Redefining 'neighbor' in Europe

The Rise of the Regions

PART 1: MAY 22 As Europe's national borders grow less distinct, regions take on new authority.

PART 2: MAY 23 Little-used languages and minority cultures enjoy a revival.

PART 3: TODAY Kent, in England, and France's Nord-Pas de Calais find common economic ground.

PART 4: MAY 26 Where steady, peaceful pressure for autonomy works better than bombs.

It is remarkable how 20 minutes in the dark can bring people together.

Until the Channel Tunnel was opened in 1994, bringing the French town of Calais within a 20-minute train ride of the English coast, France was not just a foreign country, it was hostile territory.

Today, office worker Amanda Fay thinks nothing of popping over on a Friday evening after work to do her weekly shopping with her husband.

"Everyone has their favorite bits and pieces there," she says. "My husband is a fanatic about mustard, and I like the cheeses and the pts. There is such a good selection, and it's a good deal cheaper. Plus you're in France, and you have the feeling you're getting something a bit special."

Ms. Fay is just one of thousands of people living near Ashford, England - where the high-speed "chunnel" train stops - who shop at Carrefour in Calais, France, as if they were at their local supermarket. And in a way, they are.

From Ashford, "it's quicker to get to Lille [in northern France] than to London," says Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, the leader of the Kent County Council. "That has really changed people's perceptions."

It has changed realities too, bringing Kent and the next-door French region of Nord-Pas de Calais together in ways that show how little national boundaries matter in modern Europe, if neighbors find they have common interests.

Shared problems, solutions

It was back in the 1980s, as construction workers began digging the Channel Tunnel, that local authorities in Kent and Nord-Pas de Calais realized that they would have to start putting their heads together. With a land-link between them, they would clearly have to work out joint emergency services, and adopt a common approach to transport problems.

Those first steps led to the formal creation of a common region, straddling the Channel, known as "Transmanche" - French for "cross Channel" - under what is known as the Interreg program. Funded by money from European Union headquarters in Brussels, the region brings French and English planners together to decide how to tackle a wide range of issues, from investment and jobs to tourism and transport.

"Someone from Kent County Council is meeting someone from France every day now," says David Hughes, the council's European business manager. Transmanche is the backbone of a broader construct, a "Euroregion" that includes Belgium as well, dealing with the same sorts of issues through a political executive council and a secretariat that acts as a fledgling civil service.

For Kent, says Mr. Bruce-Lockhart, the political advantages of hooking into a 17 million-strong European region is that "it gives us credibility" with the European Commission, the EU's ruling body, and helps the county tap into European funds.

For example, Thanet, a rundown port area in North Kent, got $20.8 million in redevelopment money from the EU during the past three years. They've used it to attract small businesses, train unemployed workers, and build a road.

"It gets our voice heard in places where we wouldn't be listened to otherwise," adds Mr. Hughes. "Seventeen million people gives us clout that we wouldn't have just as Kent."

And from a business point of view, Kent's membership in the cross-Channel regions puts the county "in the heart of Europe, instead of at the edge of the United Kingdom," points out Jon Barrett, head of international business development at The Learning and Business Link Company, a Kent-based consultancy.

That could make Kent more attractive to US investors looking for a European base, but more comfortable in an English-speaking country, he suggests.

Cross-channel commuters?

Few in Kent know that they live in a Euroregion. "Politically, it is a nonevent," says Bruce-Lockhart. But culturally, the changes are seeping into people's attitudes.

Already there is talk of selling season tickets on the Eurostar train that links Lille and Ashford, and people are working out the financial advantages of living in France, where house prices are lower, and commuting to work in Kent.

Eurostar has done brisk business in special "evening out" tickets that whisk passengers over to Calais, give them dinner in an upscale restaurant, and get them home by midnight.

Businesspeople, too, are beginning to think regionally (see story, below). "A lot more Kent companies now view France, Belgium, and Holland as their domestic market," says Mr. Barrett, whose company helps local firms take advantage of regional possibilities. But thinking regionally, and including foreign territory in your region, goes directly against the grain of national traditions. "I'm very aware that our national government is uncomfortable with the work we do with Nord-Pas de Calais," says Barrett. "We think in different ways - that it might make more sense for a Kent company to source its supplies in Nord-Pas de Calais instead of Birmingham [England], for example. The government thinks that is dreadful," because it takes business away from British firms, he says.

So the local authorities have to be careful not to rub London the wrong way. When Toyota was hunting for a site for a new European plant in 1998, for example, Kent officials privately favored Valenciennes, a town in northern France. But they kept quiet so long as Scotland and Wales were still in the running, to avoid charges of treachery. Only when Toyota had eliminated British sites from its shortlist did Barrett's lobbyists show their hands, and urge the Japanese automaker to locate in Valenciennes, rather than in Barcelona, Spain. That way, Kent companies might get some of the new plant's business.

Valenciennes got the plant. But the first cars won't roll off the construction line until next year and the list of businesses supplying parts hasn't been made public. It is business, rather than politics, that is driving Kent and Nord-Pas de Calais closer together. The head of the Kent County Council, Bruce-Lockhart, is a Conservative, and very much a believer in the nation-state. "Kent is not doing this because it believes in some sort of Europe of the regions," he sniffs. "Cross-Channel links are good for Kent because of trade and tourism and cultural ties. It's a question of pragmatic cross-border work, not European ideals."

Power of the purse strings

And national governments are still very strong, however much regions are making themselves felt. One lever they can pull, for example, controls funding: EU monies to support regional initiatives must be matched from local sources, and that usually means the national government. So if central authorities do not like a project, they can try to squash it.

That happened to a plan that Kent and Nord-Pas de Calais came up with - that each would be able to use the other's network of trade-development offices around the world. The idea that Kent's commercial representatives might help attract investment to Nord-Pas de Calais was too much for the British Department of Trade and Industry. It nixed the scheme by refusing to approve the needed matching funds.

This sort of incident makes some observers question how real the transfrontier regions' powers really are. "In many cases the moves to greater devolution represent a deconcentration of responsibility for doing things rather than a decentralization of power to do things autonomously," argues Michael Dunford, professor of economic geography at Sussex University in Brighton, England. "Considerable powers still reside in the hands of the state."

But for business consultant Barrett, crusading to put flesh on the bones of the Euroregion, government obstructionism is a sign of success. "Central government resistance is on the rise because we are doing a lot more and getting closer to things that have a real impact," he insists. "People are realizing they might be threatened."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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