Left to right: Saskia Klosse, Anne Pieter van der Mei, Anouk Bollen, Sarah Schoenmaekers, Marjon Weerepas, Alexander Hoogenboom en Hildegard Schneider Left to right: Saskia Klosse, Anne Pieter van der Mei, Anouk Bollen, Sarah Schoenmaekers, Marjon Weerepas, Alexander Hoogenboom en Hildegard Schneider Sacha Ruland

Living on the border: challenge or chance?

Written by  Jolien Linssen Thursday, 05 February 2015 09:19

"You know those moments when you have a good idea, but nobody seems to be interested? This time, it was different. It was the right moment." Hildegard Schneider, dean of the Faculty of Law, is happy – and with good reason. She is one of the initiators of the brand new Institute for Transnational and Euregional Cross-Border Cooperation and Mobility (ITEM). Researchers at this centre of expertise are not only studying the typical problems that arise in border regions, but also solving them. "We’re ambitious, and we have to be. Our findings could be extremely useful for the future of our province."


A future that doesn’t seem all too bright, at least from the statistics: the population of Limburg is not only ageing, but simultaneously shrinking. Young people are packing their bags for the Randstad area, which seems to have more in store for them. Border regions, to put it mildly, are just not very attractive.

"Living in such regions can be complicated", Schneider explains. "Especially if you live and work in different countries. For example, you might have trouble getting a mortgage because your salary is paid in one country, but the house is in the other. Not to mention pension problems or double taxation, which I had to deal with when I was working at the courts in Aachen and Cologne. Understandably, all these things can be pretty frustrating."

Migrant workers, highly skilled migrants and international students have similar experiences as those living in border regions like Limburg. Schneider: "I know students who have health insurance in their home country, but also need to be insured here. Then, when they finish their studies, they can only hope that their degree is recognised in other parts of the world." Both these types of mobility are becoming increasingly common in our globalised world, and thus form the centre of attention at ITEM. The aim is not only to analyse the obstacles to mobility, but also to propose workable solutions.

The complex issues raised by cross-border mobility, as well as cooperation, call for an interdisciplinary approach. And that, in a nutshell, is what ITEM is all about. Research at the institute is conducted by academics from the Faculty of Law, the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, the Faculty of Humanities and Sciences, and the School of Business and Economics. In turn, all these scholars form part of large, international research networks.

This is already an impressive list, but not yet exhaustive. "As a university, we collaborate with different partners", Schneider explains. "One of them is NEIMED, an institution linked with Zuyd University of Applied Sciences that deals with demographic developments in the region. Others include the City of Maastricht and the Province of Limburg. And we’re seeking cooperation with a number of other organisations, such as the Meuse-Rhine Euregion, Statistics Netherlands and the European Institute of Public Administration.”

Clearly, ITEM will not need to start from scratch. Rather, it will bring together a great deal of existing knowledge and expertise: "The university has a desk for highly skilled migrants, for example, and the city has its own expat desk. Multinationals like SABIC and DSM have expertise in this field as well. Individually, they may have found their own solutions to questions about the pensions of migrants or their spouses, or the tuition fees of their children – but nobody knows about them. So it’s important to connect and share this knowledge."  

Better information exchange is a first and necessary step. But this will not be enough to change the laws and regulations that impede cross-border cooperation and mobility, especially on the Euregional level. Therefore, ITEM also strives to create awareness in The Hague. "Politicians seem to be only vaguely aware of the existence of the border", Schneider explains. "And they often neglect the fact that certain forms of legislation can have a negative impact on border regions. What I propose is a sort of impact assessment, even before the legislative process starts. This is something that should be logical for a country with so many borders, but it’s not."

It’s not all doom and gloom when it comes to legislation, she adds – at least not for highly skilled migrants. "Objectively, our facilities are quite good. But when I was in India and asked people whether they wanted to study or work here, the answer was no. Our reputation abroad is that of a country that’s not very migrant friendly, due to our political climate. I believe it’s important to change this. Given our demographic problems, we’ll need these people eventually."

Limburg, according to Schneider, represents not only a challenge but also an opportunity. One of ITEM's goals is to raise awareness of the advantages of living in a border region at the heart of Europe – because, as she points it, it’s not all bad. "People have the feeling that everything happens in the west of the country, but the Euregion has at least as much to offer. There are several airports within a radius of 200 kilometres, and plenty of possibilities for recreation. The technical university in Aachen, only 20 kilometres from Maastricht, is larger than all its Dutch equivalents together, and it’s even cheaper to study there."

To fully benefit from what’s on offer on the other side of the border, knowing the language of one’s neighbours is essential. Yet this is a skill that seems to be slowly disappearing in Limburg. Will ITEM be able to put language education on the political agenda? Only time will tell, says Schneider: "Our first researchers started in January, and I expect their initial results in the next six months or so. ITEM is still in its infancy but our hope is that it will expand. Ultimately, we need to find practical solutions that are acceptable to policymakers – because we want our work to make a difference."

Hildegard Schneider (1955) studied Law, Political Science and Art History in Freiburg, London, Paris and Münster. She has worked at Maastricht University since 1986, currently as professor of European Union Law. Her research focuses on the free movement of natural and legal persons, migration issues, diploma recognition, and EU policies in the fields of education, culture, international trade law and comparative law. She is affiliated with the Maastricht Centre for European Law and the Ius Commune research school. Since September 2011, she has been dean of the Faculty of Law.

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