CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: Politics: Continentally Challenged (Report No. 5)

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Continentally Challenged

Acting regionally

One hope of supranationalists has been that the widely-acknowledged 'democratic deficit' in the EU could be filled by enhancing the powers of the European Parliament. And certainly it is desirable that the parliament should have more powers - that the European Commission and the Council of Ministers should be more accountable to directly elected representatives. The 'co-decision' procedure in the Maastricht treaty was a step forward in this regard which the republic's draft treaty would extend.

Yet the reality is that Europe's electors are even less enamoured of their MEPs than their 'national' politicians (which is not saying much about the latter). Thin-out in elections to the EP has been steadily declining since direct elections were initiated in 1979, despite the parliament's growing profile. As Scharpf explains,

As of now ... the politico-cultural identity of the European Union is still very weak; the lack of a common identity is a major obstacle to the emergence of a European-wide public discourse; and, as a consequence, we have no Europe-wide media, no Europe-wide political parties and no political leaders with Europe-wide visibility and accountability. These conditions are not easily changed by constitutional reforms…[1]
The notion of 'European identity' can only bear so much weight. It will not transcend existing national or other conceptions of the self, though there is space for it in a more nuanced sense of the multiple identities individuals can enjoy.[2] So the democratic deficit will have to be addressed, in addition, at other levels, particularly the 'subnational'.

Here, however, significant progress has been made. As Marks et al put it, "The 1990s have seen the growth of a new and unheralded form of regional mobilisation in the European Union."[3] Mazey and Richardson have spoken of an "explosion of lobbying".[4] Jones and Keating detect "a common dynamic towards increasing regional self-assertion and a challenging of the decisional monopoly of the nation-state".[5]

According to Lisbet Hooghe's figures, in 1985 there were just two offices representing European regions in Brussels; in 1988 there were still only 15, but by 1994 there were around 70, their role "somewhere between an informal 'embassy' for their particular region and a lobbying agency".[6]

The largest offices combine four functions:

  • providing the European Commission and Parliament with regional viewpoints,
  • surveying the European scene for issues of domestic concern,
  • participating in networks with other regions and EU institutions, and
  • lobbying for an increased voice in European decision-making.[7]

The Northern Ireland Centre in Europe, established in 1991, attempts to provide such a two-way link between the region and the European institutions. Its mission statement defines its role as "To maximise the benefits for Northern Ireland as a region of the European Union and to promote Northern Ireland's distinctive contribution."[8] Yet clearly much more could be done were it, like the other offices in Brussels, to be representing a regional administration in Europe, rather than being an admirable private/local-overnment effort.

But first let's answer an apparent paradox: when all the talk has been of 'globalisation',[9] how could so much attention have come to be invested in regions as units of political economy? Michael Keating:

The impact of global change varies across territories. The fact that it is at the regional and local levels that the impact of change is felt has helped create new coalitions of territorial defence and increased the political salience of regions. At the same time, it is increasingly recognised that combinations of factors of production in specific places are a vital element in economic growth and change, even within a globalised market. The region has thus become a key level of political dialogue and action, where national, continental and global forces meet local demands and social systems, forcing mutual adaptations and concessions.[10]
But such an engagement at regional level depends heavily on political leadership, on what Leonardi and Nanetti call "regional protagonism" - an activist, developmental drive.[11] By this, they mean not just an "administrative-managerial" stance but "a creative and pro-active policy approach".[12] By definition, however, a direct-rule administration in Belfast can only respond to policy approaches set in London; officials can never themselves go beyond the administrative-managerial role.

Birmingham, with a population a little less than that of Northern Ireland, offers something of a counter-example. The centre of the formerly dour west midlands city has been transformed beyond recognition in recent years by a dynamic, Europe-oriented municipal leadership. One of five founding members of 'Eurocity', an urban pressure group which more than 60 EU cities have now joined, Birmingham was also one of the first British cities to open a Brussels office.

Its 'director of European and international affairs', Gareth Williams, said Brussels was prepared to support regeneration projects not favoured in Whitehall: "Within Britain, Birmingham will always be Birmingham, the second city In Europe, we take our place quite naturally in the first tier of big, provincial cities. There is a lot we can learn; there is a lot we can teach. It gives us ... a network, and a network which doesn't go through London."[13]

Yet here the UK is falling further and further behind the European post-war trend, away from centralised member-states obsessive about sovereignty Thus regional government was stipulated in the Italian constitution of 1948, though it was not implemented for 'ordinary' regions till the 70s. France started regionalising in 1972, though it didn't finish till 1986. The German federal system derives from the 1949 Basic Law. Spain and Belgium have regionalised more recently, in response to growing communal demands. But the UK in the Conservative years has meanwhile gone into centralist retreat.[14] Eight of the 15 EU member states, and most of the big political hitters, now fall into Udo Bullman's categories of 'federal', 'regionalised' or 'devolving unitary'- seven remain as 'classic unitary'.[15] It is thus that it has become commonplace to borrow the phrase 'democratic deficit' from the European context, to describe Northern Ireland under direct rule.

A key objective, as an Irish academic put it, is to pursue an avenue "which lessens the straitjacket of the national". Though communal division makes this far more problematic for Northern Ireland than the example she quoted, Catalonia, she was nevertheless right to point up how the UK represented an "awkward partner" in this regard.

An intriguing point is made in this context by a European Commission official, noting that while the framework document agreed between the London and Dublin governments in February 1995 envisaged a European engagement by the north-south body it proposed, there was no reference to any such engagement by the recommended northern institution.[16] By contrast, the German Länder not only have European policy sections in most of their ministries but also place overall responsibility with a Land minister for European affairs.[17]

The BSE crisis mercilessly exposed Northern Ireland's limitations in this regard. Agriculture would of course be transferred to any new administration in the region, and it was clear during the tellingly named British 'beef war' that the vast majority of EU governments-notably including the republic-favoured easing the ban on exports from Northern Ireland.

The Independent reported in November 1996, however, that government divisions on the issue had held up negotiations with Brussels. An unprecedented five British ministers had ended up attending an EU agriculture ministers meeting in Luxembourg: two of them, Britain's minister of agriculture, Douglas Hogg, and the Scottish secretary, Michael Forsyth, were there to lobby for a UK-wide relaxation of the ban, while Northern Ireland's agriculture minister, Jean Denton, favoured a Northern-Ireland-first approach. Baroness Denton was actually excluded from a bilateral meeting between the UK delegation and the agriculture commissioner, Franz Fischler.[18]

Interestingly, given Northern Ireland's legacy of division, Bullman points out: "The a priori existence of regional identity seems in this respect to be overestimated as a precondition for regional success." 'Artificial' Rhône-Alpes has worked; 'traditional' southern Italian regions haven't. Rather, "a modernised political culture is the key". In that context, "Political institutions at the regional level are thus able to mould identity by introducing dialogue and collaboration between social actors and defining common regional interests."

The choice for Northern Ireland is indeed a stark one, well articulated in a discussion of Scotland in Europe by Mazey and Mitchell:

Without some elected body formally articulating the interests and views of a region, the government of the state as a whole will be in a strong position to ensure that its view is taken as that of any region. This, of course, entirely contradicts the notion of regional interests which can be expected to differ on some issues at least with the government at the centre. In the absence of directly elected regional government, an intense debate as to who has the right to speak for the area - whether institutions of central government, the collective voice of local government, or functional interests such as business and trades unions - is hound to ensue and perhaps dissipate the effort made in lobbying externally.[19]
This is not, it should be stressed, to assume a regionalist nirvana for Europe, the flip side of the supranationalist utopia. In the 'multi-level governance' Hooghe and others have identified, we are talking not of 'a Europe of regions' but of 'Europe with the regions'.[20]

Thus, following German Länder pressure (and despite Spanish resistance), article 146 of Maastricht allows a member state to be represented by a regional representative at the Council of Ministers.[21] But only the highly decentralised Belgium, Germany and Austria have exercised this right so far-and their representatives are there to represent the member state, not Flanders or Wallonia or the Länder. As Morass stresses, "this does not imply direct subnational representation ... but only creates an opportunity to delegate national government's rights, while remaining within the logic of member states."[22] The Belgian regions and the Lander are similarly entitled to representation on committees of the European Commission in areas where they, rather than their member state, have exclusive responsibility domestically.[23]

But didn't the much-trumpeted principle of 'subsidiarity', established in the Maastricht treaty, imply a shift towards regional empowerment - a way of re-engaging remote Eurocrats with real people on the ground? It is true that article A of the TEU speaks of "an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe, in which decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity". But article 3B makes clear this stops at the nation state: "... In areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Community shall take action, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States ..." In Catholic social teaching subsidiarity means taking decisions at the lowest possible level, and it has indeed been influential in regionalist movements in Europe, but it is Protestant Britain and Denmark which have given the term its stamp in the contemporary EU debate.[24]

Nor has the Committee of the Regions, established by the treaty, borne out the hopes of regionalist supporters-partly because of internal tensions between local authority and regional members. Its 222 representatives are appointed by member states, rather than directly elected; its powers are purely advisory, not of co-decision with other EU institutions; and its financial allocation is less than half of 1 per cent of the EU administration budget.[25] Those who wished for a Europe-wide equivalent of the German Bundesrat (the upper house comprising representatives of the Länder) were severely disappointed - "completely unrealistic" was the dismissive comment from the otherwise supportive former commissioner for regional affairs, Bruce Millan.[26]

The role of the committee is not going to rise above the consultative, where its performance to date has been marked by a lack of focus.[27] As William Nicoll puts it starkly, "in the Community of today and tomorrow, the big legislative players are the Council and the Parliament and there is a limit to the inputs that can be expected from elsewhere".[28]

One Irish academic bluntly argued that the parliament would see to it - whether formally or via its input to the budget allocations-that the committee would not be strengthened by the IGC (administrative autonomy from the rather moribund Economic and Social Committee is signalled in the republic's draft treaty). A Northern Irish official of the parliament concurred. The union was based on "very strict legal-conceptual relationships", he said.[29]

And such disappointment will remain. For a major constraint on Euro-regionalism is the sheer diversity in economic capacity, institutional structures, and political, economic and social demands of the various regions in the different member states, leading to a lack of common interest in policy or institutional change. Such diversity can only be exacerbated by enlargement to the east.[20]

Moreover, regionalism in Europe wears a "dark side" too, as the Irish academic pointed out. If one pressure for increased regional autonomy is the recognition of the potential economic advantages of power to affect 'supply-side' interventions, another is the concern of rich regions to detach themselves from their poorer neighbours - witness the Northern League in Italy.

Yet Northern Ireland's concern must be in which regional league it resides. Nestling at 140th out of 167 regions in gross domestic product per head in a 1991 ranking (it has probably crawled up a few places in the intervening years), it has a very long way to go.[31] And there needs to be a profound recognition that, just as in sport, the relative performance of regions at the bottom of the league will tend to deteriorate, not improve, unless strategic and concerted action is taken. Thus Hooghe and Keating argue that, while regions have been able to mobilise effectively in recent years,

What is clear, however, is that the political weight of European regions varies considerably according to their economic importance, their political skills, their administrative infrastructure and their ability to mobilise civil society behind the efforts of regional governments. Moreover the strategies of regional mobilisation seem to be cumulative ... The result is a polarised Europe of the regions, in which regions in the heartland and, to a lesser extent the more active Spanish regions and some of the UK regions are involved more fully than those in the periphery … [32]

Standing still, in other words, is not an option, in confronting the new political economy of regions.


1 F W Scharpf, 'Negative and positive integration in the political economy of European welfare states', in G Marks, F W Scharpf, P C Schmitter and W Streeck, Governance in the European Union, Sage, London, 1996, pp 26-7
2 See chapter eight.
3G Marks et al, 'Competencies, cracks and conflicts: regional mobilisation in the European Union', in ibid, p 40
4Sonia Mazey and Jeremy Richardson, Lobbying in the European Community, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1993, p v
5Barry Jones and Michael Keating eds, The European Union and the Regions, Clarendon, Oxford, 1995, pp v-vi
6 Lisbet Hooghe, 'Subnational mobilisation in the European Union', in Jack Hayward ed, The Crisis of Representation in Europe, Frank Cass, London, 1995, p186
7Marks et al, loc cit
8 Northern Ireland Centre in Europe annual report 1995-96, Belfast and Brussels, 1996
9Giddens, 'The new context of politics', in New Thinking for New Times, DD report 1, 1995, pp 8-23
10Keating, 'Europeanism and regionalism', in Jones and Keating, op cit, p3
11 Roberto Leonardi and Raffaella Nanetti, The Regions and European Integration: The Case of Em ilia-Romagna, Pinter, London/New York, 1990, p5
12 ibid, p125
13 John Lichfield, 'Brum marches to a happier tune', In dependent, March 23rd 1996; this upbeat piece in a 'Building Europe' series in the paper was borne out by a visit to the city by this writer in December 1996, his first for several years.
14ting, op cit, p4
15 Builman, 'The politics of the third level', Regional and Federol Studies, vol 6, no 2, summer 1996, p5
16Northern Ireland Office, Frameworks for the Future, HMSO, Belfast, 1995
17 Charlie Jeffery, 'Farewell the third level?', Regional and Federal Studies, vol 6, no 2, summer 1996, p62
18 Katherine Butler, 'Ministers crush Ulster's hopes on beef', Independent, November 1st 1996
19 Sonia Mazey and James Mitchell, 'Europe of the regions: territorial interests and European integration: the Scottish experience', in Mazey and Richardson eds, op cit, p118
20 Hooghe, op cit, p178
21 Andrew Duff, 'Towards a definition of subsidiarity', in Duff ed, Subsidiarity Within the European Community, Federal Trust, London, 1993
22 Michael Morass, 'Austria: the case of a federal newcomer in European Union politics', Regional and Federal Studies, vol 6, no 2, summer 1996, p54
23 Mazey and Mitchell, op cit, p106
24 The different senses of 'subsidiarity' are teased out in A Scott, J Peterson and D Millar, 'Sub sidiarity: a "Europe of the regions" v the British constitution?', Journal of Common Market Studies, vol 32, no 1, March 1994.
25 Peter Schwaiger, chef de cabinet of the secretary general of the Committee of the Regions, speaking at a conference on the committee organised by the Institute of European Studies at Queen's University, Belfast, in November 1995; the proceedings of this conference have now been published in a special issue of the Journal of Regional and Federal Studies, spring 1997.
26 speaking at the same conference
27 Martyn Farrows, speaking at the same conference
28 William Nicoll, 'Representing the states', in A Duff, J Pinder and R Pryce eds, Maastricht and Beyond: Building the European Union, Routledge, London, 1994, p202
29 A more optimistic reading of the future of the Committee of the Regions is offered by John Loughlin, 'Representing regions in Europe', Regional and Federal Studies, vol 6, no 2, summer 1996.
30 Keating, op cit, pp 20-2
31 Michael Dunford and Ray Hudson, 'Decentralised models of governance and economic development: lessons from Europe', in Northern Ireland Economic Council, Decentralised Govem meat and Economic Performance in Northern Ireland, occasional paper 7, NIEC, Belfast, 1996, p158
32 Lisbet Hooghe and Michael Keating, 'The politics of European Union regional policy', Journal of European Public Policy, vol 1, no 3, 1994, p375

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