Reviews Local and regional cooperation in the Szczecin area. An act of political debordering

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Baltic Worlds 4 2014, pp 56-57
Published on balticworlds.com on januari 21, 2015

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Traditional notions of “borderland” suggest a space of transition between societies and states that predates the imposition of physical borders, and hence a more “organic” element of the social landscape. European history also testifies to the fact that borderlands have frequently been a target of mistrust, precisely because they have been seen as threatening — as spaces of ambiguous identity, allegiance, and historical memory. Attempts to eradicate borderlands have taken place through armed conflict, ideological creation of Cold War borders, dismemberment of states and other territorial shifts, and, most drastically, ethnic cleansing. In recent decades, with the expansion of the European Union, borderlands appear to have reemerged as a political project of local/regional integration as a result of new patterns of social interaction. Hence, there is new interest in regional and local cross-border cooperation.

Peter Balogh’s recently published book, Perpetual Borders: German-Polish Cross-border Contacts in the Szczecin Area, documents the evolution of the borderlands concept based on an exploration of the German-Polish border region situated around the Polish (and formerly German) city of Szczecin. The book is a compilation of several essays plus a substantial introduction that shows how the German-Polish borderland and the cross-border interactions that have constructed it have been deeply influenced by a political agenda of post-Cold War rapprochement and a desire to develop a new culture of mutual goodwill. Much has been invested in the symbolism of binational cooperation as a response to historic traditions of conflict and prejudice. At the same time, the European Union’s ambitious goals of “debordering” have contributed in Szczecin, as elsewhere, to generous support mechanisms for cross-border projects.

Much of the empirical work in this book analyzes different forms of the local and regional cross-border interaction between Germany and Poland which began in the 1990s. The book also identifies the main drivers and outcomes of that interaction. Actual cooperative practices in the German-Polish context have been largely influenced by public agencies and spatial planning. Transboundary planning cooperation was, in fact, rather productive and development concepts were drawn up at the local/regional level during the early years of cooperation (1993—1995). These concepts embraced the ambitious objective of creating integrated economic and ecological areas through a wide variety of measures aimed at, among other things, combating unemployment, promoting a positive sense of common border region identity, and fostering economic cooperation and “good neighborliness”. The reason for this political orchestration of a German-Polish border region can be found in the post-1989 needs to create a context of trust and to deal with the basic structural problems of the areas on both sides of the border. Steps were taken soon after the signing of the German-Polish Border Treaty in 1990 to establish a variety of binational planning institutions including, at the local level, Euroregions. At the regional level, the message of political goodwill also served to highlight economic development objectives. The German State of Brandenburg was particularly active in promoting the notion of an integrated economic space based on the effects of synergy. Although the notion of a common history along the Oder and Neisse line was evoked, there was an understandable avoidance of any reference to pre-1945 borders in order to depoliticize the notion of a “shared” region. Instead, the regions were conceived as spaces where Germans and Poles might identify and pursue common interests within a wider European context.

As Balogh indicates, cross-border cooperation in the German-Polish case has achieved much in bringing together regional stakeholders. It has empowered local governments in the border region to act in a more forceful and self-assured manner and to grasp the potential advantages of EU integration. This happened because they were obliged to work with several levels of regional and national government, with different EU authorities, and, ultimately, with each other. Interestingly, while Polish communities have been eligible for much less money from the EU than their German counterparts, the benefits of cooperation appear to be more tangible for the Polish side.

However, in looking back at developments since 1989, it becomes quite clear that the direct economic benefits and thus the tangible regional development impact of cross-border cooperation have been rather modest. Generally speaking, and at least with regard to specific planning and regional development priorities, political rhetoric has not translated into preferential treatment of the German-Polish border region. Incongruities between the global objectives of cross-border spatial planning, the means available for their realization, and the priorities guiding major capital investments and regional incentives created a difficult environment for cross-border cooperation in the German-Polish context. The German and Polish governments viewed only a few areas within the common border region as being of truly strategic importance, and even those received little attention. The poor quality of the road and rail connections between Germany and Poland, even more than 17 years after the end of state socialism, attests to a lack of binational political will to specifically promote border region development.

These political aspects notwithstanding, one of the major reasons for the low level of economic exchange and synergy is, as Balogh documents, the fact that intercultural communication has been more difficult than public sector interaction. For local citizens, the political project and message of cross-border cooperation has appeared distant and out of touch with everyday realities. In addition, while cross-border cooperation initiatives have been spurred by EU funding, the border region remains very much divided. Apart from a few visible success stories, such as joint university facilities in Frankfurt (Oder) and Slubice and the water treatment complex in Guben/Gubin, very little has taken place from a traditional regional development perspective. Entrepreneurial networks across the common border, for example, are weak and/or few and far between.

In developing this study of a German-Polish “neighborhood”, Balogh provides numerous thought-provoking reflections on the more general significance of borders in the European context. The European Union has pursued rather contradictory goals with regard to Europe’s many state borders. Local and regional cooperation is seen as a consolidation of a political debordering achieved through institutional means and European integration. Yet the EU insists that cultural difference and diversity is Europe’s principal comparative advantage, thus enhancing the significance of social borders. Balogh’s research reveals, in the German-Polish region centered on Szczecin, a “polarized attitudinal landscape”, suggesting that national and regional identities are particularly accentuated in border situations, where the “other” is more frequently encountered. In the Szczecin area, heightened awareness of national identities and the border has gone through several phases, culminating in the relative stability of good relations since 2010. The book concludes that the border that no longer divides Germany and Poland remains an important barrier. At the same time, the borderland has become a resource in everyday life, for shopping, services, and housing.

This book is well researched and offers a number of interesting insights for border scholars and for readers more generally interested in German-Polish relations. It provides both a wealth of information on local patterns of cross-border cooperation and important theoretical reflections on the evolving social, political and cultural significance of borders in Europe. ≈

  • by James Wesley Scott

    Professor of geography at the Karelian Institute at the University of Joensuu and research fellow at the Leibniz Institute for Regional Development and Structural Planning. He focuses on urban and regional development policy, geopolitics, and border studies.

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