Plenary session of the Interinstitutional Conference on European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation (EGCT)
European Parliament- Brussels 19 June 2008
Dear Members of the European Parliament,
Dear Members of the Committee of the Regions,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a great pleasure for me to speak at this conference on the European Grouping for Territorial Cooperation, better known as the EGTC. Indeed, the Commission is very proud of this new instrument which will make cooperation between regions in Europe easier, more efficient and sustainable.
As you probably know, the 5th progress report on economic and social cohesion has just been issued. It provides a digest of the public consultation I launched last 2022 on the future shape of cohesion policy. The main message out of this is that there is wide support for an ambitious and strong cohesion policy in the future involving all the territories of the EU. In particular, there is unanimous appreciation for cooperation among European regions, especially across borders, as the best example of European value added of this dimension of cohesion policy. Accordingly, participants come forward with a clear demand for its strengthening in the future.
Cross-border cooperation is the most straightforward example showing that European territorial cooperation is needed to improve the daily life of citizens by overcoming national borders, language barriers, cultural and mentality differences, by filling in the gaps on infrastructure, on markets and services, and hence overall by contributing to GDP growth and job creation. To do this there is a need for improved strategic and management capacities and therefore a better multi-level governance of all partners involved. This is where the EGTC will make a crucial difference in the future. The time is thus right to hold such a conference, as the first EGTCs have been created and many more are in the pipeline.
The EGTC regulation is a major step forward in providing integration possibilities between regions of different Member States as it gives a solid and simplified frame for cooperation activities. It is of both political and technical significance. It is important politically, since the creation of an EGTC is a major sign that cooperation is considered important. It is important technically, since it makes the legal, organisational and management aspects of cooperation much easier.
The EGTC regulation requires the Member States to adopt national legislation to facilitate the implementation of EGTCs. The deadline for this was 1 August 2007. So far, only 13 Member States have done it and I wish to pass them my congratulation. However, 14 Member States are late in the process and I need to remind them of their obligations and urge them to adopt their national legislation as soon as possible to make European cooperation easier for their regional and local authorities and other public bodies. The Commission is following this process very carefully and is considering taking legal action against the Member States which are late.
I wish also to congratulate the 3 EGTCs which have been set up so far. The first one between France and Belgium involving the cities of Lille, Tournai and Kortrijk; the second one between Hungary and Slovakia in the region of Ister-Granum; and the third one between Spain and Portugal at the border of Galicia and Norte. These 3 EGTCs have been set up to facilitate the governance of cross-border cooperation. I should also indicate that we are aware of several others which are in the process of being set up.
I will not go into the details of the rules and steps to set-up and use an EGTC because this has already been done in the workshops this morning, but let me reflect on its benefits and on the role of the European Commission.
There is undoubtedly a huge unexploited potential in the cooperation between regions across Europe. We need joint European projects, we need to share ideas, we need to cooperate beyond boundaries to meet the major challenges of today. If you turn on your TV, you hear of oil prices going up, you hear of food prices, you hear of unseasonal storms and floods, you hear of immigration problems. These need cooperative solutions – we cannot act alone. At local level, this is just as true, we need cross-border solutions to mobility, to risk prevention, to health care, etc. etc. Indeed cross-border, transnational and interregional cooperation is vital. Setting up EGTCs will make these kinds of cooperation better and easier to the immense benefit of all citizens concerned.
When considering cooperation between several countries, one has to bear in mind that this is still not always the normal reflex for all stakeholders. In particular, the political authorities generally focus on regional or national activities. However, to have a genuine willingness and readiness to cooperate, a clear support from the political level helps. Here, the setting up of an EGTC is a clear political signal in favour of cooperation. This is an important base for further developments.
At this stage, I should mention that it is also possible to set-up an EGTC with non Member States. Of course, there are some specific conditions to be met, but from the Commission side we encourage the stakeholders to enter in cooperation structures with non Member States as well. This is particularly relevant for Candidate Countries such as Croatia or countries with many borders with Member States like Switzerland.
Another fundamental benefit of the EGTC is that it is not anymore necessary to have an international agreement for cooperation between partners in different Member States. In the past, many potential cooperation initiatives were not realised because of the need to have such agreements negotiated on a case by case basis by the Member State and approved by the national parliaments. Now, it is for the members of an EGTC to decide on the cooperation activities, the decision making process and the internal rules.
But this political and institutional support is not sufficient. A lot depends on people involved in European cooperation. Members need to meet regularly, confront ideas and progress together. By doing so, they build trust. They also need to understand the ‘rules of the game’ in the other countries ie. the legal and administrative systems. Once this is done, potential areas of cooperation can be identified to improve the daily life of citizens, the quality of environment and the prosperity of enterprises. An EGTC can help greatly to build this trust and understanding.
Once an EGTC is established, its members may wish to develop a common strategy with the associated resources. This may require difficult choices and an EGTC is a favourable forum for discussion in this regard, as rules for taking decisions will already have been agreed. Hence it can greatly help the shaping of a common future. In addition, the implementation of the cooperation projects deriving from the strategy will be facilitated by the fact that the rules will have been agreed at the time the EGTC was set up.
The rules are important, and the simpler the better. The EGTC Regulation enables members to create a single legal body for the implementation of operations in several Member States. This body will function on the basis of a single set of rules: for example, it will use a single employment contract for its staff wherever they work in the territory covered by the EGTC; the procedures will also be common, for example for procurement, facilitating greatly the day to day work; very important is also that the legal responsibility of the EGTC is not split between Member States so that it is easier for third parties to contract with an EGTC. In short, the EGTC will make European cooperation more efficient because the administrative and legal frame in which they operate will be simple, transparent and agreed by its members.
To illustrate this point, let me say a few words on the project to create a cross-border hospital between the University Hospitals in Aachen and Maastricht. The two hospitals are geographically very close (only 30 kilometres apart) and have a long history of co-operation, with each focussing on its own area of clinical excellence. The management of the hospitals see benefits to be gained by creating a common structure, both from a business perspective and from a clinical one. The management also shares the vision of creating the first European University hospital. Therefore, the two hospitals wish to go further than cooperating on particular projects and now wish to have a common management and leadership structure. They would prefer to do so by taking a big first step and create a common structure rather than advance by small steps on different projects. The EGTC model is hence being considered.
The initial results of the feasibility study focused on different common management models or structures, such as a common holding company. The aim is to overcome legal obstacles such as different taxation structures in the two Member States, different labour and employment contract laws, and the pooling of losses or benefits.
Coming back to the benefits of an EGTC, an important point to bear in mind is that the cooperation has to be maintained in the long run through sustainable structures. This is a further benefit of an EGTC: as it is a legal structure which requires the involvement and commitment of all its members, it is designed to be sustainable, thereby ensuring that the cooperation established is maintained and that new cooperation fields are developed.
Let me now turn to the example of a successful cross border project financed under INTERREG which could usefully benefit from becoming an EGTC. It is the Øresund Science Region (ÖSR) which won one of the prizes granted in 2008 under the RegioStars competition. This project is a cross-border initiative that aims to bring together regional authorities, businesses and universities. This model builds on a focused approach to cooperation between universities and the surrounding society. Øresund Science Region uses and develops the Region’s unique strengths: a highly educated population and market-leading technology, 12 universities, 6 science parks, 2000 companies and some 12,000 researchers. These strengths are reflected by the region’s large number of researchers and high-technology companies. The aim of the project is to promote knowledge-based economic development in this cross-border region, as the creation and transfer of new knowledge to society is one of the crucial competitive factors for the region’s future. By using the EGTC, such a project could make its daily operations easier and this would also show its cross-border nature.
As you see, establishing a European Grouping for Territorial Cooperation (EGTC) is definitely worth it. It is an important process requiring dialogue as well as ambitious and pragmatic solutions. To me it demonstrates the best aspects of politics in everyday action at EU level. The EGTC takes the political imperative to cooperate, underlines its importance in terms of policy-making and in creating a European approach, and then turns it into a practical reality.
The EGTC expresses the political will in a practical, stable sustainable way.
So, now what is the role of the European Commission in all this?
The first important thing to know is that the European Commission works hand in hand with the Committee of the Regions on this matter. In fact, we appreciate very much the excellent work done by the Committee of the Regions, like the ‘Expert Group on the EGTC’, and the continuous support confirmed by the opinion adopted this morning.
As well as supporting the EGTC politically and morally, the Commission also remains available to provide advice and assistance to those bodies considering the possible establishment of an EGTC. In particular, the INTERACT programme financed by the ERDF has prepared an excellent methodological handbook presenting step by step how to set up an EGTC and how to make it function in practice. INTERACT is also organising several events on EGTC implementation and I would very much encourage you to participate in them. The Commission is also active in publicising the EGTC as it really believes that this instrument will make a difference for regional policy.
Finally, it is worth reminding that an EGTC can of course be used beyond the frame of the Structural Funds. An EGTC can be set up to manage a project under the 7th Framework Programme led by DG Research and Technological Development, under the Competitiveness and Innovation Programme led by DG Enterprise or under the programmes led by DG Environment. In fact an EGTC can be used to manage any kind of project involving public partners from different Member States, including those with little or no EU funding. Success in using an EGTC in this way brings EU-wide research and innovation together in a genuinely “European” way. As a final word, I hope you found the conference useful and I am looking forward to the debate later in the afternoon.
Thank you for your attention!