19 April 2023
Time for connections, cooperation and co-creation; time for Interreg
Wiktor Szydarowski, Head of the ESPON Programme, has accompanied the Interreg Baltic Sea Region Programme in various roles from an early start in 1998. Listen about his experiences, memories and what has been possible to achieve – thanks to Interreg.
Anna Gałyga: What’s your relation to Interreg Baltic Sea Region?
I’d been deeply involved in Interreg Baltic Sea Region Programme design and implementation in the early years. I remember the first two conferences to kick the Programme off in Rostock in June 1998, and then in Karlskrona in December 1998. I was part of the first the Joint Programming Committee and then the Monitoring Committee of the II C Programme. I accompanied the Programme in different roles afterwards: as Head of the Programme’s Karlskrona Office, advisor to the Secretariat, evaluator of project proposals as well as initiator, manager, and lead partner of projects.
And I’ve been continuing my journey with the Interreg Baltic Sea Region Programme until today. As Head of the ESPON Programme, one of interregional Interreg programmes, we connect good research and policy-making, also for the sake of better macro-regional and transnational cooperation.
Is there anything in particular that you remember from those early years of the Programme?
I do remember that it all sounded really exotic. Polish regions got access to the Programme with no funding earmarked at first. Funding was made possible via the Phare CBC funds. We entered interesting cooperation networks impossible to access otherwise. So, out of a sudden, a new world opened up for us.
All members of the Monitoring Committee were new at that time. In early September 1999, we met in the Swedish region of Västerbotten. Back then we used to travel with economy tickets so we had to stay over the weekend to go back home. The host organised wild water rafting in our free time. I remember the rubber boats and suits we had to wear. When we went down the river, we had to learn how to row at the same pace and the same rhythm: all the people of different ages and postures. It was a very interesting experience how we managed to become one team in the boat and then, naturally, in the Programme implementation. This trip created a lot of positive feelings and glued the team together. At many Monitoring Committee meetings that followed we worked very well together.
In relation to your multiple experiences with Interreg Baltic Sea Region, how do see the role of the Programme?
It’s about the change of mindsets: it’s opening eyes for policy officers, policy enablers and civil servants. In one of the projects, we had political representatives from several countries involved. Many of them said: we would like to be aware of what is going on outside the administrative borders of our regions to understand the impact of what the others are doing. It was something fresh and innovative and, I think, it still remains for the organisations that apply for the Programme funding for the first time: they enter the new world.
What kind of developments would you attribute to support provided by Interreg Baltic Sea Region?
I used to work on projects with a macro-regional perspective rather than on projects with local solutions. I believe that we managed to contribute to the macro-regional cooperation in the Baltic Sea region and in particular the policy area Transport a lot. We created a network of networks: first, it was a transport cluster funded by the Programme. We wanted to overcome the competition between Interreg projects who shared the same audience. We wanted to create something together and jointly present the solutions to decision-makers. Then, we continued this work with a project platform BSR Access.
I could also mention an impact on EU transport policies or policies within the territorial cohesion. Together with the Swedish government, we contributed a lot to the concept of green corridors, which was a very novel idea back then. We managed to provide a lot of rationale that was taken up by the European Commission.
All in all, we tried always to play on many pianos: macro-regional cooperation, EU cooperation and provide the territorial perspective into this EU transport policy.
What do you think would have happened if there was no transnational cooperation?
Silos, fragmentation of approaches, prevailing national priorities and interests, focus on sole, nationally-centred infrastructure investments within the EU Cohesion Policy funds and EU Structural Investment Funds. There might have been some cross-border cooperation but this transnational spirit and the feeling of belonging to something of macro-regional importance would have been gone.
What associations with Interreg do you have?
Let me play with the letter “C” here. We have the connecting aspect: you connect people and ideas that you usually wouldn’t get. The second “C” is of course cooperation, which is in the DNA of Interreg. The third one is co-creation, which has become a fashionable word: you work together with other people who have an interesting perspective that you have never imagined. This collaborative environment enriches your development process and your thinking.
What would you like to wish for the future of the Programme?
Being a geographer, I wish that a strong territorial dimension persists in the Programme so that there is always this territorial glue that connects the projects. I wish that based on the understanding of our territory and its changes, the Programme would address relevant priorities and specific actions by projects so that the existing divides, disparities or disruptions could become smaller and less distinct.
This year, our Interreg Baltic Sea Region Programme is celebrating its 25th anniversary. For more examples of #MadeWithIBSR project results and testimonials of great people who have helped shape the regions with us, visit our birthday celebrations page!
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