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Transnational cooperation between rural areas

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Transnational cooperation,
the “third dimension” of local development


Whether it is the catalyst for an innovative
idea or the finishing touch on a development
project that has gradually reached maturity
at the local level, cooperation between
rural areas of different countries is a
longterm action that is often difficult but
always beneficial. For this reason, over
half of the LEADER II beneficiary areas
have become “European partners” in
close to 400 projects.


The LEADER I Initiative (1991-1994) emphasised the networking of skills as a regional development tool: the LEADER network was considered a source of valuable knowledge and information for the local action groups (LAGs) which helped a number of rural areas break out of their isolation.

A “LEADER Coordinating Unit” was set up to optimise the movement of these information flows and to make sure that the most “exemplary” actions of the LEADER I groups were known to as many people as possible. But unlike other Community Initiatives (INTERREG, NOW, HORIZON, etc.), LEADER I did not help in any formal way with transnational cooperation: it was above all a local development programme for a specific area that was not to be “complicated” with an explicit transnational dimension.

It soon became apparent, however, that a number of local action groups of different countries were spontaneously establishing contacts with one another and in some cases even engaging in more indepth exchanges. A 1994 survey revealed that at least one LEADER I group out of four was involved in some form of cooperation: exchange of experiences, transfer of innovation, joint marketing action, participation in a thematic network, etc.

Taking account of this interest, the European Commission decided to devote part of the resources of the LEADER II initiative (1994-1999) to this type of project: about 140 million euros were earmarked for transnational cooperation projects. The funds have been going to help the LEADER II groups and other collective bodies design, make and market together products or services in all the fields of rural development.


A “plus”

LEADER II transnational cooperation is seen as a “plus”. It is not compulsory, given that the transnational projects can be complex and difficult to implement, but the groups are recommended to engage in it if this can strengthen their local action, which is always the objective of LEADER.

The experience of the LEADER I groups also showed how difficult it could be to define a truly common project for areas separated not only by distance but also by culture, language, etc. Even if an idea for cooperation first seems clear and obvious, the transnational partners often find it difficult to agree on a joint action plan which also satisfies the needs of their local partners.

The European Commission therefore also provided for a mechanism enabling the LEADER II groups to properly prepare their cooperation project before implementing it. The LEADER European Observatory is responsible for coordinating this entire mechanism by informing all those concerned about the steps to follow, by organising seminars specifically devoted to transnational cooperation, by lending technical assistance to those seeking cooperation: “analysis” of needs, partner search, etc.

Also, funds granted by the Commission and managed by the Observatory (a maximum of EUR 5,000 in the first phase then a maximum of EUR 20,000 if there is a second phase) are made available to the partner groups to enable them to complete the steps for a commonly shared definition of the cooperation project: preliminary meetings of partners in order to determine common objectives, completion of feasibility studies in each of the areas concerned by the cooperation project, elaboration of the common project and search for funds.

When implementing their development project, the groups naturally stressed the purely local action in the first instance (organisation of the partnership, identification of the area’s strengths and weaknesses, definition of the actions to be undertaken, etc.). This is why LEADER II transnational cooperation was rather slow in getting off the ground. The pace picked up, however, and in 1998- 1999 cooperation became a major dimension of the LEADER II programme: in September 1999, nearly half of the Initiative’s beneficiaries were involved in at least one of the 280 transnational projects benefiting at this time from European Commission funding.


Why cooperate at the transnational level?

The objectives pursued by the partners are obviously as varied as the themes of the cooperation projects themselves, but the various motives tend to fall into one of three categories:

To take advantage of similarities

Some cooperation projects come about because groups have a similar asset which they want to use to develop joint actions. This can be:

  • a geographical characteristic: areas situated along the Wadden Sea (part of the North Sea adjacent to Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands and characterised by a very special ecosystem) have organised meetings to define joint actions to promote this area as a whole;

  • a specific production: the areas of Colli Esini (Marche, Italy) and Alto Palancia-Alto Mijares (Community of Valencia, Spain) have a number of similarities, particularly a large olive oil sector. The two LEADER groups began cooperating to lend technical assistance to oil producers and to help them with problems like reducing the environmental impact, solving phytosanitary problems (diseases affecting the olive tree) or improving processing to lower the oil’s acidity;

  • a cultural asset: the areas of MidSouth Roscommon in Ireland and Ross & Cromarty in Scotland both have a large Celtic heritage. The two LEADER groups devised a project to find together the best way to support the emergence of cultural ventures, etc;

  • a common historic context: several LEADER groups from Germany, Austria and Italy located along the old Roman road Via Claudia Augusta decided to take advantage of this road together by creating a crossborder hiking trail that follows the old road.

To take advantage of complementarities

In other cases, transnational cooperation will instead be an attempt to bring together areas with complementary assets. These can be:

  • geographical assets: the “European Wilderness Challenge” project, whose purpose is to set up a European adventure racing circuit (see article on Skogslandet below in this issue), involves areas that are very different (western Scotland, Sweden’s far north, central Greece) but that all have terrain suitable for the organisation of this type of event;

  • natural complementarities: the “GRUS” project concerns areas located along the migratory flight path of cranes, stretching from Sweden to Aragon in Spain. The LEADER groups concerned are working together on a whole bunch of projects to take advantage of this common feature: development of birdwatching tourism, training of farmers in the protection of this resource, scientific research on migration patterns, on the number of birds concerned, etc.;

  • management of complementary know-how: the “Village Development” project concerns the groups of Ballyhoura (Ireland) and Hohenlohe (Baden-Württemberg, Germany) which have complementary experiences of village development: whereas the German group tends to stress economic development and the creation of facilities catering to businesses, the Irish group focuses on social development at the local level. The project aims to integrate the two approaches.

To reach critical masses

To attain a “critical mass” is probably what the local action groups are most frequently seeking in transnational cooperation: rural areas often only have a limited “stock” of resources which does not enable them to solve alone certain problems or to take advantage of some of their potential in an optimal way. In contrast, by pooling their strengths, these areas can overcome these limits and achieve results otherwise inaccessible.

This issue of critical mass can be approached from several angles:

  • local products are often only produced in small quantities, rarely enough to reach markets outside the areas. Promoting the products together in a more “professional” manner and pooling complementary productions can improve the sale of the products concerned - the “Culinary Heritage” project aims to take advantage of the local products of a series of areas in Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, France and the United Kingdom by promoting local culinary traditions in hotels and restaurants. These products have a specific logo that is the same in all the partner areas in Europe. A promotional tool has been implemented to inform visitors about the action and to supply a steady flow of customers to the establishments that comply with the requirements imposed for the European logo’s use. The project’s Web site also serves to promote the project in other areas that would like to join the network.

  • major economies of scale can be achieved for marketing when several areas come together to offer a joint supply of products: the costs of promoting the products can be shared between the partners who are thus able to benefit from a more professional service at a lower cost.
    The geological reserve of Haute-Provence in France, Maestrazgo in Spain, the island of Lesbos in Greece and the district of Daun in Germany all have an exceptional geological heritage. Their project aims to develop geotourism in Europe: definition of the type of product to be offered, of the target public to be approached and the marketing methods to be used (including the Internet).

  • A rural area that is alone usually cannot afford all the costs of introducing a new technology or a new process. When several areas join forces, it is easier to overcome this obstacle.
    The “Eco-Rail” project (see article on Montaña Palentina in this issue) involves areas in France, Spain and Germany which are working to develop old abandoned railways for tourism. The partners have to compare the different “cyclerail” systems used until now and come up with a new model that is light, safe and can be adapted to the different standards of the railway networks in question;

  • The creation of a critical mass of areas gives visibility to what is an important stake for the areas concerned: the LEADER groups of Antico Frignano, Alta Romagna, Terminio Cervialto, Valle del Crochio in Italy and Espace Cévennes, Corsica, Boutières and Cévennes Ardéchoises in France together wanted to create a thematic tourist itinerary called “The Chestnut Road”. They soon realised that chestnuts concerned a large number of medium-mountain areas along the Mediterranean rim and that the project would be of interest to others if chestnuts were among the products that could benefit from the Common Agricultural Policy (which was not the case at the time). The groups joined forces and succeeded in having chestnuts included before they went back to work on their original project.



The problem that crops up in the end with this profusion of projects is that of competition: when partners pool resources they do not all necessarily benefit equally. Cooperation may even lead to a situation later where producers who contributed their expertise to the project are faced with competition from partners.

Generally the LEADER groups have found that the game was worth the candle, that the advantages of cooperation far outweighed the inconveniences. Their attitude is similar to that of a number of businesses which work together as long as it is in their interest, and if they compete, it is only on marketing strategies. This is what we call “co-opetition”.

The LEADER Western Isles group (Scotland) applies this principle in its various cooperation projects. Well-known for its capacity to take advantage of new teleworking markets - it has helped create some one hundred steady, highly-skilled jobs (see LEADER Magazine n° 19) - the group nonetheless did not hesitate to set up a cooperation project in this sector with the LEADER groups of Skogslandet (Sweden) and Clervaux-Vianden (Luxembourg). The Scottish group felt that the possibility of enlarging its supply of teleworking - by gaining access to other available skills, other possible working languages, etc. - largely offset the risk of new competition emerging.


Local cooperation and transnational cooperation

It is still too early to determine the impact of all the LEADER II transnational cooperation projects, these projects often being only at the implementation stage. However, there is wide consensus among local action groups and the European authorities that cooperation is important for the development of rural areas.

Thus some areas have an explicit cooperation and partnership strategy at all levels - local, regional, national and transnational: systematically they seek to engage in a collective action to draw the benefits from cooperation. After their experience of the local partnership and successful transnational cooperation, some groups understand that it is in their interest to systematise this type of approach: a genuine “cooperation culture” then begins to spread and the partnership becomes a strong strategic mechanism used for various levels of intervention (within the same region or between two or more regions of the same Member State). In this way, five LEADER groups operating in the Pinde mountains in Central Greece decided to pool certain resources to avoid overlapping and achieve substantial economies of scale. For example, a joint agency does the job of promoting tourism for the entire area.

Also at the local level, some groups are trying to “spread” the advantages of cooperation beyond their direct partners; they are directly working for cooperation projects involving different groups of actors from their area. The LEADER group then becomes a kind of local agency helping the players on the ground (businesses, associations, etc.) gain access to the transnational level. These actors engage in cooperation with the help of the LAG which lends them technical assistance (partner searches, access to funding procedures, etc.) but does not become involved in carrying out the project.

This way the entire area opens up to cooperation and benefits from the know-how, knowledge, etc that flows in from the outside. The rural area thus becomes part of a global world where the local level is an asset and not a constraint; the difference becomes a positive resource to be taken advantage of and not a problem to be solved by “standardising” the products and regions.

Across the European Union, there is also broad consensus that cooperation is important for rural areas.

For the future LEADER+ Initiative, the European Commission is planning different levels of cooperation: within the same region, between regions of the same Member State or at the transnational level between rural areas of different countries. Project holders interested in using this type of procedure may choose the levels of cooperation they believe most appropriate. Thus in the future a number of projects should be able to benefit from the advantages of cooperation without suffering from the specific difficulties encountered with transnational projects.

Lastly, it is worth noting that LEADER transnational cooperation is also for rural actors who have chosen to experience this adventure which requires a “cooperation school” which will enable them in future to take on this dimension in full knowledge of the facts. The experience they will gain will enable them to avoid a number of pitfalls, and the implementation of LEADER+ will be made that much easier.


source: LEADER Magazine nr.21 - Autumn, 99

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