I am proud to offer my personal reflection on European Territorial Cooperation (ETC/Interreg) within the context of the challenges posed by the Territorial Agenda 2030. This gives me the opportunity to share the vision and the way forward that has emerged in recent years in the Interreg community regarding the issue that is questioned most critically: does European territorial cooperation have a value for territories that goes beyond that of the single projects financed using cohesion policy funds dedicated to ETC?
Well, as the “vestal” of European Territorial Cooperation in Italy, as I am ironically called by my colleagues, I can respond in the affirmative, believing with ever-increasing conviction in the beneficial “fire” of cooperation, with respect also to the 2030 Agenda, which often shares the language and many of the objectives with Interreg itself.
For assuring European territorial cooperation means, first of all, focusing on the territories and their needs: trying to resolve the apparent contradiction between integrated territorial development and the strengthening of cooperation networks. In the 2021-2027, the enhancement of functional areas and the variation of the territorial approach according to their respective characteristics become central whenever these prove to be more appropriate than administrative borders in representing and satisfying the needs of territories.
The goal now is to move from theoretical discussion and raising stakeholder awareness, to implementation. Let us see how, with a quick overview of the specificities of the Interreg strands and its value within cohesion and in the European Union.
Cross-border cooperation, to which the largest part of the EU budget for ETC is devoted, looks primarily at overcoming administrative and regulatory obstacles and creating cross-border catchment areas, facilitating the daily lives of citizens. It is therefore a kind of bridge to the future of Europe, whenever it succeeds in offering and enhancing more uniform services for cross-border citizens: individuals whose citizenship thus becomes first and foremost European, demonstrating that Europe exists and has a reason to exist.
Transnational cooperation makes it possible to build and strengthen wide-area partnership relations between territories, fostering the enhancement of common cultural roots and creating the conditions for uniform development processes at the level of river or sea basin, or mountain massif. It is no coincidence that the macro-regional and sea basin strategies launched by the EU to address issues that could not be managed at the level of individual countries were born in areas already covered, in whole or in part, by transnational programmes.
Transnational cooperation also best reflects the Union’s current laboratory form of peaceful and reasoned confrontation for the resolution of common problems, beyond close border proximity.
A specific vocation, in support also of the other INTERREG programmes and thus of the territories, characterises interregional cooperation, with programmes that share analyses and solutions to regional development problems, good practices and policy learning between European regions, facilitating dialogue and integration between the so-called mainstream (regional and national programmes financed by cohesion) and ETC.
It is important to remember that INTERREG is not limited to EU territories, but integrates though specific programmes continental, Mediterranean and overseas neighborhood, expressing a dedicated focus on those territories and a virtuous role in the peaceful resolution of shared problems.
The challenges of the 2021-2027 cohesion legal framework
The ETC also takes on a particular resonance today with regard to the need to develop complementarities and synergies between programmes, funds and other sources of financing, capitalising on what has already been achieved and has shown itself to work. The aim is to make more effective and efficient use of the available financial resources, with a view to concentration and territorial development, for results that emerge from an accurate assessment of reliable indicators, perceivable by the territories and, where appropriate, that are replicable and more sustainable for the environment and over time. The goal is therefore that of improving the lives of citizens through a higher degree of economic, social and territorial cohesion, which is what the Treaty on the functioning of the European Union is there to remind us of.
The new regulations also recall the need to consider macro-regional and sea basin strategies (see above) as the context to be considered when defining the challenges to be faced, and to identify the key role of both mainstream and ETC programmes to the implementation of the strategies’ priorities.
A more advanced reflection is also required with regard to the potential of functional areas at different scales and to the mechanisms for harmonising the ‘territorial’ development logic, based on the enhancement of the specificities of each territory, and the ‘relational’ logic, which emphasises the value of networks and collaborations.
Now, ETC is allocated about 2.5% of the total resources dedicated to cohesion in the new programming period, which – without calculating the additional resources of the New Generation EU – represent about one third of the EU budget. And perhaps it is also because of this, because of its apparently negligible financial weight, that mainstream planners have often looked at ETC with some complacency and perhaps even mistrust, in the manner that we unfortunately frequently adopt in considering things that are ‘different’. At times even without recognising any connection to territorial development! The reduced awareness of ETC is also reflected in the low prominence given to it in the 8th Cohesion Report (2022).
However, something is finally beginning to change in the mindset of those involved: the tenacity and passion of many ‘ETC workers’ over the years – at Member State and European Commission level – is showing some initial results. Despite the fact that for the first time the share of resources for ETC is falling compared to the previous period: this decision can in my opinion be attributed to the same lack of attention and difficulty in considering the phenomenon of cooperation.
A sense is beginning to emerge that Interreg can be a laboratory, a multiplier of virtuous processes of change in the approach to the new programming period, and that the best ETC results can be used as a starting point to plan investments on a different and/or broader territorial scale, taking advantage of innovative solutions achieved thanks to the exchange and cooperation between territories that transcend national borders.
In Italy, Interreg and macro-regional and sea basin strategies have been assigned a dedicated attention in the wide discussions aimed at defining the Partnership Agreement  (PA) for 2021-2027, which highlights the will to foster a more coordinated, efficient and complementary programming and management of funds earmarked for ETC and the mainstream, and to demonstrate a change of pace also with respect to their contribution to strategies.
The challenge is great and we shall see if we can – all of us – virtuously mark the difference from the past. In all events there is no doubt that ETC is fully aligned with the objectives of the Territorial Agenda 2030, which can only benefit from the contribution and approach of the territorial cooperation programmes.
The new INTERREG programmes will be adopted by the Commission in the next few months. By regulatory requirement, all of them contain a prevailing focus – including financial – on the environment, variously defined, and often also thanks to smart specialization strategies. Due attention to the social and inclusion dimension of the Union has been given by a large number of programmes. The territories whose cooperation is more mature have developed or strengthened integrated territorial strategies. The specific investment to improve the governance of ETC is a widely shared choice, testifying to the will to strengthen cooperation.
It is a challenge that can help to reinforce the value of Europe and its culture for a sustainable and fairer future of peace and prosperity, and to pursue the path initiated by Robert Schuman, with all those who continue to believe in that idea of Europe.
 the national document that, according to the EU legal framework, contains each Member State’s investment strategy for the new programming period