How are Cross-border Public Services affected during the #COVID19 crisis?

Many border areas are characterised as peripheral regions in their domestic context, which is challenging affordable public service provision. In such areas, with limited demand, cross-border public services (CPS) can support the provision of these services. At the same time, cooperation and coordination with the neighbouring areas may increase service demand or may allow sharing costs among more stakeholders. This makes public service provision less costly.

The ESPON project Cross-border Public Services provided different examples from across European border regions that illustrate how CPS provision contributes to increasing accessibility and affordability of public service provision.

The case study of Pomurje illustrates the possibilities for CPS provision in a cross-border area with low population densities. Pomurje is a Slovene region neighbouring Austria, Hungary and Croatia. The cross-border area has few towns of more than 10,000 inhabitants. People in the area commute across national borders for work and study opportunities. Consequently, the region hosts CPS supporting this flow of people. There are two cross-border schools, a EURES centre, Pannonia, providing information and advice about living and working across the border and a cross-border nature park, the Trilateral Nature Park Goričko-Raab-Őrség. The latter coordinates protection and management of natural areas across national borders, not least due to the fact that nature does not recognise national borders. Currently, discussions are ongoing to explore the possibilities to expand the number of cooperation activities. Increasing coordination allows offering more services for the benefit of the Trilateral Nature Park.

However, the ambition to strengthen the ties across the borders of the Pomurje-region is widely forced to pause for the moment. As Martha Rojas-Pineda (National Coordinator of EURES Austria) states: “The EURES-centre Pannonia is still in service, despite that there is a significant decline in service offerings mainly limited to information provision”. The core competence of EURES, comprising the recruitment of foreign jobseekers, has come to a halt due to closed borders and slowed down the economy.

The Trilateral Nature Park Goričko-Raab-Őrség (SL/AT/HU) had had ambitious plans for this year’s spring/summer period. A planned opening of a hiking trail crossing all three parks or a joint meeting of European Parliament members in the castle Grad are just a few of the events being cancelled or postponed. According to Stanislava Dešnik (Park Director of Goričko-Nature Park), the communication between the partners remains close and arrangements are undertaken to still offer cross-border service offers. For instance, the Goričko web portal has been supplemented with German and English translation and also ongoing cooperation programmes like the INTERREG-D2C still provide a multilateral communication forum for experts together with national stakeholders.

Another example is the cross-border emergency helicopter Christophorus Europa 3 in the Euregio Bayerischer Wald-Böhmerwald-Unterer Inn. This helicopter serves an area that previously was considered a blank spot for emergency services. Waiting times exceeded sometimes 25 minutes in the southern and eastern parts of the Bavarian Forest. Today, approximately 800,000 inhabitants in this German, Austrian, Czech border area benefit from this significantly better availability air rescue services. The joint helicopter service has reduced the waiting time to less than 15 minutes.

A similar example can be found in the border region of Sønderjylland-Schleswig. The emergency helicopter service of Niebüll increased the accessibility to emergency care in the entire German and Danish border region, including in particular the areas with low population density in the western part of the region. The positive experiences of this CPS served even as a pilot initiative for similar services elsewhere in Denmark.

Like in the previous example, Tilo Klesse (Coordinator HEMS Niebüll DRF-Air Rescue) also mentions an “ongoing cross-border cooperation in air rescue with Sønderjylland under the condition that patients are preferably medicated in the same country”. The ambulance service alongside the German-Danish border is facing locally varying constraints. While the German county of Flensburg paused cross-border operations of the local ambulance in the neighbouring county of Nordfriesland this is still possible, however, few cross-border operations are currently undertaken (Der Nordschleswiger - 24 Apr. 2020).

Ongoing CPS development in the Euroregion of Elbe/Labe illustrates how cooperation may ensure maintaining hospital services in the future in another region with low population density. On the Czech side, hospital supply has been reduced. The German hospital in Sebnitz, located immediately next to the border also faces a declining demand due to depopulation. In order to main the services in the area, health care providers and local and regional stakeholders are seeking possibilities to avoid further decline in health care service provision in the future by seeking joint solutions.

With very strict measures at the German-Czech border (BBSR 2020), the cross-border collaboration of medical services provided by the major Asklepios-hospital in the German small-town of Sebnitz is paused for the moment. The Asklepios hospital confirms that smaller hospitals alongside the Czech side of the border are currently facing serious strains through the closed borders.

In conclusion, besides minor local variations, cross-border operations dependent on open borders are seriously affected by the pandemic at the moment. In such peripheral border regions with vulnerable public infrastructures, significantly relying on cooperation with their neighbouring countries and regions, COVID-19 causes a specifically notable impact of the quality of cross-border public services.

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Article edited by Nikos Lampropoulos, Project Expert Press and Media Activities