In that part of Belgium neighbouring both The Netherlands and Germany, local and regional authorities from those three countries have decided that working together is the way forward. Enter cross-border cooperation, enter Interreg!
Granted, this used to be the regional policy's trademark decades ago as this was another era in which many regions eligible for structural funds needed, well, structural investments such as transport infrastructure.
Today, though many parts of central and Eastern Europe still need large investments in roads, water systems or hospitals, regional policy is focussing less on bricks and cement and more and more on smaller projects that are close to local communities.
Upon the invitation of the local Member of the European Parliament Pascal Arimont, I spent the day in Eupen listening to those who have implemented various cross-border projects; I heard about their achievements and their complaints.
Take EMROD for instance, an acronym that most Europeans have never heard of. For years local police forces' efforts in that border region were hampered by the way burglars worked: German burglars would operate in Belgium or the Netherlands before rushing back to their home country, and vice-versa.
At the public agency for economic and regional development I heard how EU funds have allowed scientists and businesses from that region to meet, to exchange ideas and altogether to improve the research-to-business connection in this region. And I would not want to omit the Ra-Vel project that has seen local and regional authorities from Luxembourg, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands join forces to reclaim disused railway lines and to refurbish them to the benefit of pedestrians, cyclists or horse-riders, thus building an uninterrupted network of paths from Luxembourg to the Netherlands.
All of them EU-funded projects that do not require huge amounts of funding, yet that genuinely improve lives in those communities. All those involved would clearly state that without EU funds those projects would have not have been implemented.
This is a key point for me as too often I hear EU budget net contributors ask "why should cohesion policy fund projects in my country when my national budget could do it?" Yes, in narrow financial terms you probably could fund them; but that is hardly the point! The point is: it takes EU projects to encourage border regions to set up detailed projects together safe in the knowledge that funding will remain available till completion.
However, yes, I heard each presenter of those projects complain that the amount of paperwork and the delays in getting funding are a real obstacle to more and better projects. This is a complaint I hear a lot across the whole of Europe, and this is definitely one of my priorities: in future, cohesion policy must be more accessible. The best tool in the world is of little use if it is kept locked behind bars of regulations… This is what the word "differentiation" is about: the future cohesion policy should adopt a differentiated approach, i.e. adapt its criteria to the country instead of having the same monitoring and audit machinery for all.
On 20 September we will present our Communication on boosting growth and cohesion in border regions, the same day that our conference on border regions opens here in Brussels. Participants from all over Europe, like those people who made EMROD, Earlytech or RAVel a reality for the inhabitants of the Euregio Meuse-Rhine, will join us on the day, to share their experience with their peers from other regions.
I discovered great cross-border projects in Eupen and I am grateful to Pascal Arimont and the organisers for this; but more importantly, such success stories must be shared widely across the whole of Europe. Learning from each other for a better Europe.