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Towards a Political Geography of Territorial Cooperation

Transnational Regions and City Networks in Perspective
Pour une géographie politique de la coopération territoriale. Régions transnationales et réseaux de villes en perspective
Emmanuelle Boulineau


L’article s’inscrit dans le champ d’une géographie de la paix et propose d’explorer la coopération territoriale dans une approche de géographie politique. Partant des changements de paradigme en cours dans la géographie politique des recompositions des formes et des fonctionnements territoriaux, il explore à travers deux figures emblématiques – les régions transnationales sous la forme des macrorégions européennes et les réseaux de villes avec l’exemple des jumelages urbains-, la portée de la coopération territoriale pour comprendre et expliquer ces recompositions. Enfin, il ouvre des perspectives de recherche sur l’articulation des liens faibles et discrets de la coopération territoriale avec les liens forts des découpages territoriaux issus de la modernité politique et leurs modèles de gestion.

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Translator: Arianne Dorval (

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1Just ten years ago, in the first issue of Espace politique, Michel Bussi took the opposite view to Yves Lacoste’s famous formula by writing: “Geography Now Serves to Make Peace?” because “at every scale today, the control of space belongs less to those who know how to conquer or defend themselves than to those who know how to join forces, build networks, and sign contracts” (Bussi, 2007, §4)—in short, to those who know how to cooperate. But Bussi’s title contained a question mark, pending further research on the topic. The present text aims to show that the study of territorial cooperation also contributes to peace via a political geography that is attentive to general reconfigurations in the distribution of power and the levels of political action, in contrast to geopolitics, which focuses above all on logics of domination and places of conflict.

2Nevertheless, one must guard against thinking that territorial cooperation is the antithesis of conflict: Just like conflict, territorial cooperation is but one modality of response to the uncertainties of change in global political equilibria. We must therefore be wary of the irenic vision of territorial cooperation as a panacea for a world in crisis. The crises that the European Union is currently facing—from the pursuit of the European project through cooperation-building to arm wrestling over Brexit or over migration policy—make that very clear. Of course, all crises should be examined from a geopolitical perspective, but I prefer to adopt an approach centred on territorial cooperation, understood as a “method of action whereby people with common interests form a territorial association where each person has equal power in decision making and where risks and benefits are shared” (Bussi 2009, p. 19). This approach allows for a geographical reading of the ongoing political reconfiguration, which surreptitiously causes spatial changes unmoored from the temporality of crisis and which reflects the emergence of new political scales.

3The field of territorial cooperation also enables us to examine soft power and “to contribute to the eventual identification of territorial concepts and theories that do not stem merely from the paradigm of force and its use” (Bussi, 2007, §16). Initially, the scientific literature focused on hard power, that of states and borders, international powers and relations—though there were some forays into the study of cooperation. Regionalism, namely the building of partnership-based international relations, prompted studies on the formation of regional economic integrations across the world (Beckouche, 2008; Richard, 2010)—an issue for which Europe provides a prime vantage point. But the focus remained on the regulation of international relations, and hence on strong ties, even though these reflect ties of interdependence rather than domination. A very abundant literature has since developed around territorial cooperation at borders, gradually opening the way for studies on newly emerging actors and on forms of borders (without claiming to be exhaustive, I shall mention the works of Kramsch and Hooper, 2004; Velasco-Graciet and Bouquet, 2005; Amilhat and Fourny, 2006; Wastl-Watler, 2011). I will return shortly to the contributions made by these studies.

4In the first section, I pursue this reflection along two lines of inquiry. First, I use territorial cooperation as a lens to examine the articulation between the territorial gridding of cooperation (via regions, zoning, or territorial scopes of action) and the interplay of scales and actors whose objectives seem best served by networks. I argue that the point of cooperation is to adapt territories—those markers of modern political territoriality—without disrupting their boundaries. At the risk of being undermined, though not completely abolished, the strong ties of administrative hierarchy between levels of action are thus complemented by the weak ties of territorial cooperation. Second, I put forward the idea that these forms of territorial cooperation help to reduce the figures of conflict and therefore contribute to peace, even though their ability to become legitimate spaces has yet to be probed on the premise that “the function of politics is to produce societal legitimacy, which is to say, universally accepted methods for transforming the different fault lines traversing society into a dynamic of development” (Lévy, 1991). While the geographical study of territorial cooperation needs to be developed further, surreptitious changes can now be observed in the reconfigurations and interstices.

5In the second section, I trace the emerging forms of territorial cooperation via two case studies: transnational regions, whose scope of cooperation is transversal to borders and boundaries, and city networks, freed from the effects of urban hierarchy. To enrich this theoretical inquiry and case analysis, I propose a reflection on the new research questions that arise when the focus is placed on territorial cooperation. Insofar as it lies at the forefront of multiple forms of territorial cooperation, the European continent will serve as a privileged vantage point for this reflection.

Research Developments in the Field of Territorial Cooperation

6A glance at economic and social science dictionaries reveals that cooperation is not, strictly speaking, a new field of study. The notion of cooperation was first developed in the 1950s in economics, with a reflection in terms of solidarity or economic aid centred on the idea that the market does not regulate everything and that actors develop strategies of anticipation. The concept of cooperation was also put forward in political science: The focus was initially placed on international cooperation, as part of the international relations paradigm formalised in the 1980s. In both cases, however, cooperation was hardly conceived in its territorial dimension. In geography, the term was mobilised in the field of spatial planning and the vast field of North-South cooperation, prompting geographers to study development aid. Nevertheless, several phenomena caused cooperation in its strictly territorial dimension to emerge as a new field of research.

7It is commonly accepted that we have entered the era of fuzzy, multidimensional, discontinuous spaces, in a world of multiply interconnected mobilities and flows where the transnational prevails over the national, multiscalar functioning blurs the distinction between analytical scales, and the paradigm of complexity has replaced that of unity. The relational question unfolds simultaneously at different scales—from the individual to the global—and tends to supersede that of the nested, continuous, and overlapping territories inherited from political modernity. Our understanding of the relationship between these two logics lies in an in-between: It excludes neither logic and does not dissociate one from the other. In short, in an increasingly integrated, interconnected, and interdependent world, political and territorial equilibria are being transformed, and the social sciences are still struggling to produce a new paradigm to explain these dynamics. As Martin Vanier sums up: “In the 20th century, we could still repartition and assemble, in the 21st century we must resolutely link and articulate” (Vanier, 2015, p. 17), and cooperation is a major dimension of this.

8How, then, does territorial cooperation help to grasp those dynamics? The field of cooperation stems from approaches that are now considered classic: North-South cooperation, international cooperation, cross-border cooperation. In this respect, cooperation concerns states—the main actors of political modernity... which have not yet disappeared. Preceded by the adjective “territorial,” cooperation now encompasses different territorial forms along with their interrelations: first, sub-national divisions and their territorialised networks, such as city networks and cross-border regionalisations; second, the actors who drive them and whose scope of action expands by virtue of being integrated into networks via new technologies. I argue that the lens of territorial cooperation enables us to question four key notions of political geography that have recently been renewed in the scientific literature: the border, the network/territory dialectic, the region, and transnational logics.

Territorial Cooperation and Border Studies

9Border studies have recently shown that the size and importance of the border—or boundary—are not what we think they are. As early as the 1990s, cross-border cooperation contributed to the renewal of this field of study. This first form of territorial cooperation was emblematic of the new paradigms of border analysis that emerged from the disruption of the bipolar world order and the disjunction between the forms and functions of borders (Amilhat-Szary, Giraut, 2015; Wastl-Walter, 2011; Laine, 2016). Numerous PhD theses have since been published on European spaces, and several publications have paved the way for further research (Amilhat-Szary, Fourny, 2006; Bouquet, Velasco-Graciet, 2007; Taulelle, 2009; Reitel, Wassenberg, 2015).

10The post-1989 disruption of the world order and the fall of the Iron Curtain in Europe favoured the return of borders and their lowering simultaneously. After borders resumed their function as zones of contact between East and West, they were rapidly overcome through the actions of state and non-state actors: For instance, Euroregions were created on the initiative of the Council of Europe and the European Union; similarly, cities and regions sought to forge ties with their counterparts beyond borders. These first forms of cross-border cooperation prompted a shift from visions that associated borders with conflicts or state control towards ones that centred on crossings yet remained within the delimited framework of states, regions, and borders. In these studies, the border was primarily defined in its linearity as the reference point for territorial functioning; it was treated more as an a priori than as a social and political construction whose meaning could vary.

11The second paradigm of border studies emerged when European borders entered what was then viewed as the post-national era, within the framework of a European construction in progress. The late 1990s and early 2000s were an ideal time to observe changes in the form of the border in Europe. The border became a zone, a hub, or even a region—this is when airports became major border crossing points with the explosion of international mobility. Furthermore, the debate on the forms and functions of borders was enriched by the increasing disjunction between the organisational scales of key globalisation-related issues (from the financialisation of the economy to international mobility and climate change) and the levels of action and political decision-making within the confines of administrative boundaries (states, regions, or municipalities). There was a shift from the question of crossing (trans-) to that of transversality (inter-), where one had to manoeuver through different levels of power, at both sub-national and supra-national scales, to continue managing the newly transformed borders. Thus, Giraut and Amilhat-Szary (2015) proposed an ambitious research agenda: The point was no longer to analyse borders by identifying spaces with their boundaries and relations, but to trace their multiscalar production as boundaries that are constantly redefined through techniques for governing spatial divisions—in other words, to determine the political regimes of borderity. Territorial cooperation as an injunction to cross borders may well be one of those regimes: The third strand of European cohesion policy is specifically devoted to it. Yet, the field of territorial cooperation also opens new avenues of research on borders and boundaries, on their production and their overcoming, even though we must remain cautious as to how it is used politically.

Territorial Cooperation and the Territory/Network Dialectic

12By formulating the question in terms of territorial cooperation, we can reflect on the purpose of cooperation before reflecting on its area of application: Thus, we can free ourselves from predetermined scales/levels (e.g., intermunicipal or cross-border cooperation) to better consider the multiscalar dimension; we can detach ourselves from the sacrosanct territory that is given to us a priori by the border. The perspective of territorial cooperation allows us to move beyond the traditional approach in geography, which begins by focusing on the territory and consequently tends to analyse cooperation within the framework of territorial continuity. Some (unfortunately rare) studies have attempted to overcome this implicit territorial vision by contrasting two forms of cooperation, namely city networks and cross-border spaces (Fourny, 2005), or by exploring cooperation networks between cities (Escach, 2014). Conceptualising cooperations between discontinuous units in space therefore constitutes a new challenge, to which I will return later.

13Moreover, with territorial cooperation, we can better grasp actors’ motivation to work together through highlighting the process by which “territory” is adjectivised as “territorial.” By thus reducing the heuristic scope of the territory and placing the focus on those who cooperate, the notion helps to elaborate the dialectic between network and territory. What territories emerge from cooperation? Do these actors necessarily create territory by cooperating? Territorial cooperation is a practice; it does not exist in itself. It is a lens for identifying the spaces that appear in the disjunction between actor networks and territorial scopes of action, and for determining whether new territories can emerge from it. This brings us back to the question formulated by Bussi as to whether territorial cooperation, in its plurality of forms, produces aspatial or poorly spatialised organisations, or whether it remains dominated by the territorial grids of political modernity (Bussi, 2009).

14To go further, we can distinguish, with Jacques Lévy, two forms of spatialisation. Territorial cooperation can manifest itself in the topological metrics of networked entities whose spatial proximity rests on the position of the units in relation to each other, as in a city network. It can also express itself in the topographic metrics of a spatial proximity proportional to Euclidean distance, as in a cross-border region; in this case, there is greater cooperation among neighbouring entities, and the ties between them weaken as the distance increases. As Frédéric Giraut points out, we clearly lack “an expression that might function as a concept encompassing the notions of territory-network and discontinuous territory” (Giraut, 2013).

15Lastly, territorial cooperation allows us to envisage forms of informal cooperation between actors that are not enshrined in rules or laws and that also produce spatial forms—as exemplified by a network of migrant smugglers. It should help researchers move beyond issues of illegality, criminality, or clandestinity.

Territorial Cooperation and the Regional Question

16With the reconfiguration of political territories, the concept of region has undergone an epistemological renewal. Just as we now find ourselves in a world of borders, we live in a world of regions where the interdependent flows of globalisation are accompanied by a regionalism pursued within the framework of major international agreements (such as Mercosur, ASEAN, and the European Union, which is the most advanced model), as well as by regionalisms that seek to break with nation-states and whose claims for economic autonomy increasingly entail the affirmation of identity (Scotland, Catalonia). I could give several examples of the new regional scales in Europe that lie between the local and the central, between the national and the global. The renewed analytical focus on regions has followed three main directions that are of direct interest to this study: the region as an intermediate level—the meso between the micro and the macro—(Medeiros, 2013; Dubois, Hedin, Schmitt, Sterling, 2009), the role of the region in rescaling (Brenner, 1999; Swyngedouw, 2000), and the advent of regions in the process of regionalisation in a globalised world (Lord, Deas, 2006; Jones, Paasi, 2013).

17First, the renewed examination of the region entails a reflexive return on its primary function as an intermediate (meso) level between the micro and macro levels. Thus, within the administrative hierarchies and nestings of modern states, the region lies between the local (the micro) and the state (the macro); in the construction of supra-national spaces such as the European Union, it lies between the state level (the micro) and the European or even global level (the macro). In other words, the region always occupies an intermediate position between a sub-level and a supra-level, which are thereby articulated with each other in a logic of inclusion. This intermediate position between the micro and the macro is less a matter of hierarchical nesting than one of pivot function between the sub-level—marked by proximity and heterogeneity—and the supra-level—characterised by cohesion and coherence (Boulineau, 2016a). The recent regional reform in France illustrates this perfectly: The merging of regions is aimed at creating competitive European-sized regions and at downgrading the department in the dialogue with intermunicipalities.

18In addition to holding an intermediate position between the micro and the macro, the region has an intermediate function that allows us to approach the notion of intermediate spaces in non-descriptive terms. Inquiries into the function of the new regional scopes have been pursued very recently in the context of territorial reforms in Europe (Dubois, Gaudin, 2015; Bonnet-Pineau, Vandermotten, 2016). Some have mobilised the concept of rescaling, coined by neo-Marxist authors who opposed the conservative revolutions in Great Britain and the United States in favour of state disengagement. With rescaling, “what is at stake is the ability to impose a certain conception of the world, of the political order, and of justice by defining a scale of reference [...]. The ability to set the scale of reference and to impose it on other actors being a core concern” (Jouve, 2007). The term therefore refers to a process of de-hierarchisation orchestrated by the state with the aim, on the one hand, of making way for a multitude of non-state actors via the introduction of new political arenas, and, on the other hand, of gradually dismantling the political and administrative machinery. In Europe, the evolution of regional policy, with an increasingly marked shift from the objective of cohesion to that of competitiveness, is part of the same neoliberal logic being challenged by critical geographers. Thus, the notion of rescaling denounces more than it deconstructs the mechanisms of production of these new scales of reference. It nevertheless helps us move beyond the state-centred approach by putting levels of action into perspective.

19The terms region and regionalisation are now used to characterise the construction of economic sub-groups of smaller scale than states that are based, minimally, on free trade agreements and, in their most integrated version, on political institutions—the European Union being the archetype of this second configuration. This process of integration known as “neo-regionalism” is a response to the economic necessity of building a functional space based on interdependent economic flows (trade, investment, labour, etc.) so as to gain competitiveness in the context of neoliberal globalisation. The centres and peripheries of the global economic order are being reconfigured following the principle of partnership in order to resist the rise of the so-called emerging countries (Beckouche, 2008; Gana, Richard, 2014). The EU’s promotion of transnationalism is part of this process. The lowering of borders and the facilitating of the movement of capital, goods, services, and people within the EU have contributed to building this transnational dynamic, the etymology of which evokes crossings, open spaces, and the realm of circulation. With transnational cooperation, the EU aims to solve problems “whose effects transcend national and regional borders, and which cannot be adequately managed at the local, regional, or national levels alone, but which require cooperation across administrative borders to yield effective responses” (Dühr, 2011). Transnational dynamics suggest a new spatial frame of reference: The new territorialities of globalisation are replacing those of the state.

Territorial Cooperation and Transnational Logic

20With these new formulations of the regional question, the question arises as to how these new entities should be designated. Several terms have been proposed to capture these logics that overlap with national borders (transnational), hierarchies of scale (trans-scalar), and sectoral policies of territorial management (intersectoral). The term “multi-situated spaces” is intended to account for the “territorial assemblages that result from cooperation between institutional territories (whether neighbouring or not) or parts of institutional territories (whether neighbouring or not). These assemblages are construed as “non-standard regional spaces” that contribute to the territorial reorganisation of the state” (Giraut, 2013, p. 301). The adjective “multi-situated” refers to the proliferation of locations with respect to different environments, scales, or dimensions. However, the term describes the territory itself, and not its relationship to the other territories involved; it does not provide information on the nature of this relationship of cooperation.

21In the field of spatial planning, some authors have proposed the term “soft spaces” (Allmendinger, Haughton, 2009; Haughton, Allmendinger, Oosterlynck, 2013). The formula is appropriate: It contrasts the hard spaces produced by the division of the world into bounded, contiguous, sovereign, and governed states with soft spaces marked by fuzzy or even fluid boundaries, at odds with common administrative procedures, oriented towards objectives and results, and guided by more or less informal governance structures that favour flexible modes of cooperation. The analytical question, then, is to clearly distinguish between what is hard and what is soft in the attributes of the entities governing these types of spaces (Walsh, Jacuniak-Suda, Knieling, Othengrafen, 2013). The term, however, is clearly neoliberal in inspiration: Thus, “the tactical use of ‘fuzzy boundaries’ is related to a policy impetus to break away from the shackles of preexisting work patterns which might be variously held to be slow, bureaucratic, or not reflecting the real geographies of problems and opportunities” (Allmendinger, Haughton, 2009, p. 619). In other words, this term is also part of a neoliberal logic that submits politics to economics in spatial planning in order to maximise competitiveness.

22In the field of political science, new theoretical propositions are being formulated to capture these changes in the action of the state and in territorial governance. “Functional regulatory spaces” (Nahrath, Varone, Gerber, 2009; Varone, Nahrath, Aubin, Gerber, 2013) are ideal types that have been constructed on the basis of emerging, fragmented cases to capture divergences from traditional modes of coordinating sectoral policies in institutional territories. Such functional spaces redraw places and scales in which public action works to constitute an alternative arena capable of resolving rivalries between actors whose action interdependencies require the creation of new ad hoc cooperation groups.

23As we have just seen, multiple terms have been proposed—and criticised—to capture these new forms of transnational spaces that lie in the interstices between the administrative levels of political modernity. With the term “interstice,” I state that there is a free, small, and tenuous place, a void likely to be filled with a form other than that of state territoriality—the latter being on the whole dominant and legitimised, especially in Europe, which, lest we forget, is the birthplace of the nation-state! This place is not a location in the topographical sense, but a relationship guided by the articulation between this space and other orders of spatiality (state, European, but also networked and flowing spatialities) along a topological dimension. By thus refraining from denying state territories and reifying them as an a priori spatial framework—i.e., the supporting space—or an ahistorical form—i.e., the state as a framework that pre-exists society—one can avoid falling into the territorial trap (Agnew, 1994). I will now illustrate this intermediate position with two case studies: transnational regions (macro-regions) and city networks (town twinning) in the specific context of Europe.

Two Figures of Territorial Cooperation: Transnational Regions (Macro-regions) and City Networks (Town Twinning)

24Territorial cooperation is particularly advanced on the European continent, thus reflecting the important territorial engineering performed by the European Union (EU) over the last 25 years. While Europe provides a privileged vantage point from which to observe territorial cooperation, the latter has found echo elsewhere. Indeed, the relational question detailed in the previous section has shaken up the world order: Transnational regions, which are especially well developed in Europe, and city networks, which are proliferating worldwide, allow us to explore what is at stake.

A European Laboratory for Transnational Territorial Cooperation: Macro-regions

25Defined as areas “including territory from a number of different countries or regions associated with one or more common features or challenges” (European Commission, 2009, Macro-regional strategies in the European Union), macro-regions reflect functional regions whose “physical boundaries may vary according to the relevance of the policy area in question” (ibid.). Macro-regions are the most recent territorial cooperation arrangements to have emerged within the framework of the European cohesion policy (Table 1), alongside INTERREG (Territorial Cooperation Programmes) and the EGTC (European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation). While both INTERREG and the EGTC have undergone greater institutionalisation—the first as the objective of cohesion policy and the second as a legal instrument—macro-regions reflect European bodies’ innovative capacity to build territorial cooperation. From the first CIPs (Community Interest Programmes) to macro-regions, European territorial cooperation has provided the terrain for the implementation of innovative arrangements used by the European Commission (Drevet, 2008; Jouen, 2011). It has introduced arrangements that have transcended state boundaries and hierarchical decision-making to favour the participation of actors from the voluntary sector, the involvement of sub-state levels, and the recourse to a bottom-up logic in project implementation. Several authors have also stressed the EU’s innovative capacity to promote new areas of action that overlap with administrative divisions (Dühr, Colomb, Nadin, 2010; Reitel, Wassenberg, 2015).

Table 1: Three European territorial cooperation arrangements: INTERREG, EGTC, and Macro-region

Table 1: Three European territorial cooperation arrangements: INTERREG, EGTC, and Macro-region

Source: Elaborated by the author based on various EU sources.

26However, macro-regions mark the return of the top-down approach and are characterised by very weak institutionalisation compared to the EGTC. In fact, after 25 years of INTERREG, the Commission is seeking to promote new forms of territorial cooperation. It aims to involve states further in territorial cooperation. While this aim may seem anachronistic in these times of decentralisation and territorial governance, it starts from a relatively simple observation made by actors: States have neglected transnational cooperation (INTERREG C). By involving central governments more closely with macro-regions, the Commission seeks to reinforce the weak link in the chain connecting the global, European, and local levels. In addition, the Commission aims to revive actor networks, the European regional policy reports having identified several limitations in this regard.1 Macro-regions have as their ambition to adapt territorial scopes of action to the EU’s place in the world, without for the time being disrupting the administrative divisions and decision-making procedures of Member States.

27Returning to the theoretical framework laid out in the first section, we can see that the territorial scope of action of macro-regions as transnational regions exceeds administrative boundaries to better match the space of the problems identified in action plans. This form of regionalisation pertains both to territory-networks—since macro-regions build networks more than they do territories—and to discontinuous territories—since macro-regions do not cover the entire European territory. Macro-regions retain from the building of networks the multiplicity of actors and the interplay of scales (from the local to the European), wherein territorial scopes of action are not necessarily nested but partially overlapping. Some authors see in this a banal form of multi-level and multi-actor governance (Stocchiero, 2010; Schymik, 2011), while others consider that their interest lies in associating networks with an original territorial scope that is partially tied to administrative divisions (Dubois et al., 2009; Dühr, 2011). This scope can be either discontinuous (macro-regions resemble administrative zoning), fuzzy (the Baltic sea macro-region has no precise boundaries except the maritime basin), or freed from administrative divisions (the Danube catchment area used for the eponymous macro-region only partially covers Central European states and regions). In this sense, macro-regions resemble the soft spaces and non-standard regional spaces discussed earlier. For the time being, however, the recent character of macro-regions prevents us from testing their capacity to generate cooperation instead of conflict. Studies on the topic are still too scarce: The EU-Gems project at the University of Geneva aims to understand the extent to which actor networks built around environmental issues are ensuring the renewal of political management in the context of macro-regions—but the results are still pending. For my part, I have highlighted the risk of technicism: If macro-regions are reduced to technical issues in expert domains that do not involve local actors, then their legitimacy as scales of reference will be weakened (Boulineau, 2017).

28One can nevertheless argue, with Martin Vanier (2015), that macro-regions have an interesting potential because part of the social transaction aimed at solving problems no longer takes place in traditional territories—these being overwhelmed by mobilities, overtaken by networks, and, since the 2008 crisis, too weak to fight territorial inequalities in Europe. But these territories retain the monopoly over political personality, and so it remains to be seen whether macro-regions will create this “hybridization between the political legitimacy of territories and the transactional vigour of networks” (Vanier, 2015, p. 165). Moreover, macro-regions’ chances of success lie in their ability to show that reconfiguring their scope of action helps to address the key transversal issues of territorial management (climate change, pollution, etc.) and socio-economic development (financialisation of the economy, international migrations, etc.). The administrative divisions of political modernity still ensure the management, control, and exploitation of resources; the forms of transnational regionalisation must now provide for their sharing, preservation, and cultivation. The action plans of macro-regions focus on issues that are transversal in scope (e.g., environment, transport, security) to highlight the necessity of moving beyond administrative frameworks whose limitations have become obvious. Clearly, these new forms of transnational regions should be tested to see if and how they contribute to building the geography of peace that is at the heart of the European project.

City Networks and Town Twinning: Territorial Cooperation in Discontinuity

29The reflection on town twinning allows us to approach the issue of territorial cooperation from another angle. Town twinning has received increasing, though relatively scattered, attention in geography (Zelinsky, 1991; Furmankiewicz, 2005; Clarke, 2009; Grosspietsch, 2011; Jayne, Hubbard, Bell, 2011; Joenniemi, Sergunin, 2011; Boulineau, 2016b). By town twinning, I mean a dual relationship between urban units characterised by reciprocity, hierarchy-free and horizontal relations, potentially symbolic exchanges, multiple discussion themes, modular interactions, and durable bonds of friendship that run counter to the fixed temporality of projects. This brings us back to Bussi’s definition of cooperation provided in the introduction that stresses, in line with economic theory, the equitable distribution of benefits and decision-making capacities. With town twinning we can study local initiatives, and, starting from this initial building block, we can address the building of city networks on a higher scale.

30However, the scholarship on city networks has neglected the study of town twinning, privileging instead the vast field concerned with the internationalisation of, and international competition between, cities. According to this literature, city networks are derived from rankings based on major socio-economic indicators for classifying the cities of the world (global cities, first- or second-order metropolises, etc.): Cities are presented as being disconnected from the regional and national scales, yet as being integrated with each other via flows of capital or mobilities of people, resulting in typologies of winning and losing cities. Many studies view city networks as strategic alliances forged between cities to gain competitiveness: They approach the articulation between the local and the global—i.e., glocalisation (Swyngedouw, 2004)—in ways that overlook intermediate levels. Moreover, the ultra-connectivity of the world is examined in terms of strong ties of exclusion/inclusion in the context of globalisation, and too little in terms of weak ties of cooperation. Such analyses continue, critically or not, the research in urban studies that focuses on the major changes experienced by cities since the recession of the 1970s, in a neoliberal context wherein state disengagement prepared the ground for the great turning point of globalisation. However, because city networks often rely on volunteering and shared values more than they do on quantitative indicators, research on the weak ties of cooperation has had great difficulty identifying objectifiable quantitative or qualitative criteria (Jayne, Hubbard, Bell, 2011).

31Another part of the literature approaches urban twinning in terms of decentralised cooperation: Cities are presented in these studies as caught up in processes of decentralisation and generalised governance, and even of global citizenship (Zelinsky, 1991; Bontenbal, van Lindert, 2009). Partnerships are examined within the framework of a transfer of norms and actions from the state to the local level—North-South cooperation in development aid and technical assistance being the canonical examples of such decentralised cooperation. Yet this scholarship obscures the relational dimension of power, which operates and circulates as opposed to being distributed or shared in a top-down process. Cities exercise power through twinning: Nick Clarke (2009) reminds us that the history of town twinning in Great Britain is not just the work of the central state, but also the product of multiple challenges to the state and of alliances forged between cities to counter its power. In this sense, twinning constitutes a form of civic promotion and a mechanism for producing local identity in the mirror of the other (Grosspietsch, 2009). City networks participate in the social construction of power because the city becomes an actor only through the involvement of its elected representatives and its inhabitants. The black box of power, a notion dear to political geography, can also be opened via the study of urban twinning.

32Moreover, few studies have examined what the form and content of (voluntary) city networks reveal about horizontal ties between places: Do cities cooperate with one another because they share common features, or because they are confronted with similar problems that exceed their territorial context (access to water, flood or drought control, access to energy, etc.) and prompt them to share experiences, solutions, and ways of doing things? The ability to solve problems grants political legitimacy and strengthens one’s power: Membership in urban cooperation networks constitutes a new form of territorial management in that it nurtures the political experimentation inherent to decentralisation. Yet, while there is no doubt that the exchange of experiences via town twinning and city networks can be seen as another avatar of the circulation of international models and ready-made norms, these governance models are increasingly called into question. We should examine further the assumption that decentralisation is construed not merely as a transfer of tasks from the central to the local level, but also as a means of autonomisation that partly underpins the “return of cities” in Europe and the world.

33The focus on cooperation between cities therefore allows us to revisit the notions prevailing in political geography: governance, decentralisation, but also spatial nesting, hierarchy, contiguity, and continuity among the political territories of modernity. With the study of town twinning, and more generally of city networks, we can move beyond the analysis of cooperation between spatially contiguous territories. Because it is characterised by discontinuity between networked places, town twinning as a building block of city networks constitutes “a device for producing topological proximity between topographically distant places” (Clarke, 2009, p. 497). Even better, this study helps to understand, on the one hand, how cities articulate with each other independently of the hierarchy and nesting effects of administrative scales, and, on the other hand, how new political scales emerge from this type of network building. By taking up the issue of rescaling, the study of Baltic city networks reveals the strategies by which municipalities take advantage of networks to bypass intermediate administrative levels: They either use one of those networks as a lever to reach the upper level, or build translocal horizontal ties beyond regional or national borders. These urban strategies then contribute to creating an intermediate level, namely the Baltic sea area (Escach, Vaudor, 2014; Escach, 2015). Lastly, forms of cooperation based on weak ties—as opposed to the strong ties of state geopolitics—also help to understand regional dynamics in a globalised world. Our study of town twinning around the Black Sea has shown that, in the approximately 100 cities examined, a double process of regionalisation around the Black Sea and growing internationalisation of partnerships with major ports is underway. Thus, an intermediate regional scale of cooperation is emerging around the Black Sea basin as, on the one hand, bordering countries are put under geopolitical tension, and, on the other hand, the Black Sea is being integrated into globalisation thanks to important hydrocarbon flows (Boulineau, 2016b). These ties of cooperation should be examined further to shed light on the territorial reconfigurations that are taking place at intermediate levels of articulation between the local and the global.

Territorial Cooperation in Political Geography: A Research Agenda

34In conclusion, I would like to propose a research agenda for the future by returning to the definition of territorial cooperation through the lens of the political reconfiguration of territories, the state-of-the-art research that reflects the paradigm shift underway, and the two cases studies presented in this paper.

35The analysis has shown that territorial cooperation requires reciprocity and not hierarchy, horizontal relations and not verticality, coordination and not administrative supervision, transversality and not sectoral management, modularity and not fixity. However, compared to the divisions of political modernity, two essential characteristics are missing from territorial cooperation arrangements: on the one hand, arbitration rules—because territorial cooperation cannot count on an irenic world without conflict—and, on the other hand, stability to guarantee that agreements will last. From a geographical perspective, the flexibility and reactivity of actor networks constitute an important weakness: Indeed, the temporality of changes in political territories is much slower than that of reconfigurations in networks of alliances.

36What, then, is the scope of territorial cooperation from a conceptual perspective? In my view, the term serves two purposes. It allows us to go beyond studies in critical geography, which certainly bring to light the implicit assumptions behind rescaling, new public management, and new localism—these being too often used without their political substrate—yet which are more denunciatory than explanatory. It also offers the possibility of transcending the debate that opposes the fixity of griddings to the malleability of more flexible territorial scopes, and hence of moving beyond analyses in terms of institutionalisation of arrangements viewed as belonging to political modernity. Indeed, rather than opposing modern configurations of political territories to post-modern ones, territorial cooperation appears as a mode of functionality for places (cities) or territories (regions) whose intermediary position seeks articulation with traditional administrative divisions.

37In this sense, given their intermediary position, the territorial cooperation arrangements discussed above lie in several kinds of interstices that can be posited as different hypotheses to be explored:

  • Legal interstices: Territorial cooperation is developing in the margins of both major texts and administrative functions—i.e., the EU cohesion policy left open for innovation by the European Commission in the case of macro-regions, and the autonomy of local authorities favoured by decentralisation in the case of city networks.

  • Functional interstices: Macro-regions fill the gap of an intermediate scale between the state level and the European level, making it possible to rethink a sub-European scope of action that can link up regions, states, and Europe; town twinning completes—or bypasses if necessary—urban hierarchies to access higher levels of information and decision-making.

  • Organisational interstices: These allow for reinforcing the structure of strong ties—i.e., relations between states—that have been examined by scholars of international relations and geopolitics, while relying on the weak ties of cooperation. Thus, macro-regions as a new form of regionalisation seek to strengthen cohesion around the common problems of territories affected by the forces of fragmentation. City networks build dialogue step by step, and can be used as leverage in discussions at other levels.

38While the links between places are now sufficiently strong to hold these places together in spite of the distance between them, political modernity is fading but not disappearing. Today, there is even a movement to reenchant the border as a rampart, and to sacralise the territory, for instance, in matters of rights, social protection, and employment. Europe is once again at the forefront of the phenomenon. In this perspective, far from attenuating the effects of belonging, territorial cooperation allows for examining the reconfiguration of identities based on experiences between here and there, between them and us. It also enables us to put into perspective the power of the local in the interplay of scales made possible by these voluntary collaborations, yet without entering into contradiction with the return of borders.

39Finally, the focus on territorial cooperation allows us to question another key notion of political geography: the centre-periphery model. From the perspective of cooperation, the gravity model, in which the world is organised via proximity, vicinity, or third spaces, takes on a completely different scope. Here again, city networks do not abolish, but reduce physical and symbolic distance, whereas geopolitics presents tensions and crises. The weak, tenuous, and discreet ties of territorial cooperation can resist the breaking of strong ties, and can provide a foundation, a building block for the reconfiguration of a new centre-periphery order. This is why, in these times of uncertainty about the world’s future, reflecting on territorial cooperation initiatives is not a vain enterprise.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Table 1: Three European territorial cooperation arrangements: INTERREG, EGTC, and Macro-region
Crédits Source: Elaborated by the author based on various EU sources.
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Emmanuelle Boulineau, « Towards a Political Geography of Territorial Cooperation », L’Espace Politique [En ligne], 32 | 2017-2, mis en ligne le 01 février 2019, consulté le 20 avril 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Emmanuelle Boulineau

Maître de conférences HDR en géographie
Univ Lyon, ENS de Lyon, CNRS, UMR 5600 EVS, F-69342

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