Since the late 1980s local and regional authorities in southern England and northern France have co-operated on a bilateral basis. These links differed from the traditional post-war twinning links between cities, towns and other smaller communities. Rather than a narrow focus on civic or cultural exchange each council entered into a co-operation agreement or accord, agreeing to work together in certain areas of policy, share information and working practices or deliver joint projects. As a result they usually involve the ‘higher’ levels of local government.
By the mid-1990s several links were present between south-east England and northern France. A good overview of these links can be found on the Cross Channel Atlas. But what is the current extent of this activity? Are these partnerships still active?
The following table lists the bilateral European links local government in south-east England and northern France has participated in between 2001 and 2011.
As can be seen, much of this activity has continued. As with the 1990s, a formal co-operation agreement or accord supports many of these links, committing the local authorities to work together in certain policy fields or to deliver certain projects. There are, however, some notable differences between the 1990s and the 2000s.
Firstly, the number of bilateral links has increased. The initial links developed in the 1990s seem to have provided a basis for continued co-operation. Only the Isle of Wight had no bilateral links, and it is now not uncommon for councils to co-operate with more than one foreign partner.
Secondly, the geographical scope has gradually shifted from a cross-border approach, linking local government on both sides of the Channel, to wider transnational links involving links with local government further afield, often in central or eastern Europe. For example, Kent has developed a link with Bács-Kiskun in Hungary, Picardie is linked with Trenčin in Slovenia and Bretagne is linked with Wielkopolska in Poland. These relationships are likely to have been motivated by the accession of central and eastern European countries to the EU, as well as a shift in funding programmes which has led to increased eligibility for ‘transnational’ and ‘inter-regional’ co-operation.
Thirdly, bilateral partnerships wax and wane; sometimes they can be very active, at other times they remain dormant. For example, the link between Kent and Nord-Pas de Calais has remained consistently active since the late 1980s. However the links between Basse-Normandie and Tuscany, and West Sussex and Haute-Normandie, while active in the mid-2000s, have now become dormant. These peaks and troughs in involvement show how local government is flexible in its approach to bilateral co-operation. It can choose when to co-operate and with who, depending on local priorities.
Clearly bilateral co-operation by local government in the English Channel persists, despite varying over time. In an era characterised by EU integration, the free movement of goods and the transnational character of many policy problems, these bilateral links look set to continue further. The approval of two new cross-border programmes (especially Interreg V) in the Channel/Manche region looks set to further reinforce this. Nonetheless, these links remain interesting; they represent examples of local and regional governments working outside their political and geographical boundaries, and beyond their legal competences.
This post has also appeared on the Atlantic Arc Cities blog.