Truck on a ferry on a river

A ferry crosses the Danube between Romania and Bulgaria (© Giannis Papanikos/Shutterstock)

In recent years the EU has supported over 1500 different cross-border and regional development projects ("Interreg") in south-eastern Europe, implemented under cohesion policy. Where were these investments concentrated? An overview

29/09/2023 -  Lorenzo Ferrari

In recent years, the European Union has spent over 8.3 billion Euros on cross-border and regional cooperation projects as part of its cohesion policy. More than 6,700 different projects have benefited from it, according to data extracted from the European Kohesio  platform and referring to projects approved between 2014 and 2020 (cohesion policy follows seven-year cycles, the current cycle opened in 2021).

On average, the EU contributed 1.2 million Euros to each of these cross-border or regional projects, and some resources - generally around 25% of the total - were allocated by states, regions, or other entities. 98% of the projects implemented received less than 5 million Euros from the EU; only 26 projects have received European funds worth over 10 million Euros.

EU member states in south-east Europe took part in 1,547 cross-border or regional projects: each country was involved in hundreds of different cross-border and regional projects, from 144 projects for Cyprus to 600 for Slovenia.

In particular, the countries of the region participated in 820 projects carried out under cross-border programmes, for a total value of 1.04 billion Euros in EU funding. Cross-border programmes (in technical jargon "Interreg A") are implemented by pairs of countries, which together develop and implement projects of common interest. A cross-border cooperation programme exists between any pair of south-eastern European member states that share a land border, but such programmes also exist between Italy and Croatia, Italy and Greece, and Greece and Cyprus.

Where do the largest investments go?

If you look at the numbers, among the cross-border programmes that benefited most from European funds between 2014 and 2020 in south-eastern Europe are those that link Romania and Bulgaria on the one hand and Romania and Hungary on the other.

The Romania-Bulgaria  programme received 231 million Euros from the EU, the highest absolute value within the region. All the major projects carried out thanks to these funds aimed at improving transport, particularly in the region crossed by the Danube. The road network has been modernised and developed in several places in the Romanian districts of Mehedinti, Dolj, Giurgiu, and Costanza and in the Bulgarian provinces of Pleven and Dobrich; in addition to local traffic, long-distance connections also benefit from these works, which have contributed to creating the European  TEN-T  connection network.

The Romania-Hungary  programme received 173 million Euros from the EU, i.e. the equivalent of €391,000 for each kilometre of border between the two countries: proportionally, this is the highest value in the region. In fact, the largest cross-border projects involving Romania were those with Hungary, and vice versa. Four of these projects received over 10 million Euros from the EU: one aimed to develop road connections between the Arad district in Romania and the county of Bekes in Hungary; another aimed to improve obstetric, gynecological, and neonatal health services in Timisoara and Szeged; two other projects contributed to hospital infrastructure and the promotion of tourism in the Romanian district of Satu Mare and in the Hungarian county of Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg.

The Greece-Bulgaria  programme also obtained rather substantial funding, which allowed 132 different projects to be carried out - even if 37% of the resources were concentrated on just three initiatives. The CrossBo  project stands out above all, which with almost 33 million Euros was the one that received the most European funds among the cross-border and regional projects approved in the EU between 2014 and 2020. The project financed the construction of 3.3 kilometres of road near the Greek-Bulgarian border, along the axis that will connect Xanthi with Plovdiv; crossing the Rhodope Mountains at that point involves the construction of six viaducts and a tunnel. The initiative is part of the opening of three new road links across the Greek-Bulgarian border, a commitment agreed upon by the two governments for some time. The other Greek-Bulgarian projects financed with significant European resources were dedicated to flood prevention and protection in the border regions, in particular in the Evros and Struma basins.

The projects between Italy, Croatia, and Slovenia

Italy was involved in 1,174 cross-border or regional projects approved between 2014 and 2020, of which 605 were implemented within the bilateral programmes linked with each of the bordering countries, plus Croatia, Greece, and Malta.

With over 188 million Euros, the Italy-Croatia  cross-border programme is by far the one that has received the most EU resources after the Romania-Bulgaria programme. In fact, among the Interreg projects that involved Italy, 6 of the top 8 in terms of size concerned cooperation between Italy and Croatia, and even for Croatia the largest projects were those with Italy.

In particular, the FIRESPILL  project received 14 million Euros from the EU. It has helped Italy and Croatia reduce the damage caused by natural disasters thanks to procedures and tools for more effective management of emergencies, including those affecting both sides of the Adriatic. The other two major Italian-Croatian projects also concerned the prevention and management of natural disasters: STREAM  dealt with floods, AdriaClim  with climate adaptation in coastal regions. Other large-scale Italian-Croatian projects have focused on transport systems: cross-border connections for passenger traffic, environmental sustainability of ports, and development of small ports.

With approximately €317,000 of EU funds in relation to each kilometre of border, the Italy-Slovenia  cross-border programme was among those that benefited from relatively more resources among those that touch south-eastern Europe. The largest projects, with over €3 million each, aimed to develop cross-border healthcare partnerships and improve rail connections and sustainable mobility across the border.

While the cooperation between Italy on the one hand and Slovenia and Croatia on the other has been notable both in absolute and relative terms, relatively few European resources have been spent on the Interreg  programme linking Slovenia with Croatia. As was also the case elsewhere in south-eastern Europe, the main efforts were concentrated on flood risk prevention.

Regional programmes

In addition to bilateral cooperation programmes, member states from South-East Europe have been involved in a number of projects implemented under regional programmes ("Interreg B") in which they participate, in particular those covering Central Europe, Mediterranean Europe, and the region crossed by the Danube - but also to a lesser extent the programmes dedicated to the Alpine region, the Adriatic-Ionian region, and the Balkans-Mediterranean programme (BalkanMed).

As part of these programmes, Kohesio reports 600 projects involving one or more countries in south-eastern Europe between 2014 and 2020. However, the data available on the platform do not show how much funding actually went to the region and how much was instead allocated to other countries involved in the same initiatives. The single project of this type that received the most resources was the one aimed at supporting the EU strategy for the Adriatic-Ionian region (EUSAIR ) with 9.8 million Euros, which benefited entities in Greece, Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy.


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