socialnet - Das Netz für die Sozialwirtschaft

Cooperation across borders in Europe

04.04.2022    Sina Redlich

  1. The Territorial Agenda 2030 – A future for all places
  2. The Social Economy Action Plan 
  3. European Territorial Cooperation is for everyone 
    1. Multi-level partnerships
    2. Integrated solutions
    3. Supporting the innovation capacities of economy, society and public administration
    4. Closer to citizens 
  4. The social dimension of Interreg
  5. Interreg Project Examples
    1. a) Indeed: Innovative solutions to improve of dementia care in the Danube region
    2. b) SEMPRE: Rural services developed together with the socially disadvantaged
    3. c) PlurAlps: Cultural diversity in the Alps
  6. The benefit of multilateral European networking
  7. Further information
  8. Author

Abstract: The article argues that European networking provides benefits to local and regional authorities and social organizations. The article provides insight in EU-level policies on social and territorial cohesion and, more practically, hightlights that institutions in Germany and Europe are well involved in transnational cooperation. While green and smart topics form the core of Interreg funding priorities, a number of programmes will support social projects in the current funding period till 2027. Four project examples show: local and regional actors in Europe often face similar challenges. The exchange of knowledge and experience as well as joint actions provide valuable input for further development and innovation.

In Germany as in Europe, processes of structural and demographic changes are posing challenges to citizens, particularly in those regions far away from the centres and metropolitan areas. Rural and remote regions need to be supported and need to remain livable. This requires strategies, cooperation and action.

Despite their differences, people in towns and regions in Germany and other European countries are often confronted with similar challenges and situations. Networking and cooperation offer a wide range of opportunities to meet challenges and to take advantage of opportunities together. Common concerns and interests build up valuable cooperation and partnerships between European regions and smaller places.

Cross-national structural support programmes at EU level help to realize this potential and motivate European networking. The objectives range from the mutual exchange of experience to the joint representation of interests at EU governing level. Strengthening relationships forms a basis for creating common guiding principles, political programmes and longer-term projects.

Numerous success stories exist from international intercity cooperation - especially large cities and border regions already enjoy attention for their initiatives. But smaller cities and rural districts in Germany and Europe also benefit from synergies and exchange with European partners. They strengthen cohesion across borders and can positively promote their own regional development through the exchange of knowledge or joint projects. In this sense, small and medium-sized towns as well as small cities and rural districts play a decisive role for the well-being of citizens in Europe. 

The Territorial Agenda 2030 – A future for all places

Securing services of general interest and creating equal living conditions in all places is on the political agenda in Germany as in Europe. Many rural regions in Europe are losing population. People are also on average older than in urban areas. In recent years, the socio-economic gap between rural and urban areas has increased in many regions. This comes with an increasing divergence of a wide range of services of general interest, which has subsequently led to declining attractiveness and quality of life in rural areas. The challenges are similar in many European regions, so it is obvious to develop ideas together - across borders.

The new Territorial Agenda 2030 shall help to strengthen territorial cohesion in the European Union. The ministers responsible for spatial planning decided on the Territorial Agenda 2030 on 1 December 2020 at an informal meeting during the German EU Council Presidency. Under the heading “A future for all places”, the document formulates guidelines for the spatial development policy in the EU, which is based on equal social, economic and ecologically sustainable development of the regions in Europe. 

This is to be achieved through six priorities: a balanced Europe, functional regions, integration beyond borders, a healthy environment, a place-based circular economy and sustainable connections. These goals may sound abstract, but they essentially affect everyone. It is about distributive justice, access opportunities, accessibility of local supply services. It's about living and working in an appealing environment, being able to meet daily needs without having to travel long distances, receiving family-friendly offers and being able to be mobile. The Federal Institute for Research on Building, Urban Affairs and Spatial Development (BBSR) is working on putting the Agenda into practice. 

A pilot action on services of general interest in rural and structurally weak areas is intended to reduce the further drifting apart from the regions. The pilot action under German leadership is one of six projects, each of which focuses on different topics of the Territorial Agenda 2030. Under the title “A future for lagging regions”, new solutions will be tested that improve people's everyday lives in these regions - for example in the areas of mobility, medical care and education. In this way, the pilot action links the issue of equal living conditions in Germany with the implementation and realignment of the Territorial Agenda 2030.

The Social Economy Action Plan 

In December 2021 the European Commission presented an action plan to boost the social economy thereby recognizing the social sector’s economic and job-creation potential, as well as its contribution to a fair and inclusive recovery, and the green and digital transitions. According to the European Commission, social economy organizations are entities, which put social and environmental purposes first, reinvesting most of their profit back into the organization. There are 2.8 million social economy entities in Europe that employ 13.6 million people and which offer solutions to key challenges in our societies.

The action plan foresees three objectives: Firstly, creating the right conditions for the social economy to flourish. Policy and legal frameworks includes taxation, public procurement and State aid frameworks have to be adapted to the needs of the social economy. Secondly, opening opportunities for social economy organizations to benefit from business development and to reskill and upskill their workers. Thirdly, to make the social economy more visible and improve the recognition of its work and potential. The Commission will carry out communication activities emphasizing the role and specificities of the social economy.

Targeted consultations were conducted in preparation of the action plan. In this context a number of challenges and opportunities were identified for supporting the social economy. One of them relates to promoting the social economy at regional and local levels. EC concluded that providing support to local and regional social the economy stakeholders including through capacity building and cross-border networking opportunities is likely to be an important way forward.

European Territorial Cooperation is for everyone 

Every institution in Europe can get involved in cross-border, transnational or interregional cooperation. Social organizations are actively involved. 

European Territorial Cooperation - better known as Interreg - is part of the EU's structural and investment policy. With Interreg, the EU supports cross-border infrastructure, job market integration and cultural exchange (so-called Interreg A). Interreg also covers transnational cooperation in larger areas such as the Baltic Sea Region or the Alpine Space aiming at territorial integration of these areas (Interreg B). The Territorial Agenda is a reference document for Interreg programmes. From 2021 to 2027, the EU provides 8 billion euros for territorial cooperation.

Germany participates in six transnational programme areas: Alpine Space, Danube Region, Central Europe, North Sea Region, North West Europe and Baltic Sea Region. Each of these areas faces specific challenges that do not stop at administrative borders and require coordinated actions. These programmes are being implemented through hundreds of joint projects. Taking part in Interreg projects offers new approaches, additional expertise, different perspectives, financial support (up to 80% from the EU) and bring about more attention for a topic from decision-makers and in the media.

Until 2027, Interreg programmes will focus on funding projects that contribute to a greener and a smarter Europe. Many Interreg programmes will also support projects that are aiming for a better governance. Social topics are supported in a number of programmes. Calls for project applications are open regularly. 

Multi-level partnerships

Even though there are differences among the individual cooperation areas, the objective of a balanced territorial development of European regions is the unifying element. Interreg projects form international partnerships based on a multi-level-governance principle. Those partnerships between academia, public authorities and the economic sector are decisive for deep-rooted cooperation structures and for shaping decision-making processes in the involved regions. Involving local and regional authorities in a project partnership is crucial in order to implement projects with local or regional relevance. Involving such stakeholders should not only be ensured in capitals and agglomerations. Local authorities in the surrounding areas of large cities, medium-sized cities in structurally weak areas, as well as counties and smaller municipalities should be involved in project partnerships.

Integrated solutions

Transnational cooperation combines characteristics that are well suited for developing solutions for overcoming structural challenges and creating regions that are more resilient. The partnerships help to develop integrated solutions targeting the economic, ecological, social and territorial integration which, when anchored in the region, contribute to stronger crisis resilience. This is particular true for the transition and transformation towards a digital and greener, and thus more resilient Europe. Integrated spatial development means that projects cannot be limited to a certain sector (energy, transport, building, and manufacturing) but that the sustainable development of cities or regions is the focus/the starting point to build a project. Integrated spatial development does not only support economic competitiveness, but also supports social and territorial cohesion, as well as the protection of natural resources. Thus, Interreg B projects can develop solutions for common problems by bringing together different stakeholders from different sectors.

Supporting the innovation capacities of economy, society and public administration

When talking about innovation capacities, the link of regional innovation systems with their international counterparts becomes more and more important. A decrease in innovation capacity has a negative impact also on the regionaldevelopment in Europe. As some regions being more affected by structural challenges than others, an integrated knowledge pooling between different regions and stakeholders helps to further strengthen the innovation capacity in all regions and support the transformation towards a smart, green and just economy and society. By specifically focussing on boosting the skill levels, the innovation and institutional capacities in all regions can be further strengthened. This also gives the opportunity to address the social dimension of a crisis in a cross-cutting manner as well as to internationalizeadministrative governance at local, regional and national level.

Closer to citizens 

Citizens are immediately concerned by topics with local or regional relevance. Spatially relevant projects such assustainable urban development projects, which combine e.g. infrastructural, social and environmental measures are visible for citizens, can be experienced by them and are therefore close to them. Citizens do not get easily in touch with sector-specific or research-oriented flagship projects whose partners are mainly situated in capitals and major agglomerations. Especially locally relevant projects hold an enormous potential to give the EU a positive image that citizens can relate to. Participative approaches can be implemented in Interreg projects in order to involve the civil society directly. 

The social dimension of Interreg

While green and smart topics form the core of Interreg funding priorities, a number of programmes will fund social projects based on the region’s priorities and the above principles. The Danube Region Interreg programme will support projects that ensure, for example, the integration of vulnerable groups into the labour market, with special attention on regions that display high proportions of disadvantaged people. The programme will also promote accessible and inclusive quality services in education, training and lifelong learning. The North West Europe programme will support the transition to a socially inclusive, sustainable and resilient society. This means that they will support projects that, for example, aim to increase the capacities of NWE communities to include vulnerable groups by reducing imbalances in the field of health and care access, through better assistance to vulnerable population groups in improving their situation of health and well-being. Also, the Central Europe programme and the North Sea programmes fund social projects. 

Interreg Project Examples

a) Indeed: Innovative solutions to improve of dementia care in the Danube region

Because of demographic change, dementia is a growing challenge for health and social systems of the countries in the Danube region. The Interreg project INDEED (Innovation for Dementia in the Danube Region) is improving the knowledge and skills of all professional groups involved in dementia care. A consortium of 20 project partners from ten countries in the Danube region coordinated by the Technical University of Munich aims to improve dementia care in the Danube region and to implement national dementia plans. More information is available at

b) SEMPRE: Rural services developed together with the socially disadvantaged

Rural regions in the Baltic Sea region often face a low population density, a lack of social infrastructure and poor connection to public transport. Especially for the long-term unemployed, older people or migrants this increases the risk of social exclusion. To counteract this, Diaconie of Schleswig-Holstein, lead partner in the Interreg project SEMPRE(“Social Empowerment in Rural Areas”), developed offerings such as driving and care services together with the socially disadvantaged. After all, they know best what services they offer optimally match the life situation. More information is available at

c) PlurAlps: Cultural diversity in the Alps

The consequences of demographic change, such as ageing, a shrinking population and a shortage of skilled workers, are major challenges for rural communities and regions in the Alps. At the same time, the Alps are experiencing immigration from many different countries. The aim of the Interreg project PlurAlps (“Enhancing capacities for a pluralistic AlpineSpace") is to take advantage of the opportunities that this cultural diversity brings with it. Together with local actors, the community network “Alliance in the Alps”, which is a project partner at PlurAlps, developed a tool for social planning in the municipalities. Needs-based offers and services are intended to facilitate newcomers settle into the community. More information is available at

d) EYES: Empowering Youth through entrepreneurial skills

In North West Europe, 14% of young people aged 15-34 years are not in employment, education or training. The InterregProject EYES led by the Evangelical Church of Westphalia encourages young people who are in a vulnerable position to(re)gain control of their own life. The approach combines personal coaching with an entrepreneurial mindset and digital support. EYES is co-designed by a European partnership of municipalities, regional governments, social services anduniversities, jointly with young people. More information is available at

The benefit of multilateral European networking

The examples show: local and regional authorities in Europe often face similar challenges. The exchange of knowledge and experience as well as constructive views from external observers provide valuable suggestions for further development and innovation. 

European exchange builds competences, increases knowledge in local administrations and among employees, and promotes the visibility of local authorities and regions. The increased level of awareness can counteract peripheralisation. In addition, networking provides easier access to EU funding. Joint projects generate concrete added value for services of public interest, quality of life and attractiveness of cities. Memberships in European municipal networks make it possible to represent the interests of municipalities and regions in the European and international context. Making networking activities visible can strengthen the feeling of European solidarity among the population, especially when using participatory processes. The population directly benefits from networking as well. For example, the promotion of climate-friendly mobility, the creation of living space, energy and cost-savings and the promotion of digitalization and sustainable tourism.

Further information


Sina Redlich holds a university diploma in Geography and works for the Federal Institute for Research on Building, Urban Affairs and Spatial Development (BBSR) in Germany. Sina Redlich works in the field of European spatial development policy, the implementation of the Territorial Agenda 2030 and European territorial cooperation. 

The Federal Institute for Research on Building, Urban Affairs and Spatial Development (BBSR) supports transnational cooperation in the six programmes with German participation. The BBSR also represents the Federal administration in the programme monitoring committees and - on behalf of the Federal Ministry for Housing, Urban development and building - runs the Federal Transnational Cooperation Programme, a national funding programme.

Cite this publication
Redlich, Sina, 2022. Cooperation across borders in Europe. In: socialnet International [online]. 2022-04-04 [Date of citation: 2022-10-01]. ISSN 2627-6348. Available from Internet: