To be a European means one identifies with the far flung corners of this continent. However, this does not mean one is as tied to all countries equally. Political, economic, social, and cultural affinity felt citizens of EU member states is primarily determined by geography. Therefore, it is natural that problems, and more importantly their solutions, are molded by those very same conditions. The European Union would be well served if issues are increasingly tackled on a regional level with the creation of ‘mini-unions’ that act to enhance and complement the institutions of the EU.
Freedom of movement is mostly understood in the context of pensioners moving to warmer climates, migrant workers seeking to establish themselves several countries removed from their own, or as students studying abroad. These outlooks, whether taken individually or collectively, offers only a limited understanding of the reality of freedom of movement. A key element in one of the EU’s four pillars is the position of cross-border workers. Such labourers, whether truck drivers or white-collar professionals who commute every day, constitute a vital component to the functioning of border areas, whether along the Pyrenees, the Alps, or the Rhineland. With many of these citizens often times travelling a shorter distance, albeit across a border, than nationals, it becomes necessary to treat contiguous transnational territories as what they are: Euroregions.
The issue of cross-border workers
Solutions are only meaningful in the presence of problems. In the case of border areas, numerous issues arise. Access to pensions and mortgage loans is often times severely curtailed on the basis that a citizen may live in one state but be paid in another. The establishment of joint regional pension schemes, which offers more fluidity and freedom of action for its recipient, could greatly improve the quality of life for many. As for young people, acceptance of foreign language documentation as well as transnational application processes in the case of universities would render more options to students. Such alternatives is conceivable for virtually any sector of public and private life.
To many, this might come across as a purely theoretical and abstract notion – the truth is that this has already been tested. The Nordic countries constitute one of the world’s most integrated regions (if not the most integrated). Harmonised legislation, implemented through the framework of the Nordic Council enables its citizens to make the most of what the region has to offer. A success such as this one is multi-layered and a decades long project but one that is feasible. Large scale infrastructure investment, such as the Øresund Bridge connecting Copenhagen and Malmö across a strait, combined with technological consistency, with administrative processes being near-identical (e.g. police registration or automatic voter registration), produces a seamless transnational zone rather than resulting in stark contrasts. In some cases, this can be a matter of law and order, with Finnish and Swedish police able to operate in each other’s border areas in the case of one state’s police authorities being too distant.
The preservation of cultural and linguistic rights of historic minority groups is a worthwhile goal and an imperative. By implementing regional integration, the rights of these Europeans are reaffirmed without necessitating emigration or significant expenditures by the majority population by skillfully and efficiently offering services to the minorities, their fellow citizens, as well as their related group in the neighbouring states. The application of this could alleviate intercommunal tensions, which still exist, whether on the island of Ireland or the Old Hungarian Territories in neighbouring nations.
A way forward?
So, how would one demarcate these new ‘mini-unions’? Four key criterias ought to be used: a) geography, b) history, c) language, and ) economic interdependence. Naturally, these endeavours will need to be contiguous (with the obvious exception of islands and overseas territories) in order for them to have any effective practicability. A shared history often times reflects historical integration and where a potential underlying framework could be expanded upon. Similarly, linguistic relationship, which manifests itself in the form of joint educational endeavours and common legal practices, etc., makes integration far more feasible without having to train a whole new generation of civil servants in order to provide for basic services. And finally, with the economy often acting as a glue that binds certain areas together and reflecting the everyday reality and needs of integration, which in turns inform our relationship with our social and cultural identities.
Scandinavia, the Benelux countries, Visegrad states, Baltic republics, and others all have the potential to move forward. The most important traits are ambition and political will. However, the creation of ‘mini-unions’ would likely reduce the power that these very same politicians wield today so we are left in a Catch-22 with a first mover problem. Yet, it is not an insurmountable problem.
Photo Credit: Nicolas Mavreas