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Interreg Baltic Sea Region: Supporting smart ideas for the cleaner and climate-neutral region

21 August, 2020 - 10:29

Celebrating 30 years anniversary, the Interreg Baltic Sea Region Programme has been an inspiration for the regional actors to work across borders, and the EU funding for smart ideas will continue for the 2021–2027 period. How has the Programme developed over the time and what will be the focus in the upcoming period? We took an interview with Elena Kolosova, Project Officer at the Interreg BSR Joint Secretariat, to learn all about it.

 

Elena Kolosova

Project Officer/Advisor for External Cooperation, Interreg Baltic Sea Region Joint Secretariat

  • Please introduce briefly the Interreg Baltic Sea Region Programme, its focus and objectives for those readers who have not had the pleasure to take part in it yet.

Interreg Baltic Sea Region is a source of EU funding for smart ideas on how to shape the region. You will very often hear the term transnational cooperation programme when people are talking about us.

In Interreg Baltic Sea Region we create an environment for organisations to work together across borders. These organisations come from different countries around the Baltic Sea: EU Member States Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Northern Germany, Poland, Denmark, Sweden and Finland, as well as EU neighbours North-Western Russia and Norway. Many different types of organisations work together. There are municipalities, regional councils and national ministries, non-governmental organisations, research institutions, and both small and large enterprises. We support these organisations so that they can put into practice their smart ideas in innovation and business development, sustainable use of natural resources and smooth transport connections.

  • Interreg has a big campaign now for its 30 years celebration. How has the Programme progressed over these years?

Interreg was launched as a European Union flagship scheme for cooperation across borders. In the Baltic Sea Region, as in many other regions, this scheme proved to be very successful. Interreg showed that borders were not barriers. They turned out to be a special invitation to work together. Organisations from several countries realised that they faced common challenges, so they planned projects to address these challenges together. In such a way, everyone brought their perspective and expertise to the table.

I have been lucky to experience the development of cooperation projects in the Baltic Sea Region over a 15-year period. For a couple of years, I worked in a regional development agency in Russia. Since 2008 I have been part of the Secretariat of Interreg Baltic Sea Region. During that time, I have witnessed a shift from more general spatial planning and regional development with networking, discussing and analysing common challenges to a more practical focus with projects in a specific field. At first, organisations shared good practices from other cities and regions and tried to adapt them to their local conditions. Later, they started to develop new solutions jointly. In addition, innovation became a separate topic in our cooperation programme in the previous period 2007-2013. It supported transfer of technology and knowledge across the region and building capacity to use new knowledge. Furthermore, expectations to project outcomes evolved. First, projects were invited to clearer define how situation was going to change due to their activities and what results they planned to achieve. In the current period, projects were asked to pay more attention to a capacity building aspect. Supporting building capacities of organisations across borders is one of the most important results of transnational cooperation. So, projects plan activities to help various organisations obtain new skills, knowledge, and tools they need to do jobs competently. I am excited to follow how people from different organisations across borders, people with different backgrounds, knowledge and opinions on what is best, manage to develop new solutions through joint endeavours.

Partners try to share their solutions with more organisations and check if what they have developed would work for others.

Another shift that I observed was a stronger wish to involve more organisations outside regular partnerships. Regular partners are those organisations that plan a project idea, apply for funding and then implement activities using this funding. Partnerships vary in numbers; from five to twenty-five organisations in this period. Twenty-five might sound like a lot. Yet, once you think of a challenge for a large area of the Baltic Sea Region, this number might still be too small to change the situation. So, it is important to involve more organisations and spread the knowledge to them. Partners try to share their solutions with more organisations and check if what they have developed would work for others. In this way, projects with just a few organisations have a stronger impact and can bring about a real change.

  • How does the future look like, could you tell a bit about the thematic framework for the new Programme?

The good news is that Interreg Baltic Sea Region will continue providing EU funding for smart ideas in the 2021-2027 period. The EU neighbours in our Programme, Russia and Norway, are also eager to continue with the national funding. And Belarus is cautiously planning to re-join.

During the first half of this year, the Joint Programming Committee members discussed the thematic framework of the future Programme. This Committee includes representatives of all the countries around the Baltic Sea, usually from national ministries and regional councils. These representatives decide how the future Programme will look.

The focus is on supporting a transition to a cleaner, climate-neutral region that is a better place for citizens to live and work in.

In June, as a result of their discussions, they proposed the thematic framework for the future Programme. This framework includes the seven most important topics for transnational cooperation in our region in the 2021-2027 period. And these topics relate to innovative and resilient economies and societies, responsive public services, sustainable use of the Baltic Sea and regional water resources, including blue economy, climate change mitigation with a circular economy, low-carbon energy, and green and intelligent transport and mobility. As you can see, the focus is on supporting a transition to a cleaner, climate-neutral region that is a better place for citizens to live and work in.

Following on from this proposal, we launched an online consultation during the summer. We invited everyone interested in the thematic coverage of future projects to reflect on the seven proposed topics. I hope the platform partners, and maybe some readers, have had their say in this consultation.

  • Couple of years ago the funding was finally unlocked enabling closer cooperation with Russia and involving Russian partners into the transnational projects. What is the current status, are there many Russian partners collaborating in the projects now? What are the benefits the international cooperation gives to the whole region and to Russian stakeholders in particular, when we talk about natural resources?

Indeed, welcoming Russian partner organisations back to Interreg Baltic Sea Region was one of the achievements of the current period. Russian partners have been involved in more than a third of all projects receiving funding during this period. Even though they joined the Programme later than organisations from other countries, they showed determination and a passion for creating solutions to the challenges that we share across borders.

The hot spot of cooperation within the Russian regions is St. Petersburg. We are happy to see that other Russian regions are also showing interest in transnational cooperation. Projects involved partners from Kaliningrad and Pskov Regions, and Karelia, Arkhangelsk and Vologda Regions.

Russian partners take their work in cooperation projects seriously and link it to everyday responsibilities in their organisations.

Russian partners were mostly interested in innovation and business development, as well as sustainable use of natural resources. This isn't surprising. St. Petersburg is, for example, one of the innovation leaders in Russia. Kaliningrad, as a coastal region, focuses on taking care of their water and marine resources and on how to use them wisely. This shows that Russian partners take their work in cooperation projects seriously and link it to everyday responsibilities in their organisations.

Russian partners brought their expertise to Interreg Baltic Sea Region projects. They shared how they supported local businesses, what practices they used to treat wastewater from factories and households, and how they worked with farmers on water management. Using this knowledge and experience, Russian partners were eager to develop new solutions together with other partners, and test them on the ground, in their towns, cities and regions.

We have also witnessed partners in our projects building personal relations that facilitate liaisons across borders. It feels good to know your neighbour well.

  • Interreg has already funded many projects to ensure better environmental status of the Baltic Sea Region, and at this point a new wave of Seed Money projects was approved. Could you highlight any gaps that already launched projects have not yet tackled, or perhaps any new topics or challenges have risen lately? What could be possible targets for future projects?

It is true that environmental focus was always part of our intention in Interreg Baltic Sea Region. In particular, the status of the Baltic Sea and regional water resources was high on our agenda. We see that projects are addressing many challenges related to water pollution, such as excessive nutrients and hazardous substances in the Baltic Sea, rivers and underground waters. Projects developed and tested many useful solutions for municipalities and companies: how to manage storm waters in cities, or how to treat wastewater from households and industries more efficiently. We are glad to see that the partners of the BSR WATER platform have been working so diligently to interlink and connect these good solutions coming from Interreg Baltic Sea Region and other Interreg programmes in our region. We are curious to learn the result of how the platform partners managed to structure these good solutions and spread them in a coordinated way.

So, we know that some organisations in our region have a lot of knowledge on how to improve the situation. What could be the next step? First of all, future projects should focus on implementing available solutions across different sectors. It will be very important that projects involve organisations who are responsible for water management, such as municipalities, or who have an impact on water quality, like industries. Projects should validate the usefulness of solutions, and inspire and educate others to implement similar solutions outside the project. Secondly, new challenges related to the status of the Baltic Sea Region waters may emerge as a result of climate change or new pollutants. Projects will have an opportunity to develop new solutions, test them and apply them. We believe that partners will be able to achieve more through transnational cooperation when they can combine expertise from different countries. We hope that transnational cooperation projects will help turn great solutions into common practice, to make life greener and full of opportunities for citizens.

Good to know

Interreg Baltic Sea Region Programme 2014–2020 supports integrated territorial development and cooperation for a more innovative, better accessible and sustainable Baltic Sea region. Partners from countries around the Baltic Sea work together in transnational projects on common key challenges and opportunities. The Programme is funded by the European Union and approved by the European Commission.

BSR WATER platform is co-funded by the Interreg Baltic Sea Region Programme, and so are several projects contributing to the platform:

  • IWAMA (Interactive Water Management)
  • Manure Standards (Advanced manure standards for sustainable nutrient management and reduced emissions)
  • BEST (Better Efficiency for Industrial Sewage Treatment)
  • VillageWaters (Water emissions and their reduction in village communities – villages in Baltic Sea Region as pilots)