Hynek Böhm & Joanna Kurowska-Pysz
Date: May 22, 2020
On March 5, 2020 both authors of this contribution co-organised a major international meeting on both sides of the well-known double town of Cieszyn/Český Těšín – on the Polish and the Czech side. Within the framework of the ‘Europe for Citizens’ programme we discussed issues linked to cross-border identity within a united Europe. The participants from the Polish-Czech borderlands and from other European border regions (also a researcher of the Viadrina Center B/ORDERS IN MOTION and therefore from the German-Polish border was present) – in total from eleven countries – shared their ideas, fears and proposals for the future of Europe. They arrived, discussed and departed without any problems but they were not aware of the fact that in a few days the borders would be closed.
The event took place in a symbolic location. Cieszyn/Český Těšín is one of the cross-border towns which started to function as an organism thanks to the process of cross-border cooperation. This was possible due to the EU integration process, Schengen area and European Single Market. It has resulted in a massive cross-border flow of people, goods, services and capital. It has created a cross-border labour market, cross-border entrepreneurship and it has promoted social relations between people from both sides of the border. It has started cross-border friendships and even marriages.
The event itself took place in the very beginning of COVID-19 crisis. Ten days after the event, cross-border relations between the Czech Republic and Poland were stopped rapidly. The above-mentioned flow was suspended. Both governments – as the vast majority of European governments – reacted by applying measures based on massive re-bordering. Most of these bordering actions were based on the framework of social distancing and carried out within strictly national orders and contradicted steps desired by the European institutions . These border closures occurred mostly with the support of most of the public in the EU states . Most of the citizens have accepted the necessity to close the border due to public health reasons.
After two months it seems that the further prosperous development of border regions has been brutally challenged by the COVID-19 outbreak. The epidemic danger caused the closure of the Schengen area and endangered the order of free European movement. Moreover, it imposed physical barriers on the EU internal borders. This made cross-border cooperation physically impossible or at least very difficult to implement. Everyday lives of cross-border commuters changed. Before this, they normally crossed the border to work on the other side daily or weekly without any problem.
In the last weeks many of them lost their jobs, as a consequence of the imposed quarantine after crossing the border or as a result of the cross-border entrepreneurship crisis. Many companies, depending on these cross-border works, were forced to close – either temporarily or permanently. For many of them the real disaster was the necessity to choose – if they want to stay with families on one side or if they want to go to work on the other side of the border. These dramatic circumstances resulted in family split ups or economic precarious situations. We might experience a sort of pandemic adjustment, with different consequences for European citizens. It seems borders are making a temporary comeback affecting everyone directly but not all equally .
Public and non-profit operating actors from border regions have benefited from five generations of INTERREG programmes, which have supported cross-border cooperation projects based on joint initiatives of partners from (at least) both sides of the border. The implementation of these programmes and concrete projects has been suspended as a COVID-19 consequence and caused major difficulties for relevant stakeholders. Formally the cross-border projects and other initiatives have not been stopped but in fact they have been limited only to online cooperation.
Although this sudden closure of borders brought along many complications and problems, it also highlighted an existing cross-border solidarity on both sides of the border. We could observe gestures of cross-border friendship and sympathies since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. The real European cross-border partnership was clearly visible in the case of Germans helping their French neighbours with healthcare provision. It happened when the French system was overloaded and failed to provide services of the appropriate quality. The next, subtler gesture of solidarity of borderland citizens was the case of Český Těšín /Cieszyn similar to the initiatives in the German-Polish double city of Frankfurt (Oder) – Słubice. When the mutual visits on both sides of the Polish-Czech border were forbidden, citizens of Cieszyn and Český Těšín demonstrated their solidarity to each other by hanging banners on both Olza river banks. The messages on the banners were: “Czech people we miss you” on the Polish bank whilst on the other side it was written: “Polish people we miss you”. It showed the real essence of Polish-Czech cross-border cooperation which is based also on social relations and not only on business and labour market relations. It was a moment when both neighbouring nations understood that the mutual efforts focused on cross-border cooperation strengthening were efficient and they created a real cross-border community. We could even observe cross-border marriage proposals posted on banners installed on the Czech side of the border river Olza. Moreover, Czech-Polish songs calling for the border removal were composed (one example here).
The Český Těšín / Cieszyn inhabitants realised very quickly how fast the COVID-19 crisis could affect the previously achieved results of cross-border cooperation in many fields. They started to strike against the border closure and thanks to the support from the Euroregion Těšín/Cieszyn Silesia they put pressure on the Polish government to ease the restrictions at the Czech-Polish border. Due to their activities, after some weeks the border was opened again for Polish and Czech people who would like to cross the Olza river and go to the other border side to work, to schools or visit families. Of course, there are still many social restrictions but cross-border cooperation – yet on a limited scope – started again. Thanks to the mobilization of the borderland citizens this grassroot cross-border citizen movement (similar to the case in Frankfurt [Oder] – Słubice) was able to inspire the government to soften their decision and it showed how strong the Polish-Czech cross-border relations are. It should be underlined that the Euroregions and other CBC entities helped cross-border commuters, as they helped to ease the application of obligatory quarantine requests imposed by the Polish government for cross-border commuters. The crisis showed that the Czech-Polish cross-border labour market is surprisingly resilient and at the same time it demonstrated that the Euroregions and other CBC entities can play an important role in cross-border issues management. They provided assistance in a very difficult COVID-19 crisis time so that shows that they have competencies with regard to borderland management and they really feel this spirit.
Dr. Hynek Böhm, researcher at the institute of political science of the University of Opole and at the department of geography of the Technical University of Liberec.
Dr. hab. Joanna Kurowska-Pysz, researcher at the research institute on territorial and inter-organizational cooperation, WSB University in Dąbrowa Górnicza.
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