Euregionaal Forum, report debate Heerlen

Euregional Forum

The Euregion as global knot

Debate with BAVO, Jaap Modder, Henk van Houtum, Rob Janssen

— Stadsgalerij Heerlen, 21 June 2006

— report by Maaike van Stolk (editing: Kim Thehu, translation: Dorrie Tattersall)


On Wednesday 21 June 2006 the first Euregional Forum took place in the Glaspaleis in Heerlen. 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 Heerlen it was investigated what strategies could be developed for a Euregio that collaborates efficiently. Debaters were Jaap Modder, Henk van Houtum and Rob Jansen. The evening was kicked off with an introduction by BAVO.


A trans-national approach

BAVO describes the Euregio as a laboratory and experimental field of and for the European Union. The Euregio is a ‘compact geographic unit’ in which the ‘utopia’ of the EU, that is to say, intergovernmental and supranational cooperation between the participating nations in the fields of politics, economy and law, can become reality. According to BAVO, it is exactly this utopia which lies at the heart of the tensions round the European Union. On the one hand, the Union is shaped top-down, from its political centre in Brussels. But the EU also consists of collaborations which come into being from within, from the informal network of Europeans themselves.

This EU utopia also becomes visible with regard to the Euregio – where it is criticised by people who believe in the union of European countries as well as people who are more sceptical towards this idea. However, both optimists and sceptics agree on one thing: in spite of the ambition to collaborate across the borders, these same borders between the various regions and/or countries have to remain intact. The optimists consider the mutual borders as the cornerstones of the economic success in the region. The sceptics regard them as demarcation lines of the cultural identity of the region.

BAVO believes that it is time, however, for the Euregio to take itself seriously, at political level, as an example, precursor and laboratory of cross-border collaborations in the EU. According to BAVO, the Euregio is limited too much to the division of subsidies from the EU coffers. Moreover, the Euregio lacks the power to direct managerial processes. This is why trans-national thinking should be encouraged and governments should be made aware of the social-cultural aspects of the Euregio. The borders in the heads of the population and administrators must be crossed and eliminated. It is the opinion of BAVO that only a tight-knit Euregio can exist and participate in international politics and on a governmental level.

At the Euregional Forum Heerlen serves as a case in order to investigate which strategies can be developed for a Euregio that collaborates efficiently. Is a business-oriented strategy preferable to a social one? Should regions and regional cities operate separately or is it better to unite forces?


Pragmatic networking at all levels

The first debater to address this issue was Jaap Modder, chairman of the board of City Region Arnhem-Nijmegen. Modder states there is no manual for (re)organising European and Euregional joint ventures. Problems can be approached in a variety of ways, after all. He illustrates this by pointing to Eindhoven and Stuttgart, two cities which got into an economic crisis due to the loss of important industries. Each city solved the crisis in a different manner. Stuttgart found a formal, politically tinged solution; it opted for a union of government and industry. Eindhoven, on the other hand, focused more on personal contacts.

The example shows that there is no single perspective from which to look for solutions to the problem of Euregional collaboration: the region is simply too diverse for that. There are too many possibilities and too many levels of collaboration to be taken into account. This is why Modder suggests to formulate political, social and economic agendas which take into account all micro-, meso- and macro-level parameters. Questions which could be directive are: What is our problem? Who are our partners? In which niche lies our strength? How can we cooperate?

The current problem of demographic shrinkage in Parkstad Limburg can be approached according to this strategy. Like BAVO, Modder states that, as for this issue, Parkstad Limburg could serve as a pilot region for Europe, since Europe, too, will have to deal with demographic stagnation and shrinkage. How can the Euregio respond to this development? Since employees and citizens will increasingly move to the cities, it is of crucial importance which region has the most vital labour market. This is why the regions must put their position on the labour market on the agenda and try to differentiate from other regions, for instance, by focusing on the presence of cultural heritage or unique settings for accommodation. Even though this might lead to increased competition between the different Euregional cities, it can, simultaneously, also be a way to start up or intensify collaborations. After all, demographic shrinkage is making the region smaller, making the possibility of one market more realistic. In short, by networking at micro-, meso- and macro-levels and by signalling and discussing problems, ways of collaboration can time and again be developed, in every situation.


Mental borders

The pragmatic approach by Jaap Modder is offset by a more philosophical approach coming from Henk van Houtum, researcher and tutor at the Centre for Border Research and Radboud University, Nijmegen. He states that the thinking about borders is connected to human mental borders. What is a border and what is created with the space that is made by those borders?

According to van Houtum, creating space is a process of adaptation, strategy and intervention. Thus, the Euregio is an economic and political strategy as well as a form of self-preservation against ‘the other’: the other region, the other country, the other me. In essence, borders are political-governmental factors. Yet, they can be felt – they are readjusted internally and function mainly in the heads of European citizens. The process-driven approach is at odds with the modernistic idea that the European Union, or the Euregio, will once be finished, that is to say, integrated. The Euregio, however, will never be finished, it is continually being reinvented. The Euregio is an example of a continuous process of ‘trans’ and ‘inter’.

Two factors are of overriding importance in this process: the imbalance between power and powerlessness and the imbalance between presence and absence.

The first imbalance is a consequence of the discrepancy between the national and the local feelings of the citizen. Many (Euregional) politicians lack the instruments and feel powerless to get the Euregio off the ground. They come up against the strong idea of the nation of the Netherlands, which is alive among the population. This feeling manifests itself very clearly during football world championships, when the population stands as one nation. This national feeling supersedes Euregional feelings.

The second imbalance, between presence and absence, finds expression in the fear of ‘the other’. The general principle of the border is ‘keep your distance to me, to us’. Breaking down this principle is scary, because the other is unknown. On the other hand, the other – because of its otherness- is also seen as interesting, even exotic at times.

Van Houtum concludes that these two imbalances hinder the formation of the Euregio. The idea of the nation is still very prominent, with the result that the (own) country is sharply delineated against the other (foreign) countries, the Euregio. The Euregio does not yet offer a powerful intervention in this process of awareness. Core questions on the road to a Euregio are therefore: Can we let go of the link between territory, citizenship and identity? Dare we disconnect? How much of a national home do we need? How much freedom can be bear?


Political stance

Rob Janssen, member of the SP in the Provincial Council of Limburg, underlines a number of identified problems from his political practice. As a politician, he wonders for what kind of problem the Euregio is the solution – and cannot find an answer. He does not receive any responses, ideas or policy documents from the Euregio administrators with regard to topical, political issues. He also misses the ‘human factor’ in the debate on the Euregio. After all, isn’t the Euregio being created for everyone? Isn’t it the citizens who have to support the Euregio?

Janssen believes that the various regions can and should collaborate, not compete with each other. The question, however, remains how to put the Euregio on the map. Janssen finds that Parkstad Limburg is a precursor in the development of ideas on the approach to the problem of demographic shrinkage. He misses such social-societal thinking in the Euregional debate.


Discussion: political support and the people’s support

Jaap Modder regards the Euregio as an interesting institute as such. He acknowledges that the ordinary man in the street usually pays no heed to governmental or administrative borders and that regional administrators, on the other hand, need to unite forces to tackle a problem like public transport. The Euregio enables the ‘soft powers’ to be at work: they cement any collaboration. It means that the Euregio facilitates collaboration and it implies that this collaboration puts obligations on the various partners. It is precisely this obligatory aspect, however, which regional administrators regard as an obstacle. The erstwhile smuggling of butter and cigarettes, going to bars in Liège, cross-border shopping and studying are normal, natural movements. However, as soon as the border is formalised, and a partner on one side of the border wants something done, whereas the partner on the other side doesn’t, collaboration becomes complex. Collaborating parties unfortunately lack awareness of the fact that formalising their collaboration strengthens their position vis-à-vis political and provincial governments.

Modder’s liberal views on cross-border collaboration is opposed by Henk van Houtum, who wonders about the absence of the social aspects of the Euregio and about the people who are left out of collaborations. Van Houtum draws attention to the conflicts between the various national, Euregional and local governments with regard to drugs tourism and refugees. These issues are often tackled by countries, regions and cities alike by moving the problem, quite literally, to the border, where neighbouring cities and countries are being confronted with them.

Following in van Houtum’s footsteps, the public, too, responds to Modder’s arguments for collaboration. It is stressed that there is a gap between the citizens and politics. Although there is a ‘social elite’ that crosses borders easily, there is a large group of people who is more interested in problems closer at home than in Euregional or European issues. This group is unconcerned by European problems and their political solutions. Van Houtum explains this phenomenon by pointing to the fact that the government in The Hague has no vested interests in the Euregio, as opposed to what it gains from nationalism. With regard to the Euregio, The Hague merely offers ad hoc policies, hardly based on any long-term vision. If the government were to accommodate and facilitate the Euregio better, it would get more support from the population. Jaap Modder confirms that plans for the future should always connect with the citizens; broad support is absolutely necessary for the creation of a Euregional agenda. This, finally, is illustrated by Rob Janssen, who draws attention to international business park Avantis. There was a grand launch of this industrial estate on the border between the Netherlands and Germany, whereas now it contains only one or two companies. He believes that politicians should be addressed about their responsibilities, since, in the end, it is politics which makes the Euregio.

Related Jan van Eyck webpages:
— Website of the Euregional Forum
— Article on Euregional Forum in Heerlen (DutchEnglish)

— Article on Euregional Forum in Genk (Dutch, English)

— 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

Tags: English

Categories: Architecture

Type: Article