Power to the people: Belgium sets the template for Europe

Author (Person)
Series Title
Series Details Vol.7, No.30, 26.7.01, p8
Publication Date 26/07/2001
Content Type

Date: 26/07/01

By David Cronin

An 'informal' gathering of little-known politicians in a windswept Belgian provincial capital isn't the kind of event that sends pulses racing among the international media. Yet history was made at the EU regional ministers meeting in Namur earlier this month. For the first time a local government politician presided over the European Union's powerhouse, the Council of Ministers. Jean-Claude Van Cauwenberghe, Minister-President of Wallonia, was thrust into that position by a combination of legal and political factors. The legal factor was a seldom-invoked clause in the Maastricht Treaty which allows governments to be represented at Council level by ministers from regional authorities. The political - and arguably more important - factor was Belgium's desire to promote debate on giving the Union's regions a say in shaping its future. One of the enduring contradictions of Belgian politics is that parties supporting greater

European integration frequently want more segregation between its deepl-divided French and Dutch-speaking communities. Preparations for its stint in the Union's driving seat have seen the country's Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt urging that the EU becomes so powerful ordinary people have to pay a tax directly to it and overseeing reforms which whittle away the influence he wields over his own citizens. Just days before the Belgian presidency began on 1 July, its parliament rubber-stamped the Lambermont Accord - named after Verhofstadt's residence. (The Francophone Walloons call it St Polycarpe after the little-known saint's day on which it was agreed in January). The accord's effect will be so much devolution that centralised Brussels authorities will have little role other than collecting taxes and handling social security; from 2001 Belgium won't even have a single farm ministry but one each for its Flemings, Walloons and German speakers.

Until now the input which such regions have in EU decision making has been extremely restricted. True, they have members sitting in the Committee of the Regions, which is consulted about important issues such as social policy and the environment. But the 222-strong assembly will have little more than a cameo role in European affairs unless it is conferred with the status of joint-legislator with the bigger institutions. Nevertheless, nine MEPs from parties advocating greater autonomy for Europe's so-called stateless nations - including Galicia, the Basque country, Scotland and Wales - have had a significant influence on the 'regionalisation' debate. By joining forces with ecologically-minded parties, the deputies have become part of the European Parliament's fourth-largest political group, the Greens/European Free Alliance (EFA). EFA leader Nelly Maes from the Flemish nationalist party, Volksunie (not to be confused with the extreme-right Vlaams Blok), believes the declaration on the future of Europe which EU leaders hope to agree at this December's summit in Laeken should lay down a clear marker for how the continent can develop more along federal than intergovernmental lines. Asked to explain her vision of a federal Europe, Maes advocates a twin-track approach to avoid an EU superstate. It would involve giving regions a direct link to the EU institutions and more tangible powers over policies usually devised either at national or Union level. "Fisheries offers a concrete example of where there should be a new division of competences," she said. "Fishery policy is far more important to Scotland than London, to Brittany than Paris, to Galicia than Madrid. Yet all those regions have no real say on fisheries policy." For her own country, Maes wants "more Flanders, less Belgium and more Europe". She is not plotting the overthrow of Verhofstadt's administration "but if tomorrow the state is not there, then I won't be in tears".

This week European Commission chief Romano Prodi has given the regionalists a boost. His long-promised White Paper on European governance commits the executive to designing a system under which regional and local governments can be consulted more regularly about EU policy and at an earlier stage in the decision-making process. Prodi, however, is scant on details about his intentions. John Palmer, director of the European Policy Centre think-tank, contends clearer rules covering the principle of 'subsidiarity' are sorely needed. Although this means that decisions should be taken at the most appropriate level, it has sometimes been cited by the Commission as a reason to wriggle out of handling political hot potatoes in Brussels. Transport chief

Loyola de Palacio, for instance, has used the concept to avoid proposing binding rules on drink-driving limits, arguing instead that these should be set at national level. "EU policy-makers are going to have to illuminate more fully who decides what and who is accountable to whom for what," Palmer said. Apart from Belgium, Italy and Britain could be the two states which undertake the widest devolution steps in the coming years, Palmer believes. Silvio Berlusconi has vowed to examine the relationship between Rome and the rest of Italy, while England is expected to follow the example of

Scotland and Wales by ceding powers from Westminster to local areas. "It may well be that the member state which proceeds furthest down the federal route in the coming years is Britain," added Palmer. "This is not directly because of the EU debate but certainly interfaces with it." In a submission to the Belgian presidency, umbrella group CPMR (Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions of Europe) addressed the next round of talks on revising the EU treaties, which the Laeken summit will kickstart. The CPMR believes that if the member states decide that a specially-appointed convention should thrash out the proposed amendments, then representatives of regional authorities should be included on it.

"Many people argue that decentralisation and devolution are internal matters for member states," said CPMR spokeswoman Sandra Mezzadri. "But we've arrived at the moment where it's necessary to discuss them at EU level."

Major feature on the developing role of regions in the EU.

Subject Categories