Luc Van den Brande, President of the Committee of the Regions
By Isabelle Smets | Tuesday 21 April 2009
Fifteen years is obviously a good time to pause and take stock. How do you rate this period?
What is certain is that we are the youngest of the EU’s institutions and so there is certainly still a long road ahead. However, it is important to consider where we’ve come from and to keep in mind that, up until the time of the Treaty of Maastricht, there was no participation by those who make up the reality of democracy, namely the local and regional authorities. Since the creation of the Committee of Regions, we have managed step by step to expand our powers and responsibilities, to impose our presence. An example: before the French and Dutch voters rejected the European Constitutional Treaty, it was still hard to get commissioners to support our activities. Nowadays, they are with us for every plenary session. Up until last December, our relations with Parliament were good but limited essentially to the Committee on Regional Development. With President Pöttering, it has now been agreed that our relations will be enlarged to all the realms of action within our remit. It was with the Council that there was the greatest void, but at the start of 2008, with the Slovenian EU Presidency, a relationship was built for the first time. We were able to draw up a contribution to the spring European Council and the Slovenian Presidency also asked us to submit an opinion on economic policy. The French Council Presidency also sought our contribution and the Czechs have asked us for two opinions: on tourism as a vector of economic development and on our contribution to the ‘Eastern partnership’. So things are falling into place, step by step, and we are continuing to explore further these interinstitutional options.
In addition, there is everything the CoR manages to do on the sidelines of the treaties. Take the example of the Union for the Mediterranean. It was not initially planned to have a territorial pillar, but under the French EU Presidency, as a result of meetings with [President] Nicolas Sarkozy and [Foreign Affairs Minister] Bernard Kouchner, we succeeded in securing an agreement by the foreign ministers for the creation of a Euro-Mediterranean regional and local assembly, proposed by the CoR. And for the Eastern partnership, the Commission invited the CoR to put in place an Eastern Europe and Southern Caucasus local and regional assembly. We had been demanding a bigger role for the regional and local authorities in Europe’s neighbourhood policy for a long time. It is now a reality.
Is there room for further institutional evolution by the CoR?
Of course. Even respecting the institutional configuration, there is still room. I count myself among those who think it is important to try to push things to their limits. Fifteen years ago, we had imagined the possibility of having a senate of the regions of Europe. That’s no longer the focal point. What counts for us is to move towards multilevel governance, not the creation of multiple bodies. That’s the approach of the future: co-responsibility through partnership. I am convinced that leeway can emerge, while respecting the treaties, through further development of the interinstitutional situation. That is why we are working on a white paper on multilevel governance. This is the first time the CoR has undertaken such an exercise and it is necessary. We have to show that there is added value in the contribution of others. This also works to the benefit of the states. Our monitoring platform on the Lisbon Strategy is a good illustration: the countries that take on board the regions’ contributions in their national action plans are more successful and achieve better results than those who draw up their plans strictly on a centralised basis. This is not ideology; it is the reality of things.
How will the new responsibilities on subsidiarity screening assigned to the CoR by the Treaty of Lisbon be put in place?
This will happen in three pillars. First, it was decided that there would be a specific subsidiarity screening component in every CoR opinion. Second, we are preparing for the possibility the treaty gives us of taking action before the European Court of Justice in cases of breach of this fundamental principle, although I hope that will never happen. The mechanisms have been developed and we have determined how to act if need be. The Commission for Constitutional Affairs, European Governance and the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice will issue its opinion on whether or not a matter should be referred to the ECJ, but the decision will be the responsibility of the president and vice-president, with the assent of the political groups. Third, I am holding talks with the national parliaments on the establishment of a structure for cooperation between them and the CoR in anticipation of the early warning mechanism introduced by the Treaty of Lisbon. This has not been easy. Because just as there has been tension in the CoR between cities and regions, there has also been tension between regions and national parliaments. A useless war in terms of subsidiarity and democracy.
A year ago, in an interview with
you discussed the question of the role of local and regional authorities in the CoR. Cohabitation has not always been easy. Where do things stand now?
There were discussions in 1994 over whether to have simply a regional assembly or to open it up to municipalities and cities. We made the choice of heterogeneousness and I think that was the appropriate choice, even if it hasn’t always been easy. We cannot compare a German
Landlike Bavaria or Baden-Würtemberg to a small municipality… But I am convinced that we have reached a more open situation, where we have a better view of each side’s opportunities. In the beginning, the idea was to fight each other. That type of discussion was frequent as recently as a few years ago but I am not seeing it now. Discussions have been rid of their complexes.