Members of the European Committee of the Regions that called for the European Union to establish basic levels of cross-border services that must be provided even in emergencies that lead to the re-imposition of national borders.
Speaking at an event focused on cross-border cooperation in the Neisse-Nisa-Nysa Euroregion, Martin Půta (CZ/EPP), governor of the Liberec region, Bernd Lange (DE/EPP), head of Görlitz district council, and Pavel Branda (CZ/ECR), deputy mayor of Rádlo – all of them members of the European Committee of the Regions – said that the coronavirus pandemic had underlined how close the day-to-day ties are in the region, but also the gaps in existing cooperation. The three-country Euroregion also covers part Lower Silesia in Poland.
Mayor Lange said that restrictions during the pandemic had affected some core services, including kindergartens, schools, and care homes. But, Governor Puta noted, it had also highlighted the extent to which local services are still affected by local borders: patients from Liberec had, for example, been moved for treatment to Moravia, in the eastern half of the Czech Republic, even though beds were available much closer, across the German border. Councillor Branda said that it has it is "terribly important to build up trust", but that we had been "struck by how quickly that disappeared", with member states immediately closing borders at the onset of the crisis.
The European Committee of the Region is in the process of drafting a resolution, to the adopted at its July plenary, on the level of public services that its members believe must be guaranteed if any future epidemic – or other crisis – were to cause borders to be closed.
The event was attended by about 80 people including civil society and business representatives from communities on the Czech and German side of the border, as well the secretary-general of Association of European Border Regions, Martín Guillermo Ramírez.
The Euroregion Neisse-Nisa-Nysa was created thirty years ago, becoming the first Euroregion in central Europe, and participants considered how cross-border cooperation might develop over the coming three decades. Euroregions formalise and structure cross-border cooperation; the goals of the Euroregion Neisse-Nisa-Nysa are to remove the negative effects of national borders, improve living standards, improve environmental and socio-political conditions, and develop the Euroregion's economic potential.
Points of contention remain between the cross-border regions, with the Czech authorities recently taking Poland to the European Court of Justice over plans to extend open-pit mining in at the Turów coal mine. Governor Půta said he hoped the issue would "not leave too big a trace on cooperation", while Mayor Lange said that a transformation fund and tapping his region's experience of mine closures in the 1990s would help address the "social shock" of a transition away from coal.
Overall, local political leaders anticipated further integration of daily life, including health and rescue services. Mayor Lange lamented, for example, that German rules on the recognition of qualifications currently limit cooperation of Czech fire-fighters. But, he emphasised, it was important that local groups – including the business community – speak up regularly about the value of open borders and cooperation, not just when borders closed.
The importance of supporting two aspects of regional integration was repeatedly mentioned: small projects and language knowledge. Numerous speakers emphasised that small people-to-people projects were particularly valuable, both for individuals and the community at large, but said that the amount of paperwork required was a major deterrent. They called for a simplification of procedures.
Hynek Böhm, a Czech academic from Liberec Technical University, said that the emergence of institutions, such as the Euroregion, and cross-border flows are encouraging the gradual emergence of a cross-border identity. He had, he said, even noticed the Euroregion's flag, being waved at a football match. However, limited knowledge of neighbours' languages is a particular constraint.
The agenda, including the full list of speakers, can be found here, together with a recording of the event (in English). A video about small projects in the region can be found here.
The European Committee of the Regions is committed to supporting its members in their efforts to reach out to their local communities to discuss issues with a European dimension. The Committee is also fully committed to supporting the Conference on the Future of Europe, which will be launched on 9 May, Europe Day. The Conference on the Future of Europe is intended to give citizens a greater role in shaping EU policies and ambitions and to improving the Union's resilience to crises.