Two weeks ago I had the chance to leave my IVY placement at the Regio Basiliensis in Basel, Switzerland for two days to have a glimpse into the work of the Interreg Upper-Rhine secretary in Strasbourg. I had the occasion to ask the program manager Thomas Köhler at the Interreg Upper-Rhine secretary a few questions concerning Interreg in general, the Swiss part in the program and how to make Interreg more approachable for the general public. If you are interesting to read the opinion of one expert of Interreg you can have a look at the interview below.
What is Interreg for you?
Interreg is European money which helps to realize cross border projects faster. Without the financial aid some projects couldn`t be realized at all, or only with a significant delay.
Since when are you part of Interreg Upper-Rhine in Strasbourg?
In Strasbourg since 2007, before I worked at Pamina in Lauterbourg.
How did you find out about Interreg?
First, I was working for a project that was financed by Interreg, which expired eventually. Afterwards, one vacancy at the program management of Interreg Oberrhein became available. That`s how I became part of the Interreg Oberrhein program.
What are the tasks of the Interreg office in Strasbourg?
We are responsible for everything. We are a program which is relatively centrally organized. We do everything that concerns the actual program implementation, the mentoring of the project owners during their application procedure and their project realization. I think we are one of a few programs in Europe where this actually works.
What are your main tasks as program manager?
As program manager, I`m responsible that everything that I mentioned before works out smoothly. In other words, that everything in the administrative authority and in the secretary works out fine and that we achieve our various objectives. Those objectives are becoming rather more than less on the program level. Managing all the provisions of the Commission, how fast money has to be spent, how many mistakes can be determined, which goals do the projects have to achieve and so on. To juggle all of this, that is my job.
Currently the fifth version of Interreg is running. Can you think spontaneously of an example of a cross border project that specifically led to more solidarity in the community?
Solidarity is a strong word. I am not even sure if it is really about solidarity, maybe I`m little prosaically on that matter. In the first place I think it is important that with the implementation of the projects the citizens in a cross-border region somehow loose the feeling that they really live in a border region, and that they can just normally live across the border. Afterwards solidarity arrives by itself.
I think this works quite well with projects that the citizens perceive directly. My all-time classic example is always the transportation projects. For example, if you want to cross the border with the bicycle from one side to the other and you only have to drive 3 km instead of 25 km, you are happy. Especially on rainy days, when you can use the same ticket for cross-border public transport. Those are projects that benefit the people directly, where they can say: `That is an improvement, that is better today than it was in the past!`. I think this contributes to the fact that the citizens can figuratively live beyond borders.
Does Northwester Switzerland, as a non member of the EU, play an important role for you in the Upper-Rhine region?
Yes, definitely. Northwestern Switzerland has a comparatively small surface, but its population wise quite big. The structure of the area, with the University of Basel as a key player in the field of higher education institutions, tertiary education and research is from utmost importance. As well as the fact that Basel is a city that has its center geographically speaking really close to the border. I`m not sure if there is an urban center in this close proximity to two borders anywhere else in Europe. Very distinctively for the city Basel is that practically speaking they dock with the last houses on two borders. Consequently, many questions are arising like security, traffic, waste management, sewage disposal, settlement development, microclimate and so forth. In this respect, there is no other solution than to tackle those questions beyond the borders. That’s how it is.
What can be done to make Interreg better known among the general public? Or more accessible?
Those are two different questions. More accessible through micro projects or citizen encounter projects. I think if you want the people to use the financial resources entirely in order to realize projects that are important for them, you have to turn the whole program upside down and put greater emphasis on the appearance of those micro projects and citizens encounter projects in the regulatory framework. Otherwise, If you try to use regulatory texts which are made to finance highways or railway tracks, to finance celebrations of some football clubs for example, that won`t work.
But if we talk about how to achieve that people get more aware of what the EU does for them... that is a though question, especially in the more wealthy areas of Europe where the people always think they are just paying for Europe and Europe doesn’t give anything back in return. Can we achieve anything in that matter with our modest means and financial resources? I don’t know.
I think there is already something achieved when the projects take effect.
Afterwards, if you manage to make people understand that for example the tram they are using every day to cross from France to Germany was not only made possible by the respective cities but also with the help and the funding of the EU, then you have already achieved a lot.
One final question: Interreg in three words?
In three words…money, projects… are two words enough? (laughs)