Cross-Border Cooperation : Bulgaria and Greece under the Interreg programme.

One of the most known and effective initiative for enhancing cooperation among EU member states, promoted by the European Union, is the INTERREG programme, officially known as the European Territorial Cooperation programme (ETC) .
Given that more than 37,5% of the EU population lives in border areas, along some 38 internal borders made up of geographic, linguistic barriers often bearing the scars European wars, the EU had to face a major challenge. In 1991 the European Commission recognised that border regions were dis-advantaged because they lay at the extremities of transport systems planned on a national basis. As David Turnock (2002) mentioned, in such areas, trade was often distorted, while services were wastefully duplicated and mobility hampered differences in language, taxation, employment practices and welfare systems. However, there is now recognition of shared responsibility for border regions as more countries signed for the Council of Europe’s convention on trans-frontier cooperation.
The first INTERREG programme was a Community Initiative with a budget of just 1 Billion Euros covering exclusively cross-border cooperation. EU financial support under “INTERREG I” was initially restricted to the internal borders, but “INTERREG II” (1994-1999) included external borders of the EU and borders between Member States and Candidate States, and thereby affected the frontiers of Greece and Bulgaria, among other countries, already before Bulgaria’s admission into the European family. Until 2007, cooperation was seen as a cornerstone of EU cohesion policy and made into a structural fund objective, giving it more visibility, an improved legal basis, closer links with existing thematic strategies but also higher expectations for its achievements.

Under the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the ETC programme, aims to strengthen economic and social cohesion in the European Union by correcting imbalances between its regions.The ERDF focuses its investments on several key priority areas including Innovation and Research, the Digital Agenda, support for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and the low-carbon economy (ec.europa.eu).

In the following lines, I will elaborate on the the particular INTERREG Programme that focuses on the border area between Northern Greece and Southern Bulgaria, and I will examine the main fields of cooperation, whether it is economic cooperation, transfer of knowledge, environmental or educational.

Greece & Bulgaria under the ETC

For Greece and Bulgaria, the first ETC Programme that involved the two countries was the INTERREG II A Programme. Not much information about this programme was found during my research. The second operational programme, INTERREG III A 2000-2006, actually worked as the stepping stone for the bilateral cooperation and was decided by the European Commission in order to actively contribute to the development of a sustainable and effective cross-border cooperation between the two countries. (ec.europa.eu)

The two participating countries identified at this point five priority areas of action with the specific aim of reinforcing economic, social, and cultural integration while simultaneously stimulating regional development in the border regions involved. The programme’s priorities included a wide spectrum of key actions; from Cross-Border infrastructures to economic cooperation between firms and from university cooperation to quality of life, environment and culture integration. According to the European Commission the programme was designed to cover a total area of 40.202Km2  (16.6% of the whole territory of Bulgaria and 16.5% of the territory of Greece) The eligible areas where the regions of Eastern Macedonia, Thrace and Western Macedonia in Greece and South-West and South-Central Bulgaria with a population of 2.8 million people (1.8 million € in Greece and 1 million in Bulgaria) The total funding of the programme amounted to 254 million € including an amount of 120 million € on the Bulgarian side, which was not an EU member at that time from the Phare CBC Programme.

The successor of the previous programme was the INTERREG IV 2007-2013 Programme and was approved by the European Commission on 28/03/2008. This programme attempted to capitalise on the experience gained and the extensive knowledge that has been obtained by both the participants and the implementation structures, in order to bring cooperation to a new level”.  The strategic objective of this programme was to strengthen the competitiveness and territorial cohesion in the programme area towards sustainable development by linking potential partners from both sides.  A series of specific objectives were expressed in three priority axes including fields like Quality of Life, Accessibility and Competitiveness & Human Resources in order to upgrade and manage environmental and cultural assets, improve the welfare of its residents, Stimulate entrepreneurship, increase competitiveness and the economic and social development of the cross-border area. The INTERREG IV Programme had a total budget of 132 million € of which 112,4 million € from the ERDF and approximately 20 million € from national contributions.

The eligible areas for this programme contained 4 regions (NUTS II) from Greece and Bulgaria. On the Greek side the regional units of Evros, Kavala, Xanthi, Rodopi, Drama, Thessaloniki and Serres where included while on the Bulgarian Side Blagoevrad, Smolyan, Kardjali and Haskovo where the benefited areas for the programme ( NUTS III).

The latest ETC programme is the INTERREG V A Programme (2014-2020). Eligible areas from Greece and Bulgaria are again included in the programme.In accordance with the new design of the European Cohesion Policy 2014-2020 and the targets set out in Europe 2020, Interreg has significantly been reshaped to achieve greater impact and an even more effective use of the investments. Key elements of the 2014-2020 reform are:
-Concentration
-Simplification
-Results orientation
The fifth period of Interreg is based on 11 investment priorities laid down in the ERDF Regulation contributing to the delivery of the Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. At least, 80% of the budget for each cooperation programme has to concentrate on a maximum of 4 thematic objectives among the eleven EU priorities:

  • Research and Innovation
  • Information and Communication Technologies
  • Competitiveness of SME’s
  • Low -Carbon Economy
  • Combating Climate Change
  • Environment and resource efficiency
  • Sustainable Transport 
  • Employment and Mobility
  • Social Inclusion 
  • Better Education, training
  • Better Public Administration

The fifth programming period of Interreg has a budget of EUR 10.1 Billion invested in over 100 cooperation programmes between regions and territorial, social and economic partners. This budget also includes the ERDF allocation for Member States to participate in EU external border cooperation programmes supported by the Instrument for Pre-Accession and the  European Neighbourhood Instrument. For Greece and Bulgaria the total funds are 129,695,572 EUR of which 110,241,243 EUR are European Union’s contribution.

According to the official EU’s site Interreg V-A Greece Bulgaria aims to increase entrepreneurial activity in the eligible area and to improve SME capacity to expand beyond the local markets. Furthermore, the programme will improve cross-border cooperation in food risk management and will develop and promote the border area’s cultural and natural heritage for tourist purposes. Additionally, the foreseen actions will lead to better joint surface and groundwater management systems and will improve cross-border accessibility leading to reduced travel times for people and goods as well as improved traffic safety. Finally, the programme aims to expand social entrepreneurship in the border . area leading to increased employment in social enterprises and increaed delivery of social services to communities with poor soxio-economic indicators.

Results and Evalutation of the Interreg Programmes.

The Interreg programmes are for sure expected to improve the socio-economic status,  business activities and infrastructure in the border area Greece and Bulgaria but the results might be different.

The European Commision released a Eurobarometer Report on 14th of December 2015 regarding the results of the EU funded cross-border cooperation programmes.

According to the report only 36 of the respondents in Greece and Bulgaria in the survey had heard about the activities of the Interreg Programme. Regarding mobility, only 34% of the respondents have travelled to the other side of the border, while the most frequent reason for moving was tourism/leisure.

What is really concerning though is that between the citizens of Greece and Bulgaria there is no mutual trust. Only 55% of the respondents would feel comfortable with having a citizen form the partner country as a work colleague, family member, neighbour or manager. This is the lowest level of mutual trust there is among EU border regions. The EU average is 82%. 61% of Greek respondents trust their Bulgarian neighbours whereas 49% of the Bulgarian respondents trust their Greek neighbours.

Moreover, only 26% of the respondents believe that the border is an opportunity (the lowest level in the EU)  while for the majority (59%) leaving near the border is considered to have no impact.

Other obstacles where also mentioned by the respondents. Most of them cited the language issue as the biggest problem (69%), which is again the higher that EU’s average (57%). The second most cited obstacle is the social and economic differences (56%).

It is thus obvious that although the perspectives of the programme are good, the results and the impact of the ETC initiative in the region is not the expected. The EU should further elaborate on informing the citizens in the eligible areas regarding the advantages of these programmes and about how they could benefit from them.

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