Determinants of cross-border cooperation in the Polish–German borderland

E/zbieta Opilowska


Border regions are peripheries. Remote from the national centre, they usually suffer from low population density and a weak economy in comparison to inland areas. However, according to the European regional policy goals and financial instruments of the Interreg programmes, on the one hand, border regions are places where European integration can be tested. Laboratories of integration or microcosms of Europeanness are labels frequently attributed to borderlands (Opilowska & Roose, 2015). On the other hand, they are places where two nations, two state systems, two languages and cultures are confronted, and they may cooperate or isolate from each other by pointing to the need for identity protection. Thus, they provide fertile ground for populism and far right movements. Nevertheless, border location is often used as a resource for the development of border regions. Cross-border cooperation (CBC) offers the opportunity to overcome economic and social problems, and beyond nation states as well. Moreover, CBC can serve to boost interstate relations.

The German-Polish borderland is a relatively new border region, as it was created after the Second World War as a result of the shifting of the Polish-German border to the west. Thus, the new border communities have not had extensive experience as neighbours (Opilowska, 2009). Moreover, the historical traumas, language barrier and communist regime have hampered relations in the post-war period. In contrast to western European border regions, where CBC started in the 1950s, for the Polish-German case only the fall of communism launched a new chapter in bilateral cross-border relations, based on the development of joint strategies and common implementation of the European Union’s Interreg programmes. From this perspective, the Polish-German CBC exemplifies the transformation processes as characteristic for central and eastern European countries (CEECs). Until 2004 the Polish-German border was the EU’s external border. Thus, the removal of border controls under the Schengen Arrangement and the opening of the German labour market to Poles were the last steps towards laying the foundation for good neighbourhood relations. Within this process the EU appears as an important actor stimulating the CBC. However, until the 1980s CBC remained marginal compared to the policies of the European Community. It was the Council of Europe that supported the development of transborder relations. The Madrid Convention, which the Council of Europe published on 21 May 1980, provided a legal framework for CBC in order to enhance the relationship between territorial communities (Council of Europe, 1980).

The aim of this chapter is to scrutinise the development of the cooperation between Germany and Poland in the borderlands and to identify the enhancing and inhibiting factors of their CBC. Furthermore, it seeks to verify whether the CBC provides evidence for being sustainable and resilient to changes and crises. Hence, the following questions will be addressed. What impact do explanatory categories such as the historical legacy, asymmetry and interdependence have on the development of transborder collaboration? Which other factors determine CBC? What role do EU and state actors play in the establishment and resilience of CBC? Moreover, by applying the concept of embedded bilateralism (Krotz & Schild, 2012) to the subnational level, it will be analysed whether the CBC, which provides an example of parapublic underpinnings, has proved to be resilient in the analysed time period.

The chapter is based on 24 semi-structured interviews with actors involved in the cross-border cooperation at the subnational (local and regional) and national levels, who represent different fields of cooperation (governance structures, economic departments, cultural and educational institutions as well as NGOs). The interviews were carried out in the period from 2018 to 2019 and have been coded in order to ensure anonymity. Furthermore, official documents such as bilateral agreements, reports, development strategies and secondary studies are analysed in order to identify the determinants of the cross-border cooperation.

The first part of the chapter discusses the various ways borders and the CBC have been researched by highlighting the conceptualisations most relevant to this study. Moreover, it positions the CBC in the framework of embedded bilateralism. Subsequently, the impact of the three above-mentioned categories on cross-border cooperation is examined and further factors enhancing or hindering the bilateral relations are specified. Finally, some concluding statements on the resilience of the CBC are made.

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