The Regions in Europe: A new role for an enlarged EU

10 May 2004

In advance of the European Commission’s Third Cohesion Forum, First Minister for Scotland Jack McConnell addressed an EPC Breakfast Meeting on the topic of ‘The Regions in Europe: a new role for an enlarged EU.” Also present was Rhodri Morgan, First Minister for Wales. EPC Director of Studies, Fraser Cameron, introduced the meeting.  This is not an official record of the proceedings, and specific remarks are not necessarily attributable.

Summary of the proceedings:

Mr. McConnell stressed the importance of the regions for binding citizens to the European entreprise. The EU could be strengthened through the recognition of regional identities. The devolution of powers to regional and local governments would continue in different parts of Europe in the coming years, validated by the Constitutional Treaty. He did caution, however, that the importance of issues, such as fishing in Scotland could have a major impact on how Scots perceived the European Union and on the decision they might make as the entire United Kingdom takes to the ballot box in the recently announced referendum on the draft Constitutional Treaty.

Event Report:

Jack McConnell opened his address with a reference to the Third Cohesion Forum, noting that it marked “the first systematic dialogue between the Commission President and the associations of regions at European level.”  He drew attention to the significance of this following EU enlargement. “I believe very strongly that EU enlargement will only work for the people of the nations of Europe if it is matched by engagement and involvement and perhaps even decentralisation to the regions and nations of Europe within those Member States that have formed regional government,” he said.

Politicians risked becoming too remote from the people of Europe, he said. A strong regional dimension in the European political architecture could be a tool toward preventing this. 

The Scottish experience

The Scottish experience had been one of successful interaction with the European level since 1999, when Scotland received devolved powers from the UK government.   This success could only be reinforced, however, “if identities in Scotland, Wales and elsewhere are properly recognised� the EU will be stronger if we recognise the identities that exist and the way in which people relate to their governments,” Mr McConnell said.  Thus regions have a crucial role to play for millions of people.

Mr McConnell also predicted that there would be further moves toward devolving government powers to regional level in different parts of Europe in future years, as the success of devolution was now visible.  Work by the regions to influence the draft Treaty validated this, he said.  “The draft Treaty will see for the first time the identity of those regions with legislative powers and other forms of local and regional government recognised.”

He sounded one note of caution: “It’s important that those [regional] political identities don’t compete within the existence of an enlarged European Union in a way that could be counter-productive.  Member States and legislative regions should be allowed to take some responsibility for the policies affecting their citizens.”  Treaty references already gave a hint at the role of the regions and it would be important to see how this might be expanded in the future, he said. 

Mr McConnell went on to give illustrations of the importance of considering the regional level in policy development.  One key issue for Scotland was fishing.  In respect of this, he said, relevant regions should be able to define cross-border agreements, involving groups of regions or Member States, rather than having decisions made at European level involving all Member States.  Nevertheless a Europe-wide framework would be at the basis of this devolved decision-making.  This could also work in other areas, such as Structural Funds and cohesion. “Decentralising the implementation of an overall framework can be effective,” he said.

Regions seeking a stronger role

Consequently, regions – in particular those with legislative powers – want a stronger role in the European political architecture.  They welcome increasing moves by the European Commission to consult associations of regions and local authorities.  This should improve decision-making at the centre, and would help to build more confidence amongst citizens about decision-making at EU level, by ensuring “prior engagement” and “real consultation,” he said.  But this required “a change of culture at the centre, too,” said Mr McConnell.  Power should be “released back to those who are most affected by decisions.”

In summary, Mr McConnell drew attention to the work of REGLEG – the organisation of regions with legislative powers – and other regional organisations in calling for “a culture of engagement and involvement that will build support for Europe wide action and Europe wide cooperation in the twenty-first century, replacing the conflict of the twentieth century.  But it is also about influencing decisions and then implementing decisions in the most effective way.”  Defending the concept of subsidiarity, he said that decisions should only be made at the centre if they had to be. “But when they are, implementation must take account of the many different national and regional structures that exist across the European Union.”

The impact of the UK EU constitutional referendum

The following open discussion with EPC members focussed particularly on the impact of the announcement of a UK referendum in the UK. Mr. McConnell endorsed the decision to call a referendum and expressed optimism that the pro-European argument would be won, given time to debate the issues.  Ensuring that the draft Constitution “is changed in the appropriate way” would also increase the chance of a ‘yes’ vote.  The referendum also gave a more general opportunity to build support in the UK for the European Union.  Mr McConnell also reinforced his earlier points about a strong regional role, citing it as an antidote to the general disengagement of citizens from politics. 

Welsh First Minister Rhodri Morgan disagreed with Mr McConnell that it had been a good idea to call it.  However, he endorsed Mr McConnell’s comments on winning the contest.  “You can’t win the battle on the Treaty itself,” he said.  “The Treaty is not that big a thing in terms of engaging the attention of the voters.  You make it a wider issue – a referendum on engagement with Europe at large.  That’s the only way we’re going to win the referendum.”