4.4 The Committee of the Regions
The regions, however, have a privileged place in EU integration, and the Committee of the Regions has the status of an ‘expert’ which must be consulted on issues of cross-border cooperation. This Committee epitomises both the growth of EU regionalism and the obstacles it faces from diversity and from conflicts of interest with state governments. Strong regions, particularly German Länder, played a key role in establishing this ‘advisory committee of representatives of regional and local authorities’. In reasserting their eroded constitutional rights from the late 1980s, the Länder opposed the practice of the federal German government – and by extension other central administrations – of deciding how regional EU aid is distributed, and they called for some regional representation at the Council of Ministers, the EU key decision-making body. The Länder, the EU Commission and the European Parliament favoured the Committee of the Regions having real decision-making powers and a membership of elected regional and local politicians with democratic legitimacy. But state governments, including the German government, were less enthusiastic, and the highly centralist British and Greek representatives were openly hostile, proposing to send along unelected civil servants answerable only to central government. The then Conservative British government wanted to avoid empowering regions in the UK, seeing regionalism as a ‘slippery slope’ to the break-up of the UK and a harbinger of European federalism threatening British sovereignty. The compromise agreed in Maastricht was that most Committee members would be elected regional politicians but their status was only advisory. However, the Commission and Council of Ministers were obliged to consult the Committee on a range of policy areas including education, culture and economic cohesion, and the Committee could give an opinion on any EU matter whether or not asked.
The Committee was set up in 1994 and had 222 members in 1995 when Austria, Finland and Sweden joined, representation varying by size of state with 24 for the large states down to 6 for the smallest, Luxembourg. The Committee's cohesion and effectiveness is, however, curtailed by its heterogeneity, mirroring the diversity of the regions from which the members come. The main divisions within the membership tend to be along state lines, rather than regions of the same type (for example, all ‘Objective One’ regions) making common cause across different states. There are huge differences in the ‘political weight’ of members, reflecting the political status of their regions. There are also divergences between regional politicians and local representatives of cities and municipalities which divide the regions; to minimise this problem the Committee presidency and deputy presidency alternate between representatives of important regions (for example, Catalonia or Lombardy) and those from the big municipalities (for example, Barcelona or Milan).
The EU's ‘subsidiarity’ principle gives precedence to lower territorial ‘levels’ of government over higher ones – at least in theory. Thus the EU as a whole should take action only where individual states cannot act effectively, an idea supported by ‘anti-federal’ British governments and so-called ‘eurosceptics’. However, on the continent subsidiarity is interpreted more positively as a federal principle which gives rights to the smaller, constituent parts of a state including sub-state regions. In 1995, a Committee of the Regions report, overseen by the Catalan President, Jordi Pujol, proposed that it should automatically extend not only to state level but to sub-state level as well:
the Community shall take action, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, only if and so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States, or by the regional and local authorities endowed with powers under the domestic legislation of the Member State in question.
(Wagstaff, 1999b, p.192, emphasis added)
This was followed in 1997 by another report, ‘Regions and Cities: Pillars of Europe’, prepared by the leader of Bavaria's regional government and the Mayor of Oporto, and it was the basis for a Committee of the Regions ‘summit conference’ before the Amsterdam Treaty negotiations. The Treaty however did not extend automatic subsidiarity to the regions, but it did further increase the Committee's freedom of action; the main gain was the addition of more obligatory spheres, such as environmental and social policies, on which the Committee had to be consulted.
There has therefore been a remarkable historical trend of increasing regionalism, given a recent boost by globalisation and European integration. But the question remains: what is its significance, where is it all leading?