Members of CESCI were invited to participate at a 4-day study visit in Southern France on 18-21 September 2017 by the General Council of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, the southernmost department of France. Eventually we delegated only 3 members, who travelled together with the Romanian group of 5 members, with whom we had got in contact thanks to the Oradea Process.
All of us, mayors of small communities, and those responsible for county-level and town-level spatial development, were interested in: how cross-border cooperation is possible in the French-Spanish border region, in the Basque Country, divided by high mountains, how they fight isolation by cooperating with the other side of the mountain. Population indicators of the border regions are positive, out-migration is low, the young, even if low-paid, try to make every effort to avoid leaving their homeland, property prices are high and unemployment rates reflect the national average. What makes this region attractive?
Our hosts, members of the Department for Cross-border cooperation and Foreign Relations of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques province, (Head of Department Rose-Marie Esclamonde, and her colleague, Hortense Lot) organised the program for us and showed their openness for future cooperation.
We started discovering the province’s multifaceted life by meeting the small communities living in the mountains. These mountain communities have been living from agriculture and livestock farming for centuries, organised into cantons both on the French and the Spanish side: towns of a certain valley form partnerships, handle their affairs together and submit joint applications. Our next stop was in the mountains, in the community guesthouse of Iraty. Here the local initiative  was presented by two young locals who personally experienced that in order to ensure local welfare it is essential to know the local conditions and assets and to turn these into cross-border development by encouraging cooperation among the 4 valleys. The results are 35 chalets and a conference building, 4-season hiking trails with cross-border tracks, ideal for cycling, horse riding or walking, boutique points selling local products, in other words it is a well-functioning cross-border “touristic destination”, bringing bottom-up initiatives together.
After the picturesque mountainous area, our delegation was invited to the town of Pau by the Representative of the province’s General Council for Foreign Relations, and the Head of Department responsible. Before inviting us for lunch to the historical Parliament of Navarre, our hosts presented their policies, and their most important Spanish relations in terms of cross-border development. Flourishing cooperation, despite language barriers and historical difficulties in the mazes of French and Spanish public administrations, have achieved amazing results mostly in the fields of logistics and line infrastructure (building motorways, tunnels and railway lines) as well as disaster management in the mountains. The official 5-course lunch gave us the opportunity to experience what we have already known: the French are unbeatable in diplomatic gastronomy.
The westernmost tip of the province is the seashore Biarritz, where we find a thriving tourism, mainly thanks to English real estate investments and luxury tourism – the effect of which does not go beyond the borders of the town. Going towards the middle of the continent, in the regional centre of Bayonne, waterfront luxury is not a decisive factor anymore. In the university town, which has already flourished in the Middle Ages, we can find thriving trade and culture today as well, with strong local identity and living Basque art. At the workshop, which was organised in the town’s beautiful, renovated and modernised medieval military building currently serving as office building, we had occasion to meet the director of the greatest and most significant cross-border cooperation, which has arisen from the cooperation between the Parliaments of the Spanish and French frontier provinces, namely the Euroregion Aquitaine-Euskadi. Marc Moulin, teaching cross-border cooperation studies at IUT of Bayonne said that the Euroregion of 5,5 million inhabitants is the most important body for cooperation between States. Its EUR 2 million budget used for the implementation of its strategy, which focuses on 6 fields, was financed by its members in a proportion of 80 %, and in 20 % by project financing. Institutionalised cross-border cooperation started to evolve in 1989, and by 2011 they have operated in the frames of the highest possible level of cooperation, namely the EGTC. One of their newest initiatives is to coordinate the cooperation of the 18 countries concerned along the EuroVelo 1 (north-south route from Scandinavia to Spain) in the frames of an INTERREG project. Among the participants we met colleagues planning and running projects, and all the members of our delegation were open to exchange experience of own contributions, motivating local actors, and overcoming linguistic and historical barriers.
By the end of the four-day programme it became clear that we have a lot to learn from each other and the links established could lead to future cooperation.
 It is carried out in the frames of the SASCIRATI project, financed by the INTERREG V-A 2014-2020 ( POCTEFA (Programme européen de Coopération territoriale Espagne-France-Andorre)
30 % of the population living in border regions speaks the Basque language, and in certain areas their proportion can reach up to 80%. However, Spanish and French languages are so similar, that at work meetings everyone can use his/her own language and only high-level, formal consultations require an interpreter
 Marc Moulin Euroregion Director http://www.naen.eu/
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