Euregionaal Forum, report debate at FLACC
The Euregion as economic opportunity
Debate with BAVO, Lowie Steenwegen, Peter Cabus, Harrie de Witte
— FLACC, Genk, 22 June 2006
— report by Maaike van Stolk (editing: Kim Thehu; translation: Dorrie Tattersall)
On Thursday 22 June 2006 the second Euregional Forum took place at the FLACC in Genk (BE); the first debate took place in Heerlen on 21 June. The Euregional Forum is an initiative of the Jan van Eyck Academie and consists of a series of debates set up by research bureau BAVO. Point of departure of the Euregional Forum is that, in terms of culture, language, materials, politics or nationality, there is more that unites the people from the Euregio than divides them. At the debate in Genk it was investigated how cities and citizens can profit from the cross-border qualities of the Euregio. The evening was kicked off with an introduction by BAVO.
In their introduction BAVO describes the ambiguity of cross-border enjoyment in the Euregio. The citizens of the Euregio can set up their own companies across the border, at Avantis and Eurode (Euregional industrial estates), shop at various large shopping centres, live in attractive surroundings and recreate in their own country or in neighbouring countries. These are examples of cross-border ‘enjoyment’ as made possible by the Euregio. This, however, is not as noncommittal as it seems. According to BAVO, the Euregio Meuse-Rhine is a laboratory of opportunistic switching between various forms of commuting. These switches are not geared to eliminating mutual borders; they are, in contrast, geared to the attraction of crossing the borders.
The question, however, is whether everyone profits (equally) from cross-border traffic within the Euregio. The Euregio was set up to make three countries collaborate in as many fields as possible – with their mutual borders maintained. BAVO wishes to discuss whether the possibility of zapping between the various regions is actually equally open to everyone.
Indeed, research has shown that ‘border enjoyment’ is mainly taken up by those who have had higher education. Public transport, for instance, is still insufficiently geared to the Euregio, which, in the first instance, makes the citizen dependent on the car as a means of transport. In order to work, live or shop across the border, people need at least one car. This means that for the ordinary man in the street the Euregio mainly boils down to cheap shopping across the border, rather than optimally making use of the Euregio in all its facets. And it is not just citizens who may fall by the wayside. Cities, too, do not all have the same amount of access to ‘border enjoyment’. Genk, for instance, is less well connected to Euregional public transport than the more affluent Zutendaal.
Local governments seem to respond to these inequalities by once again assuming a provincial attitude towards their policies. This renewed provincialism means, among other things, a sharper control of border labour. According to BAVO, however, this is not efficient. Genk should rather open up to external commuters. The city itself has potential. It is Multi-faceted, harbours sixty different cultural identities and has a varied offer of living accommodation: people can live in an urban as well as a countryside-type environment. However, the city does not use its potential fully. Opening up may also not be the ideal solution, because there is doubt whether Genk can face up to competition with the other cities. And, once again, wouldn’t those with higher education be the only ones to profit from this opening up? A second issue is the question whether development takes place at the right level. Should Genk tackle its problems at local level? Or is an approach on a higher level needed to fulfil its ambitions?
Inspiration across the borders
The first speaker to deal with the above issues is Lowie Steenwegen, regional planner at O2 Consult and council member for Groen! in Glabbeek. He has previously collaborated on the structural spatial planning of Genk. The leitmotiv of his argument is the expression ‘unknown, unloved’. He finds there is a lack of interest for the phenomenon of the Euregio, among the citizens and administrators of Flanders. What little interest there is, is mainly commercial. This lack of interest leads to inertia in policymaking. Steenwegen wonders if people are actually aware of what they are not interested in. Do people know what the Euregio is? Do they talk about the same thing when they mention the Euregio? Do the various administrators know what concerns people in the Flemish border areas? In order to answer these questions and inspire Genk and the Euregio, Steenwegen illuminates two initiatives undertaken by the German state of Nordrhein-Westfalen, in order to tackle its economically unattractive and weak position.
The first example is that of the Euregionale 2008, a trinational initiative, which aims to enhance the profile of the trination region of Aachen as a European culture and knowledge area, boost tourism and rebuild the post-industrial landscape. There are great regional disparities in this region, in terms of economic activity. The government of Nordrhein-Westfalen aims to lessen these disparities by more direct governance in a number of regions, in the shape of financial, administrative and logistic assistance.
This Euregionale 2008 plan is inspired by the Internationale Bauausstellung Emscher Park. This former industrial area has a surface area of 800 square kilometres, has 17 cities and 2,500,000 inhabitants. The Euregio, in comparison, has a surface area of nearly 3,000 square kilometres and counts about 3,9 million inhabitants. The area around Emscher Park was in an economic and ecological crisis until 1989. Then, a start was made with the reuse of industrial heritage, which served as one of the cornerstones of a new entertainment industry, consistently situated in a park-like setting. Ever since, the image of the area has improved dramatically. Also, more German citizens have become interested in living and working in the area. The IBA Emscher Park is a success story; the results of Euregionale 2008 still remain to be seen.
Recent research has shown that there were positive as well as negative experiences with these two initiatives. Even though collaboration could lead to problems, the Euregio Meuse-Rhine should be inspired by the Euregionale 2008 and the Emscher Park. The Euregio already has some advantages compared to the abovementioned areas: it has almost four million inhabitants, a good infrastructure, a high level of education and is regarded as the birthplace of European collaboration. Steenwegen has the following advice for the Euregio: construct a cross-border vision, use the existing means and budgets which already exist to that end (for instance, of the Limburg Reconversion Company) and amalgamate various fields – economy, culture, nature, energy supply and urban renovation – when undertaking economic collaboration.
As for Genk, Steenwegen finally remarks that its light rail, new city centre and landscape development all point to the council moving in the right direction. This approach, however, is not sufficient to completely tackle a phenomenon like the Euregio, which is comparatively unknown to the average citizen.
Peter Cabus, professor of economic geography at the Catholic University of Louvain, talks about differentiation on diverse levels, as did Jaap Modder at the debating night in Heerlen.
Many cities and villages in the European Union, in the Euregio, were right on the national border, in what was called the periphery. The disappearance of these borders have given many cities and villages a central position. This is advantageous in terms of accessibility and attractiveness, but less beneficial for their competitive position. Individual cities, each as central as the others, are powerless in their competition with other cities. This is why collaboration is of crucial importance. Unfortunately, in Flanders, collaboration is often still a sensitive issue. Genk and Hasselt, for instance, have always had a love-hate relationship. Cabus therefore concludes that policy aimed at connecting various regions should first take into consideration a change in the relationship between periphery and centre.
Secondly, Cabus believes that policy makers should realise that the economy is, per definition, international – and therefore a cross-border phenomenon. Economic networks and structures cross borders, usually on a large scale. The Euregio, Cabus says, is really too small to contain this type of network. However, it is also true that any network has its limits. A network is geared to a certain capacity and kills itself if these limits are exceeded.
The centrally located city does indeed play a role in setting these limits. Whether Genk is capable of fulfilling that role, however, is the question. Due to its specific origins, Genk has never been a very alluring city. Genk has always been a small community, exploiting coal mines until the beginning of the last century. Around the mines, neighbourhoods sprung up, all developing in their own ways. Together, these spread-out residential areas formed a strange structure, without a clear centre. But in this day and age, authenticity and recognisability are decisive factors for cities wanting to distinguish themselves from other cities and gain a healthy competitive position. This is why, according to Cabus, Genk should find new containers for its unique and irreplaceable values. This can only be done by gearing its policy to the Euregional network and form a mobilising coalition at local level.
Social policy critically important
In order to sound these theoretical statements against his practical experience, Harrie de Witte, GP in Genk, is given the last word. Based on stories from his patients, he addresses the housing problem in Genk. He tells the story of the homeless mother of two who cannot find a home. In his opinion, however, the lack of social housing concerns more than just the homeless; it is also linked to the problem of the city’s dynamics and its possibilities. According to De Witte, Genk leaves certain opportunities unused, among other things, by building houses in the centre for old-age pensioners, to which other people have no right. At the same time, the city is building luxurious housing projects on the outskirts of town. In this way, Genk is realising its own ghettos. De Witte makes a plea for focusing on the cultural diversity so typical of the city of Genk, and the talents of the various segments of the population. A strong social policy is the key to an attractive and dynamic Genk. The city council, however, does not yet support this belief. De Witte seems to say that as long as local problems aren’t solved, the Euregional issues will take a back seat. In conclusion, he believes that initiatives such as the Emscher Park could still have a positive effect on a city like Genk.
Discussion: local versus euregional
Lowie Steenwegen, too, is a strong believer in initiatives like the Emscher Park. As long as the government stimulates and motivates its citizens, society can be shaped. That is also true for the housing problem in Genk. He suggests the selber bauen system as an alternative to the failing Belgian social housing policy. According to this principle, the city could give its citizens pieces of land of their own and help them in the field of administrative and logistic issues. This will lead to the creation of a neighbourhood made by the people themselves, as opposed to rapid social housing, which does not connect people with one another. According to Steenwegen, the Emscher Park proves that people can people can fulfil a proper role in taking care of society and that this makes them feel involved.
Peter Cabus, on the other hand, has some reservations about the shapeability of society. He thinks that this method can only work if one is very aware of the sub-strata of society. Implementing policy top-down is not effective. He does recognise the success of the Emscher Park. Quite possibly, the Euregio could create a framework for a similar large-scale approach to local problems. The fact that the borders have been abandoned is, however, no guarantee for success. After all, the discussion has shown that local problems still have the upper hand. This, once again, illustrates that these borders still exist in the minds of the people.
— Article on Euregional Forum in Genk (Dutch)
— Description of the research project Traces of Autism, another Jan van Eyck research project on the Euregio Meuse-Rhine
— Introductory presentation by Wim Cuyvers on traces of Autism with responses by Cobi van Beek and Brice De Ruyver
— Report (with images) of the first presentations of the research team