"The future of Interreg is bright": interview with Harry Ekestam
19 Jul 2017

He knows everything about Interreg Baltic Sea Region. Harry Ekestam, a member of the Interreg Baltic Sea Region’s Monitoring Committee from its beginning, a strong supporter of transnational cooperation and one of founding fathers of Interreg Baltic Sea Region. He admits he has never had enough of transnational cooperation. Now, as he is retiring, he is sharing his thoughts on the past and the future of the Programme.

© IB.SH

Interreg means to me…

Interreg has always been about cooperation to me, even more than about the project outcomes. Cooperation across borders can take place in different formats but you need a certain structure for it and Interreg programmes provide a platform that works well. We create forums for people to meet and create networks that give rise to further cooperation. Also, I have always considered Interreg very close to the essence of the European Union as such: we are close to what the cooperation in the EU is about. This is one of the reasons why I have been involved in Interreg for the past 20 years. 

You have been involved in Interreg Baltic Sea Region from its beginning; can you tell us how it all started, how the concept has evolved over the years and what your role was? 

My experience goes back to the times when Finland became a member of the EU in 1995. I was involved in the preparations working with Structural Funds and I was asked to draft a proposal for Finland’s participation in EU community initiatives, such as Interreg. I contributed to defining first cross border areas which became Interreg programmes. In 1996, the European Commission launched the preparations for a new transnational strand and asked countries how they would like to cooperate. Finland indicated the countries around the Baltic Sea, and Scotland. Based on the countries’ answers, transnational areas were defined and agreed on at a conference held in July 1996. That was the beginning of the Baltic Sea region as a cooperation area in the structural funds.

The background for the launch of the transnational strand was a series of severe droughts and flooding across Europe, which made the need for transnational cooperation very clear. There was also a need for collaborative spatial planning in larger areas. Consequently, the first Baltic Sea Region programme 1997-1999 was primarily about spatial planning, closely related to the VASAB initiative. In the next programing period from 2000-2006, the scope was wider and the economic development came into the picture. Only later did it become explicit that the Programme could also focus on the Baltic Sea itself; this came with the programming period 2007-2013.

What about my role in all this? I was involved in drafting the programmes, I attended the Monitoring and Steering Committees which decided on the selection of projects. It was interesting to see how the Programme evolved: we accommodated new EU members, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, in 2004, and in the middle of the previous programming period, we were asked to support the implementation of the newly developed EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region. I think the Programme has been very good at adapting to changing circumstances and new challenges.

 

© Elke R. Steiner

In your opinion, has the Baltic Sea region changed because of Interreg programmes? 

The Programme provides a platform framework for transnational cooperation and I think it has been successful in that. You should not expect effects or things you can measure with statistics but some of the projects have been really important in their specific field. 

You are one of the founding fathers of Interreg Baltic Sea Region as it is now: what is your most memorable moment?

I can’t really recall any specific moment, which only proves there has not been any big drama: it was about having a long term mission and working towards it. But when I think about important decisions, I would actually go back to the very beginning. I was involved in the recruitment of the people for the Secretariat, which took place in Hamburg in the autumn 1997. Among them was Susanne Scherrer applying for the head of the Secretariat. She was unknown to me but she was qualified and so convincing. She was given a challenging task to build up a “neutral” Secretariat in Germany and establish good relations with the Managing Authority in Kiel and all the Member States. And she’s made it!

People from different countries meet at the Monitoring Committee; how easy or difficult is to agree on the direction the Baltic Sea region should head for and agree on the selection of projects? 

I think everything goes back to a Secretariat that we can trust. If we didn’t trust the Secretariat’s analyses and assessments, it would be a very difficult situation. We would probably meet with long lists of points to discuss and might never come to decisions. Of course, there were more difficult cases we had to solve over the years, but we have never had a situation that we could not agree. We always make decisions by consensus which means that we have to find compromises. It’s important to realise that you cannot always win. I would even say that it is better that everybody is a little bit dissatisfied after the meeting than somebody very pleased with the outcome. That would mean that somebody has been able to rule something against the will of others. Sometimes I wonder about my actual contribution to the whole business and I would say that it has been concentrating on finding workable solutions. I have seen my role as making sure that we move forward, and maybe not without some successes.

© Elke R. Steiner

You are stepping down from the Interreg scene in a very crucial moment when questions about the need for Interreg are being asked: what do you think is the future of Interreg?

I don’t have a crystal ball to see the future but there have always been discussions and anxieties about the upcoming programming periods. Of course, there are some specific questions on a higher level dealing with the EU in general but I wouldn’t be too worried about Interreg as a whole and transnational programmes specifically. I would even say there is even more support for Interreg than earlier, that the future of Interreg is bright. I also hope that the current political and military tensions will be reduced so that there will be better possibilities to actively involve Russian and Belarusian partners. I feel it’s important to keep up the dialogue.

What are your plans when you retire? 

People are expected to have specific plans on this occasion but I have not made any so far. I will read and listen to music, as I am used to doing so. I will also have to find a new daily routine that will substitute a working day. There is one thing I am thinking of, though. I have a vague plan to make an effort to learn a bit more about social media. Until now, as I saw people looking at smart phones all the time, I felt worried about their addiction. Maybe now, as I am getting older, I may allow myself to get addicted. 

You will be missed in the Monitoring Committee and the Joint Secretariat; is there anything you would like to tell to the people? 

I do hope I am leaving motivated people behind who will continue to cooperate. My message to them would be: keep up with the work! I will keep an eye on you so don’t let me down :)