Giada Laganà explores the effectiveness of the Ireland-Wales Cooperation Programme and the EU's role in managing and developing cross-border cooperation.
Among the challenges that Brexit poses to the relationships between the UK and the Island of Ireland, the broad range of difficulties touching on cross-border cooperation between Wales and the Republic of Ireland (ROI) are generally overlooked. However, Brexit has challenged not only the economic aspects of such cooperation across the Irish Sea but has also threatened the political and societal aspect of the achievements to date. The future seems to depend on the Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF), which is intended to reduce inequality between communities across the four nations of the UK and to deliver sustainable and inclusive growth, thus substituting European Union (EU) Structural Funds. However, with the time running short, there is still no clarity on the design of the SPF. In parallel, the UK Internal Market Bill offers no ready suggestions or proposals on how cross-border cooperation can continue, except for a shabby blueprint referring to the economic investments that will be delivered straight to businesses and communities across the UK, without the EU bureaucratic machinery.
The dimension of multi-level mutual interaction between strategies and structures of EU-sponsored cross- border cooperation has been remarkably absent in current Brexit debates. This dynamic interplay was able to empower politicians, civil servants, and policy networks to play an active part in shaping new cross-border arrangements and was often one of the most important achievements of EU cross-border programmes and initiatives. Sadly, this is also the least known aspect of cross-border cooperation and one of the major losses generated by the Brexit process. The EU framework provided regions located on either side of internal or external land or maritime borders - such as the sea border between Ireland and Wales - with a comprehensive space in which interactions could represent specific local and regional interests. Brexit has removed this dynamic framework and has placed new emphasis not on a constant interplay of structure and strategy but on a separation between them in producing specific outcomes.
These considerations are particularly evident in the instance of cross-border cooperation between Ireland and Wales. Ireland-Wales cooperation has been mainly supported by the EU Ireland-Wales Cooperation Programme – also known as Interreg Ireland-Wales - since the year 2007. Despite the relatively small size of the programme (during the funding period 2014-2020 it had a total budget of €98.998.059), the evolution of Ireland-Wales cross-border cooperation under its aegis has proved essential to the empowerment of policy networks in Ireland and Wales. Cross-border networks (comprised of politicians, bureaucrats, interest representatives, non-governmental organisations, and civil society representatives) have gained independence from the actions that have formed them. They have enforced and introduced boundaries to strengthen their position in new cross-border processes in areas of interests such as scientific research, culture, and tourism. They have shaped the Interreg Ireland-Wales programme as an opportunity to pursue and realise local, cross- border interests from a geographical and a socio-political perspective.
Geographically, the Ireland-Wales cross-border region achieved a strategic fit where policies intersected with specific cross-border needs and challenges. The place-based approach (a long-term policy aimed at tackling persistent underutilisation of potential, and reducing persistent social exclusion in specific place
through external interventions and governance) of Interreg was used by authorities in the ROI and in Wales to legitimate the specific interests of the cross-border region. They presented these matters to the EU Commission as Ireland-Wales specific. They focused on enhancing sustainable growth through cooperation by maximising the potential of the natural and cultural assets of the maritime area by connecting it to a specific EU regional policy discourse. A discursive emphasis on economic growth, innovation, and sustainable development was an effective tool to anchor local strategies to the EU agenda. On the other hand, it also constituted an outcome of a strategic discourse which informed local perceptions and discussions and responded to grassroots interests.
The defining physical feature of the area involved was the presence of the Irish Sea, with cross-border cooperation relying on the assumption that shared common features, challenges, and issues would be handled more successfully if managed on a cross-border basis. Therefore, the geographical organisation of the region represented a compromise between the different interests and reflected the centrality of the Irish Sea. Existing territorial delimitations influenced who could participate and thus produced effects of inclusion and exclusion, with distinct territorial claims related to distinct, ideologically-motivated, national projects.
From the socio-political perspective, the importance of the role played by policy networks in shaping cross- border cooperation between Ireland and Wales was reflected in the programme management structures. The arrangements created a loose, fluid administrative organisation of the cross-border region, which represented all levels of society and where networks could build interconnections and gain power. Moreover, Interreg Ireland-Wales saw the role of the Development Officers evolving. They got tasked to be regularly on the ground, particularly with regards to those policy measures that sought local communities to deliver projects. Hence, Development Officers started to play an important liaising role between the community level and the central bureaucratic level, giving voice to the needs and concerns of those involved on both sides. In the case of the voluntary and community sector, the officers were an important resource both in terms of information about possible co-funding sources, as well as how to tackle different types of administrative hurdles. Given the broad experience of the officers, they were also central to the development of strategic planning for the different axes. Finally, Development Officers facilitated a common understanding of the other administrative structures and culture. Such an understanding was essential for real joint management and strategic planning of the sub-initiatives.
The EU Interreg Ireland-Wales programme is evidence of how a relatively small group of policy networks was able to influence the shape of cross-border cooperation to pursue distinct local, cross-border interests. At the same time, nobody could enforce its vision unconditionally. National governments also influenced the Interreg outcomes. Elements of the governance architecture, discourses, and interpretations constrained, shaped, and informed policy networks’ participation in public policymaking efforts. The programme attempted to reduce unemployment; promote social inclusion; boost green economy, and also improve transport links with policy networks trying to guide the process in their desired direction.
Contrary to popular opinion, it is possible to assert that the EU played an active role in managing and harvesting the positive aspects of Ireland-Wales cross-border cooperation. Its role in animating and encouraging cross-border networks to develop partnerships and a cross-border strategy cannot be underestimated. The neutral and dynamic space provided allowed cross-border relationships across the Irish Sea to be constructed upon a specific dialectic of territory and policy networks. Its value goes much further than mere economic support and it cannot - and should not – be forgotten or underestimated.
Read 'The Added-Value of the Ireland-Wales Cooperation Programme' the new report from the Wales Governance Centre by Giada Laganà and Professor Daniel Wincott.