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Vol 3, No 14
23 April 2001
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Karin Steinbrueck
Not That Easy
Wojtek Kość

The European Union may not have overwhelming support in Poland, but one of its initiatives—the euroregions—seem to have taken off quite well in Poland and its neighboring countries. At this time, there are 13 euroregions in Poland involving all of Poland's neighbors, as well as other countries located a little further, such as Hungary, Latvia, Romania, and Sweden. Currently, euroregions involve as much as 36 per cent of Poland's surface area.

Interestingly, those euroregions that include Poland's eastern neighbors are considerably bigger than those created in cooperation with Czechs, Slovaks and Germans, where agreements concerning access to a particular euroregion were signed by representatives of the local communities, not by governors of provinces.

It is important to indicate that what is commonly known as the Carpathian euroregion and includes the whole of the Carpathian Mountains is, in fact, an entity made of four smaller euroregions covering various parts of the diverse area that are the Carpathian Mountains. The first one in chronological order—the Carpathian euroregion—was established on 14 February 1993 in Debrecen, Hungary, where representatives of local authorities from Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Ukraine signed an agreement on the formation of the euroregion. In 1997, Romania was accepted as the fifth member of this structure.

The Tatra euroregion was created on 26 August 1994, and it includes local communities from Slovakia and Poland. Third was the "Cieszyn (Tesin) Silesia" euroregion, formed on 22 April 1998, which encompasses local communities from the Czech Republic and Poland. Finally, on 18 February the Beskidy euroregion, another Slovak-Polish undertaking, was born. The Carpathian euroregion is the biggest, since, as it was mentioned, it consists not of small communes, or gminas, but of huge provinces.

Membership has its costs

Scattered throughout different parts of several countries, all four euroregions have generally the same objectives and the same features. Their finances come from the premiums members pay. Those premiums, however, usually hardly cover the basic expenses related to maintaining the structures of the euroregions and the organization of main activities.

In concrete terms, euroregions stage cultural events such as the Slovak Culture Days in Poland, the folk festival "Eurofolk" and the Carpathian Culture Festival. There are educational and trade events as well, like the Seminars for Pedagogy and Education in the Carpathian euroregion, as well as trade fairs in Krosno and Rzeszów (Poland), or Miskolc and Nyireghaza (Hungary). More generally, the euroregions of the Carpathian Mountains are involved in transnational environmental protection, the promotion of tourism and economical and educational cooperation.

Such broad activities require additional funding and the euroregions take advantage of the fact that the European Union supports the idea of regionalism in the candidate countries. For many parts of those countries (in Poland, for example, the south-eastern provinces rank among the poorest in Europe) it represents a rare chance to obtain funding for development. Throughout the past five years, the Carpathian and Tatra euroregions received funding from PHARE. The New York-based Institute for East-West Studies helped establish the Foundation for the Development of the Carpathian Euroregion in 1994.

But this is what the official documents and Internet websites report. In reality, however, where particulars of a few countries are involved, problems inevitably appear. Taking the Carpathian euroregion as an example, one sees that cooperation that looks fine on paper is sometimes hindered in practice by the specific conditions of the regions and countries in question. The very formation of the euroregion was met with objections in more national conservative circles.

Christian nationalists protest

Zbigniew Sieczkoś, governor of the Podkarpacie province, had this to say in a 1999 interview for daily Rzeczpospolita: "Initially, there were protests against the euroregion, especially in Christian-national rural circles. Political changes in Slovakia, however, raise hopes for better cooperation. Under Mečiar, the cooperation between Polish and Slovak local communities was blocked." "What about Ukraine?" "Ukraine begins to understand that its way to the EU is through Poland. And we, in turn, cannot push Ukraine into the arms of Russia."

Indeed, when, in 1999, the authorities of the Podkarpacie province voted on the issue of accessing the euroregion, local officials from the Christian-National Union said nay on the grounds that such a transnational structure could endanger Poland's sovereignty. Vladimír Mečiar had similar fears: "Slovakia is not a full member of the euroregion. A few of its counties accessed the euroregion without the government's consent. One must draw conclusions from this. Slovakia wants to join Europe as a unitary and sovereign state. We cannot agree to certain groups' activities for which they receive funding from abroad and develop actions not within the country's interests."

Slovenska Republika a Slovak daily was also skeptical about euroregional cooperation as, they say, delicate Slovak-Hungarian issues should have been settled first. The birth of the Tatra euroregion was also difficult because of the animosity of local authorities from the Slovak town Preszov and the Polish towns of Zakopane, Nowy Targ, and Nowy Sącz..

Another painful question is whether the Carpathian euroregion can generally function. Three of its member states, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland are much closer to the EU than Ukraine, Slovakia and Romania. What is going to happen to the euroregion's mission of bringing people, cultures and economies together after Poland has visas installed for Ukrainians? Traveling to Ukraine from Poland, Hungary or Slovakia is an ordeal already. Rzeczpospolita's Zbigniew Lentowicz wrote: "Border blockades and truck queues stretching as far as the eye can see will bring even the biggest euroregional idealist down to earth."

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It is said that, in order to prevent Transcarpathian separatist ideas from taking concrete shape, Kiev ruled that three big provinces (Lviv, Ivano-Frankovsk, and Chernioviec) are to be included in the Ukrainian part of the euroregion. This, in turn, created an imbalance and made the Polish side consider the inclusion of more provinces on its side.

As for now, the Carpathian euroregion has seen more problems than any other region. Cultural exchanges exist on a smaller scale than in the remaining three euroregions of the Carpathian Mountains, where—thanks to organization at the local level—cooperation goes more smoothly. The same goes for economical partnership: most of the businesses are simply afraid to make money in Ukraine or Romania, partly because of the real situation in those countries, partly due to stereotypes. Local governments on each side do not have enough legislative and executive powers to force helpful rulings that would tie the regions in question closer to each other. The key lies in Warsaw, Kiev, Budapest, Bratislava, and Bucharest.

Wojtek Kość, 23 April 2001

Photo courtesy of Karin Steinbrueck.

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