The politics of devolution
The politics of devolution

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The politics of devolution

8 Governance beyond the UK: The EU

One of the elements invoked in favour of regional devolution involves the significance of regions within the European Union. While some refer to the principle of subsidiarity (governing, when possible, at the local level), as promoted by the EU, as an argument in favour of devolution, others emphasize that regional government improves the prospect of receiving EU regional subsidies. At the moment, there are striking differences between regions within Europe. While some regions have an economic, administrative or geographical basis, but a negligible or absent cultural heritage, others such as Scotland (UK), Catalonia (Spain), Flanders and Walloonia (Belgium) display a powerful cultural distinctiveness and are often referred to as ‘nations without states’ (Guibernau, 1999). The EU does not distinguish between the two.

Evidence of regional economic advantage began to emerge in the 1980s. The dynamics of the single market and the rising significance of European regional policy have encouraged the emergence of a new kind of innovative, specialised economic region oriented towards the global economy. The 1988 reform of the Structural Funds (resources designed to support national and regional convergence within the EU) and the new opportunities generated by the single market (designed to complete EU economic integration) contributed to a general move towards indigenous growth at the regional level (Cooke et al., 1997). Poorer regions benefited from changes in the Structural Funds, while better-off regions took advantage of the new opportunities provided by the single market; for instance, the ‘Four Motors of Europe’ (a cross-frontier collaboration involving Baden-Württemberg, Rhône-Alps, Lombardy and Catalonia, later joined by Wales) attracted European funds and foreign investment.

The Committee of the Regions was set up in 1994 under the Treaty on European Union (the Maastricht Treaty). The Committee of the Regions (CoR), which aims to represent the interests of regional and local authorities in the EU, is made up of 222 independent representatives of regional and local authorities. These representatives are nominated by EU member states and appointed to a four-year term by the European Council. The mixture of regional and local representatives within the CoR undermines its character as a regional body, which has sparked great controversy among its potential and actual members, especially since there are no rules about how the fixed number of representatives from each country is distributed between the various levels of regional and local authorities.

The EU's embrace of regionalism seeks to reverse, or at least mitigate, the peripheral role of regions. Within the EU – a quasi-supranational institution founded and governed by nation-states – regions, already peripheral within their own nation-states, may feel even more remote from the EU core. Relatively powerful regions that enjoy self-determination within their own nation-states lack direct representation in EU institutions. The European Convention, chaired by Valery Giscard d'Estaing, which drew up a proposed new EU Constitution in 2004, received numerous demands from regional bodies and movements throughout Europe seeking regional representation within EU institutions. For instance, the citizens of 75 EU regions already enjoying devolved legislative powers, some 56.3 per cent of the EU's total population, unsuccessfully demanded the recognition of their legislative and administrative relevance (European Convention, 2002).

Although the CoR has to be consulted by the Council of Ministers and the European Commission with regard to health, culture, promotion of general and vocational training, trans-European networks and structural and regional policy, it is merely an advisory body. Its opinions are not binding. As such, because of the CoR's limited scope and influence within the EU, the idea of a Europe of the Regions, which citizens of ‘nations without states’ desire, is far from being a reality, although the very existence of the CoR does represent the significance regional Europe may acquire in the future (Guibernau, 1999, pp. 172–3).

The process towards an eventual regionalisation of the European Union is still in its early stages. There are striking differences between various European regions and it is unlikely that all of them will obtain the same degree of political autonomy and recognition within the EU. It seems certain, however, that a new and unprecedented process, by which selected nations without states, such as Scotland, Wales, Catalonia and Flanders, achieve cultural, economic and political relevance, has already been initiated.

For some, the UK still plays a peripheral role within the EU. The core resides in the Franco-German axis. Historically, the UK has stood at the edge of Europe. Its propensity to not seek the initiative in promoting European integration is best illustrated by its refusal, to date, to enter the single currency. This further demonstrates the different centre–periphery roles that states, nations and cities may play according to different environments. Of course, the EU was itself formed from very different types of regions and nations, some of which had a well established clear, separate geographical, administrative or economic identity, while others had only a strong sense of cultural identity and a desire for greater political autonomy, but lacked the means to advance such interests and objectives. The European regional movement seeks to reverse, or at least ameliorate, the peripheral role many regions play within EU institutions, which are largely dominated by key nation-states.

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