Karte Common Ground Regionen

A Lighthouse that Shines Far Beyond All Borders

  • Climate change and health in the border region of Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium

The streets were flooded, basements and apartments full of water; hospitals had to be evacuated: For Cindy Gielskens-Sijstermanns of the Dutch public health service GGD Zuid Limburg in the tri-border regions of Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium, the most recent flooding of the Meuse in the summer of 2021 was a sobering example of the consequences of climate change and of how existential the threat is for body, soul, and property. Neither floods, nor heavy rain, nor even heat waves stop at national boundaries. The health burdens of global warming affect people of all nations equally.  

“For us, last year’s flood was just a reminder of the seriousness and urgency of this problem”, says Cindy Gielkens-Sijstermans, Senior Advisor for Environment and Health. The health risks are complex — and they include mental as well as physical stress. Now, the GGD wants to team up with local citizens to identify and analyze exactly what those risks are. Citizens’ summits are planned, with organized discussion sessions — multicultural and multilingual, of course — on questions such as: What do we need to ensure our wellbeing? What makes us feel safe? The participation process is to include health professionals and political decision-makers from the local, national, and regional levels. Everyone will work together as equal partners. “This structure of citizen participation can serve as a model for other border regions in Europe and even beyond — and not only on the subject of climate and health, but also for other cross-border issues”, says Gielskens-Sijstermans. “We want to create a lighthouse project that radiates out to others.” 

Boundless Energy

  • Gréng-R: Cross-Border Energy Region Ralingen-Rosport-Mompach—the goal of securing a cross-border, safe, cost-efficient, and climate-friendly energy supply with high own consumption

How can we become independent — independent of fossil fuels, independent of supplies from other countries and continents? “Cross-Border Energy Region,” the joint project of the local communities of Ralingen (near Trier) and the commune of Rosport-Mompach in Luxembourg, became unexpectedly timely in light of the war against Ukraine. The goal of the project is to secure a safe, cost-efficient, and climate-friendly energy supply. The two municipalities, which are separated only by the small Sauer River, have been working closely together for years. “We have already implemented a number of joint projects, including an adventure playground on the Luxembourg side and soccer fields on the German side”, says Alfred Wirtz, Mayor of Ralingen.

If you want to cross the natural border, the Sauer, you don’t need to stand in traffic for hours or endure passport controls: “For us, the border exists only on paper”, says Wirtz. At least that was the case until March 15, 2020, when Germany abruptly closed the bridge in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Families were no longer able to visit one another. An “entry permit” was required if you wanted to drive to work. 

Farmers were no longer able to cultivate their fields, and communities could no longer exchange shared equipment. “A crisis situation, which emphatically reminded us that we can’t do without each other anymore—and we don’t want to”, explains Wirtz. This is also true for the new project. Along with cutting back on fossil fuels, the collection and use of energy from renewable sources such as sun, wind, and water are key issues. Workshops, lectures, and themed cafés are intended to motivate citizens to take an active part in shaping the project by contributing their ideas. Planned activities include energy walks and visits to examples of best practices — regardless of boundaries. 

A Field Test for a Citizen-Focused Europe

  • Citizen participation in the development of a cross-border SaarMoselle agglomeration concept

Sometimes there are the little things that make all the difference. For example, thinking about bilingual signage from the very beginning when planning cross-border hiking trails. “This is not a large additional expense; you just have to have the issue in mind”, says Jacques Koenig, Managing Director of the Forbach Municipal Association, who is the principal partner for the city of Saarbrücken in the joint project for a cross-border “SaarMoselle” agglomeration concept. It is this kind of attention to practical details that is much more prominent in the local population than in the administrative committees, which tend to focus more on the big picture. 

This is why the inclusion of local citizens is so important for the Eurodistrict SaarMoselle, a European association for territorial cooperation, in the development of a cross-border spatial concept . The long-term vision for the future is to establish a municipal association for approximately one million people, as well as to create equal living standards for German and French citizens and a unified administration. But there is still a long way to go to achieve this, and it will only be possible with the close involvement of the local population. Even though multiple far-reaching interrelationships already exist between the two countries, legal and administrative differences and obstacles continue to complicate the journey toward a shared living environment.    

The pilot project for a cross-border agglomeration concept for the Eurodistrict SaarMoselle is to be supported by a German-French citizens’ administrative council. Individual priority topics such as the future of mobility will be discussed and developed, for example, in citizen dialogues in the form of simulation games or in digital participation formats. In addition to the capital city of Saarbrücken and the Forbach Municipal Association, the civil society partners Europ’Age e.V. and the Forbach Citizens’ Council are involved in implementing the project. “Our plan is to carry out a real field test for a citizen-focused Europe”, says Lisa-Marie Oevermann, project officer for the city of Saarbrücken.

Democracy in Action!

  • R(h)einverbindlich: Citizens participate across borders in the German-French border region of the Emmendingen district and PETR Sélestat-Alsace Centrale

The former customs site on a small island in the middle of the Rhine River sits abandoned. Where once thousands of border controls took place, today cars drive by without stopping. Weeds are gradually spreading between the asphalt and concrete; other than that, there is not much to see here. Now the joint German-French project R(h)einverbindlich wants to breathe new life into this symbolic location, creating a paradise for birds as well as a recreation area for human beings. For a distance of 18 kilometers, the river connects the citizens of the German district of Emmendingen, north of Freiburg, with the French planning association PETR Sélestat-Alsace Centrale. It is a beautiful landscape with romantic meadows and quiet coves. “The Rhine should no longer be a border”, says Patrick Barbier, Mayor of the French municipality of Muttersholtz in the Alsace; the river should be a connective link that strengthens European culture and fosters democratic ideas. 

The people in the region can take part in generating ideas for the project. “After all, protecting the environment is an existential concern for everyone”, says Silke Tebel-Haas, the Press and European Affairs Officer of the district of Emmendingen, which supervises the project from the German side. “It’s time to involve the citizens.” In addition to ideas for climate protection, in the project is about creating an active democracy. Her project partner Barbier observes the anti-democratic currents in his own country with concern: “In France, non-participation in elections is increasing”, he says. The parties at the fringes of the political spectrum are also gaining support. “We are convinced that the best method for teaching democracy is to practice it. That means proposing ideas and developing them together”, says Barbier. And this is exactly what the R(h)einverbindlich project aims to achieve. 

Rhine Dwellers — A Source of Inspiration

  • Planning region High Rhine: Joint, broad-based, cross-border spatial development

High up in the Swiss mountains is the source of one of the most powerful rivers in the world, the Rhine. It is also a true hub for shipping and tourism and its population is growing – especially the region around Basel, home to the High Rhine corridor, is booming.

“We have around 190,000 people living here, with another 90,000 working here on top. And more are still flooding in,” says Dr. Sebastian Wilske, Association Director of the High Rhine-Lake Constance region, referring to the part of the metropolitan area of Basel along the High Rhine that is made up of 33 municipalities of the Swiss cantons Aargau and Basel-Landschaft and the two districts of Lörrach and Waldshut on the German side.

The challenge is to retain the uniqueness of the landscape, with its Rhine lowlands, romantic coves, and forests, and at the same time meet the growing needs of residents for living space and transport infrastructure. How much open space is necessary? What makes a region worth living in? What are viable visions for the future? How should the area be designed? The Agglo Basel association aims to clarify these questions in a cross-border spatial concept—and not only within the administrative councils but also with in-depth participation by local citizens.

“Agglo” in Swiss refers to urban sprawl, where all kinds of interests converge — as in the High Rhine corridor. Between the conflicting priorities of economy and ecology, viable solutions can only be found if the local population gets involved, insists Wilske. “Direct and active democracy works best when you have appreciative and trustful communication. We want to empower and encourage people.” After all, the Rhine dwellers are a source of inspiration. The aim is to establish effective and long-term citizen participation that continues beyond the supported project.

Creative Picnic by the Water

  • The European twin cities of Frankfurt (Oder) and Słubice—administration, politics and citizens joining forces for a climate-friendly, integrated, cross-border city center by 2035

Outside in the fresh air, in a relaxed atmosphere, with home-baked cake and treats, is often when you come up with the best ideas. This is precisely why the twin cities of Frankfurt/Oder, Germany, and Słubice, Poland, located on opposite banks of the Oder river, are inviting their citizens to a picnic. The food and subsequent workshops on the waterfront will kick off the project “European twin cities on the road to a climate-friendly, cross-border city center.” The close partnership between the two sides of the river already extends to a variety of areas. Frankfurt/Oder and Słubice have a joint tourist office, a cross-border bus service, and joint city marketing. “Now it’s a matter of getting the citizens on board as we move toward an environmentally friendly downtown. In terms of traffic calming and sustainable mobility in particular, we have a lot of catching-up to do”, says Sören Bollmann, head of the Frankfurt-Słubice Cooperation Center and Cultural Office and advisor on international cooperation. “If we don’t develop new, joint concepts, we’re at risk of total gridlock”, Bollmann adds. In small workshops during the citizens’ picnic, the idea is to garner initial ideas for the design of the Oder promenade based on the development plans of both cities. A particular challenge is the fact that civil society structures on the Polish side are somewhat thinner on the ground. But citizens’ gardens that are connected across the border could be a shared interest: unused brownfield sites that are transformed by and for citizens into living green spaces, where not only flowers but also herbs can grow — along with the community. “We’re excited and are looking forward to some creative initiatives”, says Bollmann.

The Power of Quiet Reserve

  • Stronger together! Joint crisis management in the German-Polish border region

Stronger together! For Carsten Jacob, Director of the Euroregion Spree-Neiße-Bober in the Lusatia region of Germany and Poland, the past two years dominated by the COVID-19 crisis were a real challenge. “The impacts of the pandemic really hit us hard”, he explains. There was no concerted EU pandemic plan, no coordinated crisis communication, and the citizens with their questions and problems were in part left high and dry, with no clear information early on. “COVID-19 made it painfully clear to us how quickly borders can be closed again and it’s every country for itself instead of acting together”, says Jacob, “and how the affected population is then overlooked.”

This is a development that only fuels the risk of anti-democratic movements in a region that has anyway already been battered by emigration and an ageing population. Protest movements emerged against the restrictive pandemic containment measures, as did nationalist tendencies in the population on both sides of the border. “This has shown us we urgently need to take joint action across the border region”, says Jacob.

With the “Stronger together!” project, the partners involved are seeking to develop proposals for joint crisis management, while prioritizing the needs of the citizens. The participation process will specifically ensure that everyone gets a say, through consultations, civil dialogue, but also general collaboration and co-determination. In particular, it hopes to address “ordinary” citizens, who thus far have not been reached and have not actively participated. “We want to leverage this silent reserve”, says Jacob.

Closing Mines — Joining Hands

  • Cross-border citizen participation for mutual understanding and designing a just transformation process in the Germany-Poland-Czech Republic border triangle.

A life without coal? How would that work? In the border triangle where Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic meet, this is a highly sensitive topic. Since 2001, the cities of Zittau (D), Bogatynia (PL), and Hrádek nad Nisou (CZ) have been working together as partners and friends in the Städteverbund Kleines Dreieck [Small Triangle City Network]. But thanks to the expansion of the Polish brown coal opencast mine in Turow, the mood between the people has considerably deteriorated over the past two to three years.

“The situation is tense”, says Gloria Heymann of the Zittau city administration. For the Polish side, brown coal mining and conversion are of vital economic significance and represent the livelihood of many local residents, while the German and Czech sides primarily see the negative impacts on the environment and the drinking water supply and also fear soil subsidence. “This is a classic example of the fact that in a border region, any solutions have to be worked out jointly”, says Heymann, “one side won’t get far on its own.”

It is clear to all parties involved that in the long term, a profound transformation of the region is unavoidable. “Because of the many economic, ecological, and social entanglements, we want to tackle the upcoming process jointly and actively shape it—with high public participation”, explains Heymann. “We want to promote openness and understanding with the project.” The primary aim of the first phase is to overcome past differences, for example, by employing information buses and interviews with the parties concerned. Phase two will then use different participation formats to explore citizens’ specific ideas for a just transformation toward a peaceful post-coal coexistence.