Bilateral relations at the subnational level: Transborder cooperation networks in the Polish–German borderlands

Transborder cooperation networks in the Polish-German borderlands

Sylwia Dolzblasz and Andrzej Raczyk


The shaping of bilateral relationships between neighbouring countries at the subnational level, and in particular relationships occurring in borderlands, on account of their multi-aspect nature, constitutes one of the most complex research issues. This is the reason behind the lack of research studies mentioned in the Introduction to this volume, especially comprehensive empirical studies based on advanced analytical approaches and accounting for areas on both sides of the border. It seems that a network approach might fill the above-mentioned research gap in this respect, especially when applied to research at the subnational level.

According to the conceptualisation of embedded bilateralism (Krotz & Schild, 2012), relationships at the subnational level may be interpreted as parapublic underpinnings of international relations covering cross-border interactions at the level of civil society, or subnational actors more broadly. Despite a potential multitude of forms of interactions defined in this way, one of the most important dimensions is transborder cooperation projects, and the connection networks between partners on both sides of the border that follow (Kusiak-Winter, 2011). Previous experience shows that such projects usually constitute the most important form of transborder institutional cooperation, realised at the local and regional levels. Moreover, this cooperation is, at the same time, the point of departure for developing other transborder activities, both formal and informal in character (Dolzblasz & Raczyk, 2015).

The proposed network approach is in line with the concept of embedded bilateralism, incorporating its actual manifestations. At the same time, it allows for empirical measurements of the effects of interactions by means of network indicators, which enables both the examination of the character

The chapter has been partly prepared in the framework of the project ‘Stability of transborder cooperation in the example of Polish borderlands’ (2018/31/B/HS4/00550) financed by the National Science Centre, Warsaw, Poland.

of transborder relationships and comparison between particular subnational areas (e.g. borderlands). The fundamental advantage of network analysis is the fact that it allows even very complex and multidimensional relationships between numerous elements to be grasped in a concise and quantified manner. Thus, it can help generate observations and conclusions that would have been impossible beforehand (Dolzblasz, 2017).

For the purposes of the network study, this chapter adopts the term interdependence in a social perspective, understood as a situation in which individuals or collectives share common goals, and the achievement of the objectives of each individual depends on the actions of the others (Putnam, 1995). Since the level of mutual impact might be different for each partner, interdependence can be asymmetrical. In a network approach, asymmetry can manifest itself in the observed nature and structure of connections and can explain the nature and structure of these connections. Transborder network connections partly reflect subnational interdependence, as it is an integral condition and driver of network development. This concerns the Polish-German borderland in particular, which is the longest of all Polish borderlands, because of its history of cooperation, as well as the volume of finance engaged in the process (Dolzblasz & Raczyk, 2015).

The shaping of bilateral Polish-German relations with regard to network connections was closely related to significant changes in the functions of state borders after 1989 - i.e. from the beginning of the transformation of the social, economic and political system in Poland. The turning point in this case was Poland’s accession to the European Union in 2004. However, regardless of these changes, the institutional system of Polish-German transborder cooperation has been rather uniform up to now. The result of the long-lasting implementation of transborder cooperation programmes is the shaping of network connections accompanied by transformations in the realm of the socio-economic functioning of borderlands, connected with, for example, the development of competition and cooperation relationships (Dolzblasz & Raczyk, 2017). The formation of network connections mainly resulted from local conditioning (Knippschild & Vock, 2017) and only to a limited extent from national conditioning. Consequently, research into the cooperation network allows for the identification of a number of regularities significant for the functioning of borderlands and closely connected with their specific character, which is in line with ideas emphasised by the subject literature, which states that ‘every state border, every border region, is unique’ (Anderson & O’Dowd, 1999).

The objective of the study was to identify the most important features of Polish-German transborder cooperation at the local level when viewed from the network perspective. To this end, the structures of cooperation actors have been examined, as well as their distribution (down to the level of particular towns) and the spatial dimension of transborder connections. Moreover, a general assessment of strategic and planning documentation at the regional level has been performed from the point of view of the development of transborder network connections. The basis for the empirical study was projects realised as part of transborder cooperation programmes co-financed by EU funds between 2007 and 2013. The work does not address the most recent programming period, between 2014 and 2020, as the selection process of cooperation projects had not been completed when the research study was conducted. Document analysis included development strategies formulated by voivodeship governments in Poland and federated states of Germany in their borderlands. The basis for their assessment was the degree of incorporation of issues connected with building transborder relationships. The assessment was quality orientated. The research area includes the entire Polish-German borderland delimited in accordance with the guidelines of European Territorial Cooperation programmes.

Regarding the first research question posed in the Introduction, the research study allows us to identify the entities at the local level that shape the observed transborder relationships. The second question allows factors to be identified at the subnational level that support or hinder the development of transborder relationships between Poland and Germany, reflected in network connections.

This chapter proceeds as follows: the second section discusses theoretical aspects of transborder cooperation networks; the third section presents the results of research into institutional structures connected with the shaping of network relations; the next section shows research results of cooperation networks; the fifth section presents strategic documents overview in the context of transborder cooperation; and the last section synthesises and discusses the obtained results.

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