" states along national lines have progressively broken the geographical and cultural unity of these areas, which have now become, with few exceptions, separate territories - often hostile to, and at best ignorant of, their neighbours.

3.1.2. One of the contradictory issues facing us at the end of the 20th century is the problem of borders and their continued existence: on the one hand, there is a universal trend towards increasingly vigilant control of economic and trade flows and on the other, the formation of a single vast economic and political area and a concomitant suppression of thousands of kilometres of borders. This raises the issue of the identity and future of cross-border regions.

3.1.3. Despite fifty years of European unification the splits created by the rise of the nation state and the erection of frontiers are still not totally repaired. There may be greater freedom of movement of people, goods, services and capital (albeit still far from perfect) but it has to be accepted that national considerations still predominate over the idea of a border zone. While borders may no longer exist in the sense of physical barriers, they still exist in people's minds and, in particular, are reflected in behaviour and customs. The European Union therefore needs to reflect on the validity of instruments developed to help re-establish a European area of cooperation.

3.1.4. Borders arose/arise as a result of the breakdown into nation states, but isn't geographical proximity a better determinant of border areas' identity? On the other hand, how important is actual proximity to a border, now that the most decisive advantage is often speed of delivery, which depends on the flexibility of production facilities? In addition, geographical proximity is undermined and complicated by the problem of mutual recognition of national structures and procedures, which creates obstacles which cannot be overcome without specialist intervention. Another question which arises in the context of the single market is the relationship between regions and borders. The old borders have left their mark on the economies of the cross-border regions. For example, one such visible distinguishing feature of border economies is the daily commuting of workers. In this context, it would seem that cross-border trade helps improve the performance and competitiveness of regions.

3.1.5. Isolationist policies are now anachronistic. However, if divisions are set to disappear, new forms of relationship must be invented. This is the challenge now facing cross-border regions in the context of the single market. On the other hand, what is the point of devising procedures and structures to boost cooperation if national structures and practices boil down to preserving, and sometimes even aggravating, divisions in day-to-day life.

3.2. Traditional hypotheses on the penalisation of cross-border areas

3.2.1. In economic texts, borders are often considered as an artificial distorting factor within large markets and are generally held to restrict economic development because of their effect on the dynamics and cost of investments.

3.2.2. From a purely economic angle, the retention of a physical or "invisible" border therefore acts as a brake on economic development. Invisible barriers - language, behaviour, administrative practices, cultural problems, and so on - are of key importance. These "invisible barriers" are increasingly invoked to explain the fact that border regions, within a frontier-free European Union, continue to live "back to back".

3.2.3. One of the major lessons learned from the hearing in Trieste was that the European Union, through its programmes and funding, is the only true counterweight to splits and divisions. Unfortunately, these programmes seem to have encouraged an "appetite" for cooperation which focuses on the financial benefits rather than being the product of the genuine will of local partners. Furthermore, Europe's action, in this case, seems minimal in the face of de facto frontiers and invisible barriers.

3.2.4. In a very different context, the Luxembourg hearing highlighted above all the enthusiasm of local actors who have often pre-empted European programmes and set up model economic, social and cultural cooperation projects. While European programmes are very welcome and have of course widened the scope of these projects, they are often so wrapped up in red tape that they can also be an obstacle to cooperation. Indeed the European Commission waited until the end of the 1980s, when the Interreg programme was launched, before turning its attention to the situation of border areas. The Luxembourg hearing also stressed the importance of bodies in a position to encourage cooperation, such as the Political Summit of the Saar-Lor-Lux region, the region's Economic and Social Council, consular conferences, trade union groupings, etc. These bodies act as bridges in overcoming "invisible barriers" and counterweights to pressures from national reflexes, which are completely natural but tend to hinder the emergence of genuinely cross-border economic areas within the single market.

4. A new reference framework for analysis of border areas

4.1. A cross-border area is simultaneously part of a national territory and, by its very nature, a zone of separation and contact. Although there may be tensions, this area presages another country and as such can be extremely attractive.

4.2. In the current scenario for European integration, we speak both of a "Europe without borders" and a "Europe of the regions". The first concept clearly reflects a will to suppress borders, as does the second, although its focus is on other types of frontier, whether geographical, socio-cultural, linguistic or structural.

We are seeing a shift from a conception of borders that separate to one of borders as zones of contact and cooperation.

4.3. In the light of this, the study group on cross-border initiatives should draw on theories which move away from the traditional emphasis on the problems caused by frontiers to an emphasis on overcoming them, establishing contact zones which encourage interregional cooperation and gradually transforming border zones into cross-border zones.

4.3.1. From a planning point of view, the long-term challenge of cooperation is the emergence of cross-border areas that generate joint initiatives and projects, vitality and mutual support, and which have structures for exchanging ideas on coordinating and managing projects. (It would seem that projects of this scale still largely need to be defined and set up, targeted on mutual support and joint strategies.)

4.3.2. The hearings held reinforce the idea that this new approach must operate on the same operational scale as the public authorities competent in the identified areas of cooperation. This is achieved by setting up networks of operators and joint projects. This dynamic relies on the participation of economic and social actors, in both a consultative (e.g. the Grande Région's ESC) and an operational (e.g. consular cooperation) capacity.

4.4. Based on the premise that invisible barriers are the most difficult to overcome and that the existence of "self-centred" States and regions continues to exert a negative influence, the new framework for analysis emphasises the evolution of the border zone into a contact zone. The aim is not to deny the national reality but to achieve a better balance. The more the border area becomes aware of these barriers and strives to overcome them, the more border zones will become contact zones while in other regions, because of the political context, lack of mobilisation on the part of the key players or too great an economic gap, borders will remain barriers.

4.5. To pinpoint the success and failure of cross-border cooperation, it would seem useful to define it in terms of structures, methodology and products.

4.5.1. Structures are understood to mean the formal arrangements giving practical expression to a cooperation agreement of any kind (industrial, social, legal, institutional, etc.). Here good and bad practices will refer to the problems encountered and the way in which they are dealt with.

4.5.2. Methodology denotes a project's operational conditions: existence of European funding, support from local, regional and national authorities, partnership component and, in particular, the involvement of local socio-economic players, including women, young people and vulnerable social groups, sound preparations in the shape of prior feasibility studies, monitoring procedures and ongoing assessment, publicising of results, and so on.

4.5.3. Product covers, inter alia, the European added value contribution to projects, the project's social dimension, effective targeting of needs and optimisation of results to ensure that projects have a genuine mass impact and do not remain at the pilot stage.

4.6. In appraising the socio-economic impact, it would also seem useful to assess the structural aspects of cross-border cooperation in terms of spatial planning (consistency with regional, local and national policies, cultural changes, etc.) as well as their link-up with other European programmes.

4.7. In this context, the existence or prospect of an open area (open border) can, provided it is the focus of a proactive strategy, provide an opportunity to reconstruct cooperation networks and develop new forms of mutual support and approaches to public services. In this way, contact zones will become zones of exchange and perhaps a positive replacement for borders, without compromising the rich diversity of the national reality.

5. Proposals for action

5.1. Classification and inventory of good practice

This should follow a simple scheme based on the measures introduced, the methods and products, and the structural impact:

5.1.1. when studying the cooperation measures (structure, agreement), attention will focus primarily on the difficulties encountered and the solutions which have - or have not - been found, as well as on the management approach opted for (administrative, financial, etc.);

5.1.2. analysis of the methodology will identify the partnership (financial, operational, consultative) and the components of the work programme (feasibility studies, monitoring, evaluation criteria and methods and socio-economic impact assessment);

5.1.3. product appraisal will ascertain the project's European added value contribution in terms of integration and completion of the single market, the project's social dimension, effective targeting of stated needs and, lastly, the practical scope of its impact (selective or mass impact);

5.1.4. the project's possible structural effects (breaking down cultural barriers, change in attitudes, spatial organisation, start-up of common projects, etc., common socio-economic development strategy, common skills development training and initiatives ...) will also be highlighted;

5.1.5. it would also be interesting to ascertain the link-up with other European policies: environment, enlargement, cohesion policy, social policy etc.

5.2. Optimisation and publicising of good practice

The hearings on cross-border operations revealed a huge variety of influencing factors. The operational methods, the intensity of cooperation initiatives and projects' structure and content vary significantly according to various parameters, one of the most important of which seems to be the degree of maturity of cooperation projects. As well as factors relating to the historical context of relationships, the variables that determine this maturity are anchored in political will and the existence of available legal and operational structures.

Cross-border regions must adapt operational methods combining joint strategies, operational efficiency and cross-border integration to everyday operational needs.

For purposes of optimising and publicising good practice, the Committee recommends adopting a framework methodology based on:

5.2.1. the upgrading of the "PRISM" data base in line with the four criteria selected for the study of cross-border projects, on the understanding that the selected project will primarily be presented on the basis of the methodology opted for and the results obtained;

5.2.2. the organisation of workshops for project managers, focusing on four key aspects: structures, methodology, products and structural impact;

5.2.3. a more in-depth study of the failures and problems encountered, in the form of a "check list" of bad experiences, which can prove far more instructive than a prizelist for successful projects.

5.3. Progress in the operational and legislative framework

On the basis of the above inventory of good practice and check list of bad experiences, the Single Market Observatory should be in a position to propose operational innovations and recommendations to regional managers, the Member States and the EU Institutions, in such areas as:

5.3.1. improving the efficiency of cross-border cooperation arrangements (rules, accounting methods, tax aspects, etc.);

5.3.2. reinforcing cooperation structures at political, consultative and operational level, thereby ensuring the effective participation of local economic and social actors;

5.3.3. appointing cooperation "facilitators", whether these are mediators (as in the Grande Région project) or offices providing guidance and back-up, e.g. info-centres for job seekers (EURES network), companies (EICs) or artisans (BDTEs - trans-frontier business development offices);

5.3.4. creating tools for analysing and monitoring, above all the employment situation, so as to guide political action and work in the field;

5.3.5. launching very specific projects - the only ones likely to mobilise people's energy and have a real structural impact;

5.3.6. providing back-up to teams in the field. Research has shown that for cooperation initiatives to lead to significant projects, operators need to have the know-how and specific skills. In short, they need to have a strong command of the neighbouring country's language and be very familiar with its institutional and administrative framework, be good at mobilising technical and financial resources and know how to manage complex projects.

5.4. In terms of proposed actions, these observations refer to:

- the need to support this overall development dynamic by helping to frame rules, providing a simplified and transparent tax framework, and mobilising budgets for financing teams and networks; and

- the need to provide instruments for information (guides, databases) and dialogue (discussion groups, etc.) on the best cross-border intervention methodologies and arrangements, thus answering most questions concerning the technical management of projects and relationships with authorities: model agreements, explanations concerning national administrative and legal constraints, etc.

5.5. The Interreg programme specifically, other technical and financial framework arrangements proposed by the European Commission, aim to - and really do - contribute, to the cross-border dynamic in that they encourage projects by lending financial support.

5.5.1. Following regional hearings held in two very different cooperation contexts, it would appear that the credit take-up by European projects depends on a great variety of key factors, such as whether cross-border relations previously existed and the degree to which existing relations are complementary, economically coherent and sustained. Arrangements seem to be more effective in areas where the groundwork for cooperation has already been done. It is regrettable that Commission action looks at existing advantages rather than being more pro-active and effective in situations where there is a greater need for cooperation.

5.5.2. On the basis of the projects presented, the following actions can be recommended to help improve this initiative:

- reviewing the level at which the programme intervenes: Interreg, for example, is planned at an administrative level, but what projects really need is an operational framework based on synchronised programming and coordination on each side of the border. Administrative organisation leading to unified programming should improve cooperation significantly;

- multi-annual programming, as occurs in cooperation projects (but not in the case of Interreg);

- coordination between the management authorities of different countries on project implementation, based on common cross-border methods and consistent procedures (e.g. single proposed candidatures and instructions, joint timetable for implementation);

- giving more priority to human cooperation. At the moment, far too many programmes, especially in border regions of third countries, only look at the physical aspects (roads, bridges, etc.). While undoubtedly important, these have never prevented conflicts;

- encouraging local officials and civil society organisations to pay more attention to cooperation strategies prior to any Community intervention.

5.6. These factors, accompanied by the framing of product quality standards, would help refocus the Interreg initiative as a European Union tool for creating dynamic border areas within the single market, far more effectively than any budget appropriation or financial handout.

6. Priority conclusions

Following the Brussels, Trieste and Luxembourg hearings, the study group on PRISM - Cross-border initiatives recommends the following:

6.1. selecting a set of four criteria for identifying good practice in border regions based on the concepts of cooperation arrangements, the methodology chosen, the products obtained and the long-term structural impact;

6.2. ensuring that the best use is made of PRISM as a platform for circulating good practices through discussion groups focusing mainly on methodologies, problems encountered and the impact of results;

6.3. calling on the European Union to pay more attention to border regions in order to make them genuinely cross-border areas, following the example of the efforts of local actors in some areas of the EU (e.g. the Grande Région Saar-Lor-Lux which was visited during the Luxembourg hearing). To achieve this, the Interreg initiative must be refocused to concentrate on effective cooperation strategies, by prioritising partnerships of economic and social actors, work in the field, specific projects conducive to exchanges, human relationships and networks of teams;

6.4. urging the European Union to pay special attention to the situation in the most remote and peripheral border regions, in particular border regions of third countries wishing to join the EU, so as to actively encourage outward-reaching strategies, primarily involving local officials and operators. The methodologies implemented by the most central regions and PRISM initiative good practices could be easily circulated and applied in these areas.

Brussels, 29 November 2000.

The President

of the Economic and Social Committee

Göke Frerichs

(1) Opinion on the "Communication from the Commission on Benchmarking - Implementation of an instrument available to economic actors and public authorities" (COM(97) 153 final) (OJ C 296, 29.9.1997, p. 8).