It used to be a city of border traffic, trucks waiting in endless lines, smugglers and sad-looking custom officers. The city of Cieszyn or Tesin with around 50 000 inhabitants in total is very special for both Czechia and Poland.

Due to the historical territory changes in 1920, the town was left divided in two parts with a border going through the very heart of the city, following the river Olza. Poles got the central part of the city, Czech’s took the outskirts; however, a large group of Polish citizens was left in Czechia following the decisions made during the Spa Conference Agreement.

The history has shown multiply times how dramatic consequences such a division can bring. Unless the citizens decide differently.

Building a joint future

Today, the border line which divides Cieszyn into two separate municipalities leaving one side in Poland and the other in Czechia doesn’t seem to provoke big discussions, and if there was not for the bridge, the old custom buildings on its sides, and a renovated building of a border restaurant which used to serve as a hub for smugglers and other border “professionals”, one could actually think it’s just another city located close to the Czech – Polish border.

In reality, however, there are two cities, Czech Tesin and Polish Cieszyn managed by two separate states, which a long time before the Czech Republic and Poland became EU members decided to collaborate to make local life more comfortable.

Back in 1998, the representatives of the Cieszyn Silesia region from Czechia and Poland decided to create the Euroregion, a cooperation structure which would enhance cross – border collaboration on a local level. Such an idea back then, both in Czechia and Poland was representing a completely new and fresh approach toward the local self – governance, cross – border cooperation ideas.

A useful mechanism

The idea of Euroregions occurred in Europe in the 1950’s, yet it took decades to shape and use it as an instrument which enhances cross – border collaboration not only within the EU countries, but more importantly outside too.

Today, Euroregions are transnational, collaborative structures established between two or more territories of two different European countries. The entities neither have any political power nor any corresponding legislative or government institutions within their states.

They work transitionally for the common good of the border society, based on agreement on cooperation signed by both sides. In case of Cieszyn, the agreement was signed between The Association for Development and Cooperation “Olza” on Polish side represented by Bogdan Kasperek, and the Regional Association of Territorial Cooperation of Těšín Silesia with Tomáš Balcar as a director.

“Many don’t remember the times when the border was closed, the traffic, endless lines at customs, one would lose from 1.5 to 3 hours just for waiting” Tomas recalled. He says that back in the 90’s cross – border collaboration and the need for it wasn’t so obvious to everyone. People needed time to understand how beneficial it is.

“It was also mysterious for our governments in Prague and Warsaw. They were a little bit sceptical at the beginning” – he continued.

His counterpart, Bogdan Kasperek agrees that the situation was similar on Polish side; however, both capitols quickly understood how beneficial cross – border collaboration was for both Czechs and Poles.

“We were lucky because our aims were quickly understood by the right persons who were employed at right places,” Kasperek pointed out.

Both inform that Euroregions aren’t about the politics, they’re about cross-border cooperation, and self-governance.

“We operate with the so-called micro budget, which isn’t as small as it sounds,” Kasperek informed.

The entire region is divided into six Euroregions, and a total budget for this territory is worth 40 million EUR.

Both inform that the project financed or co – financed from the micro budget vary to match the local society’s needs. It can be a renovation of a local park, or as some hamlets from the region did, a purchase of specialist devices for draining the sewage systems. There are examples of municipalities on Czech and Polish side which agree together on their needs, purchase the devices with money from micro budget project and use the devices jointly.

“It might seem silly, but solving them makes living standards much better,” Kasperek asserted.

A success story

Both Kasperek and Balcar describe themselves as local patriots who would never want to live outside of this region. Balcar even tried for a period of studies, and then came back to the Cieszyn municipality as this is the only place he wants to live in. They both enjoy working together and say that they’ve learned a lot about each other through the work they’re now doing.

“Not everything is easy (in everyday cooperation) … and borders as such remain in peoples’ minds. But on the other hand, I will never forget when I went to a bar in New York City, once upon a time, me and a friend of mine, we started to chat with a girl, and after some time, we learned she was Polish. I felt like I was talking to a sister, a close person not a stranger; I see no reason for a different approach back home,” Balcar regaled, while Kasperek added that the years spent in cross – border collaboration with his Czech neighbours taught him to accept and respect different approaches, points of view and ways of thinking.

The will to collaborate

They both agree that the success of Cieszyn Euroregion comes from the fact that the locals wanted to make it happen. From their biggest successes, they list fire brigade services, which are now coming to the closest location regardless which country is it; the locals use a joint alarm number to inform about the problem. There is an ambitious plan is to create the same system for the emergency ambulance calls.

According to the Deputy Director of the Eastern Studies Centre (OSW), Mateusz Gniazdowski, the Polish – Czech cross – border program has been evaluated as one of the best on the EU level.

“Poland’s longest border is with Czechia, hundreds of thousands of people live along this line. What is more, Prague is one of our most important export partners,” Gniazdowski pointed out, adding that the sides – despite a very good working atmosphere – have unaddressed problems which create tension.

“We have disputes about environmental issues, as the region is industrial and arguments about who is polluting whose air is always there. We have disputes about the quality of exported meat as well; however, I’d say that thanks to the people of good will this cooperation is on a really high level” he concluded.

According to the study “Euroregions, Excellence and Innovation across EU borders” currently in Europe there are 214 Euroregions registered, out of which 158 are active.

 

This article is part of the #DemocraCE project organised by Visegrad/Insight. It was published by Kontrapress in Serbian and can be found here.

Originally from Wroclaw, Poland, Natalia Żaba has spent a decade in the Western Balkan region, first as a student, then as a reporter and media programme manager at the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. She covers politics and regional affairs for Al Jazeera Balkans amongst numerous other regional outlets.


Report

The EU is at a critical juncture. For the first time since the launching of European integration, doubts about the future of the EU have been raised by mainstream politicians and large swathes of the European public. Read about four political directions that Europe may follow after the EP elections in 2019.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and with the kind support of ABTSHIELD.

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