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Swiss-French cross-border scheme launches

Officials from Switzerland and France officially launched Interreg IV on Thursday

(Keystone)

Switzerland, France and the European Union on Thursday launched a seven-year cross-border cooperation programme for the Lake Geneva and Jura mountain regions.

The Interreg IV France-Switzerland 2007-2013 agreement supports the creation of long-term cross-border business, training, environmental and urban planning projects.

It is designed to improve the living standards of the 4.7 million Swiss and French people who live in the catchment area.

But despite local enthusiasm for cross-border cooperation, Switzerland's federal government is accused of continuing to drag its feet over the issue both politically and financially.

Bern will fund just less than six per cent of the €103 million (SFr162 million) programme, while the cantons are contributing seven per cent. The EU, France and other partners will make up the balance.

During a previous phase of the scheme from 2000 to 2006, some 190 cross-border projects were implemented to the tune of €80 million.

The EU, the leading co-financier, has since made territorial cooperation a priority and more than doubled its contribution from €21 million to €55 million.

Interreg programmes have grown in size and importance, Mireille Gasser, Swiss regional coordinator for the Jura region, told swissinfo.

"In our region Interreg II was about small projects for people each side of the border to get to know each other. Interreg III were more structural projects, such as a cross-border statistics office or the Jura wood AOC quality label. Interreg IV will move up a gear and consider the region as a whole and have bigger structural projects with an impact on the economy," she explained.

Bernard Soguel, a senator from canton Neuchâtel, said the French-Swiss borders should not be seen as an obstacle but rather an opportunity, and praised the Interreg schemes.

"They allowed us to get to know and understand each other, which is important as there is a big gap between the different institutions. With Interreg IV it'll be more concrete, with projects that create jobs and wealth," he said.

Balanced cooperation

Marie-Guite Dufay, president of the Franche-Comté region in France, agreed that the results of previous Interreg programmes had been "positive".

But she added that both countries had to "continue to work together in a spirit of balanced cooperation".

The French regional president was alluding to conditions granted to French companies wanting to set up in Switzerland, in particular taxation issues.

The EU and Switzerland are currently arguing over tax breaks offered by some Swiss cantons to foreign companies.

Dufay rejected the idea that Swiss companies were "pillaging" French riches, such as labour. She said both sides had to focus on skills and training and the French had to see how they could make themselves more attractive.

Funding disparity

Soguel welcomed greater political commitment for the new programme, particularly from the French and from the EU, but bemoaned Swiss federal government support.

"The Swiss cantons have shown political support but not at the federal level. And unfortunately this is translated into a lack of funding," he said.

Out of the total budget of €103 million, the EU will fund €55 million, the French state, regions and other partners will give €35 million, while the Swiss government plans to provide €6 million and the cantons €7.2 million.

"This miserable, shameful funding concerns me. The cantons help out but it is deeply unbalanced. The Swiss government is clearly not interested," he said.

With ten cross-border programmes out of the 80 run throughout Europe, Switzerland is a "privileged partner", said José Palma Andres, director of the REGIO programme at the European Commission.

"But Switzerland's non-membership of the EU complicates things and puts the brakes on cross-border projects. I hope that things can improve on the Swiss side in terms of finances," he said.

Regional policy

Another sign of the government's lack of interest is the integration of cross-border policy into the new federal regional policy, complained the Neuchâtel senator.

"It's an error as you can't have the same policy for the whole of the Swiss territory and also for cross-border relations," he told swissinfo.

Gasser agreed that the Swiss government's position on cross-border cooperation was creating problems.

"You need a partner to deal with the EU and that can't be the cantons, it has to be the government. It has to assume its responsibility at the political level and in terms of its financial support," she said.

swissinfo, Simon Bradley

Interreg IV France-Switzerland

The programme is managed by the Franche-Comté region, and regional coordination units in Switzerland for the Jura mountains and Lake Geneva regions.

Other partners include: the Rhône-Alpes region, the Ain, Doubs, Haute Savoie, Jura, Belfort departments and the Franche-Comté and Rhône-Alpes prefectures, as well as cantons Bern, Jura, Geneva, Neuchâtel, Valais and Vaud.

The cross-border region covers an area of 37,313 square kilometres and has a population of 4.7 million, including 2.2 million who are actively employed, of whom 80,000 are cross-border workers.

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Switzerland and the EU

Voters in 1992 narrowly rejected joining the European Economic Area treaty, a halfway house to EU membership.

Instead, Switzerland's relationship with the EU is based on 16 bilateral accords, which came into force in 2002 (extended in 2006) and 2005 respectively.

They mainly cover trade and labour as well as asylum, customs and tax issues.

Under the terms of the first package of bilateral treaties with Brussels, Switzerland can review the labour deal by mid-May 2009. Refusal to continue the deal would result in the whole set of accords being suspended.

Switzerland has also signed up to the Schengen/Dublin agreement on open borders, which is due to come into force completely in December.

Negotiations are underway on an electricity agreement. Switzerland also aims at concluding a free-trade accord on agriculture.

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