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AEBR II Online Forum on 26 August: Cross-border cooperation in IPA countries. Challenges in times of Covid-19

8 September 2020

The Second AEBR Online Forum took place on 26 August focusing this time on cross-border challenges of IPA countries in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Forum was opened by Ms Ann-Sofi Backgren, President of AEBR. She emphasized that since the middle of March border regions are affected by local, national or European circumstances which put them in the spotlights. “Border regions deserve special attention on both development processes and the implementation of extraordinary measures. We need stronger post-Covid-19 economic and social cohesion but we also need to boost territorial cohesion”, said Ms Backgren. She pointed out also that border regions are extremely sensitive to the closing of borders and this Forum will tackle cross-border challenges for cooperation during the pandemic. Ms Backgren stressed: “now more than ever European border regions need more Europe – but also Europe needs more territorial cooperation”.

Martín Guillermo-Ramírez, AEBR Secretary General, introduced the online forum topics from the perspective of the Association of European Border Regions. He stressed  that measures introduced to limit the pandemic affected border regions harder. Exchange of knowledge and experience with the neighbours and other border regions is important to find adequate solutions in these exraordinary times. “This is why we organized the first Online Forum focusing on EU borders, we focus now on IPA borders, and for the next one attention will be paid to external border and Eastern Partnership”, he underlined.

Mr Gilles Kittel, keynote speaker from IPA, Enlargement Negotiations and EU Strategy for the Adriatic and Ionian Region (EUSAIR) Unit at the Commission’s DG Regio, focused on European Territorial Cooperation challenges in the Western Balkans region in a time of COVID-19 pandemic. In his presentation, he gave a thorough insight on the Six Post 2020 Interreg IPA Cross Border Orientation Papers, stressing the two new specific objectives: better cooperation governance, and safer and more secure Europe, the new delivery tools and joint territorial instruments; the Coronavirus Response Investment Initiatives for IPA (CRII & CRIIPlus & CRIIIPA), with more flexibility on thematic concentration, and the possibility of a 100% co-financing; some clues on the programming negotiations; and concluded that border regions’ governance need to be more resilient. Most probably the priorities for CBC will be on public services, the Green Deal, labour market & education, institutional cooperation (governance and key services). The presentation can be found here.

The influence of the pandemic on Interreg IPA and IPA CBC Programmes and Projects was elaborated by Sanda Šimić, Head of Division at the Ministry of EU Integration of the Republic of Serbia. She gave an insight on current Interreg IPA and IPA CBC Programmes and Projects, and the planning process for the next programming period. She highlighted the importance to react ad-hoc, to be prepared to the worst-case scenario to be flexible enough to react during the periods if and when the borders are closed. She also stressed that every border needs a different approach, it is very important to listen to the beneficiaries, and asked for subsidiarity for all territories, not only the EU. The presentation is available here.

During a questions and answers session, the discussion went in the following direction: Small projects funds and maximum budget foreseen?  Soft projects or also for small infrastructures like greenways, reconversion of old railways for new paths for cycling and walking with impact in active mobility, new green jobs, and enhanced cooperation?The exchange followed outside the Forum in the following days, and Mr Kittel provided some very insightful information on certain aspects of the new Interreg.

The second part of the Online Forum started with the presentation of Mr Ervin Erős, CESCI Balkans Director, on Territorial Analysis for Programming Interreg IPA CBC Hungary-Serbia 2021-2027. He presented the response to Covid-19 pandemic measures and how flexibility should be taken into account from now on. “Changes in borders might stay and this will affect CBC”, he concluded. Find here the presentation.

Then, Mr Boban Ilic, Secretary General of the Regional Rural Development Standing Working Group in South-Eastern Europe (SWG), gave an insight on challenges faced in rural cross-border cooperation in the Balkans. He presented how SWG is implementing ongoing projects on-site following the obligatory pandemic measures and transferring activities that cannot be implemented in-person to be implemented online.  He also emphasized the methodology that SWG is using in the last 15 years, the Area Based Development (ABD). ABD serves as a regional tool by targeting defined geographical areas in cross-border regions which are characterized by a set of common, complex development problems, and it is one of the Territorial Integrated Tools that other can use for CBC.

The next presentation on the Greece-North Macedonia Cross-Border Leadership Academy Adaptation to Pandemic Measures was delivered by Mr Daniele Del Bianco, ISIG Director. He highlighted that even in time of closed borders we can use the different tools available and the opportunity to add additional value in the implementation of projects by involving other remote cross-border areas in exchanging knowledge and experience. “A more systemic concept of borders, besides the classical physical conception, should drive CBC”, claimed Del Bianco. His presentation can be accessed here.

Ms Melike Tatlı, Head of EU and Foreign Relations at Edirne Chamber of Commerce and Industry, gave us an insight not only on Turkey-Bulgaria Cross Border Experience but also with their Greek neighbour. Besides stressing the importance of open borders and how the closure is affecting business in these cross-border areas, she underlined the human dimension of cooperation when she expressed how they miss physical contact with their friends and colleagues from Bulgaria and Greece.

The final presentation on cross-border projects between the regions of Bulgaria and Serbia was delivered by Mr Vladica Tošić, President of the Nisava Euregion (RS/BG). He presented the ongoing project focusing on strengthening tourism entrepreneurship where the main beneficiaries are young people from the cross border area. Find here the presentation.

The closing remarks were delivered by Martín Guillermo-Ramírez, AEBR Secretary General.

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