24th Session of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe (Strasbourg, 19-21 March 2013)

Round table on: “Regionalisation and devolution in Europe in a context of economic crisis”

Europe, regions and the crisis: citizens are expecting not only economic, but also political responses

Strasbourg, 20.03.2013 - While the regions of Europe intend to prove that they are capable of meeting the challenges thrown up by the economic crisis and preparing their citizens’ future, they are also seeing their own resources, and even their powers, whittled away by the financial and social difficulties weakening the continent.

When it decided to devote a large part of its March 2013 plenary session to the effects of the economic crisis on local and regional authorities, the Congress resolved to give priority to seeking solutions and to practical debate. That objective was fully met at the Round Table held on 20 March by the Chamber of Regions on “Regionalisation and devolution in Europe in a context of economic crisis”, during which speakers were blunt about the risks that the current crisis entailed for Europe’s social, economic and political cohesion.

Of course, as pointed out at the opening of the Round Table by Ulrike Guérot, a German representative of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), a number of regions continue to display rude health, but they are wrong to think that they can for ever remain islets of prosperity in a stormy sea. The increasing inequalities between urban and rural areas, as well as between the more central regions of the European Union and the others, presents a human, social and political challenge to the whole continent.

The regions, according to the President of the Assembly of European Regions (AER),

Michèle Sabban, have at their disposal of number of economic levers to attenuate the effects of the crisis, in the form of employment and investment assistance, but they also need to learn to work more efficiently, optimising their own structures. That is, moreover, what Alsace, France’s smallest region, and also home to the Council of Europe and to the Congress, is preparing to do. It is moving towards a merger of its two departments and the regional council to form a single new regional entity, one which will be more effective, more efficient and more visible, as described by Jean-Marie Belliard (EPP/CCE, France), speaking on behalf of Alsace Regional Council.

Are European policies appropriate to the current crisis?

But looking beyond economic development, regions must have their say about the political future of Europe. The President of the Conference of European Regional Legislative Assemblies (CALRE) and of the Brussels regional parliament, Françoise Dupuis, called for a fresh economic start for Europe and highlighted the European Union’s “democratic deficit”, pointing out that it was time to bring the EU back into phase with people’s expectations in terms of development and well-being.

Bruno Marziano, a member of the Regional Assembly of Sicily, and Congress rapporteur on regions with special status in Europe, emphasised the political role that regions can play in the stability of Europe, particularly by tempering separatist tendencies, and then called for greater flexibility in the management of European funds. These were still difficult to obtain and to manage, and had numerous conditions attached which prevented optimum use from being made of them. In his view, it was particularly important to make the mechanisms of the European stability pact more flexible so as to encourage investment and European co-funding of economic activities. “Europe has been built up since 1945 in order to avoid further hardship and war for the younger generations, and now needs to help its countries to emerge from the crisis”, he said, rounding off his statement on an alarmist note which was also perceptible in Congress members’ reactions to these five speakers.

There is a risk of Europe being rejected by its citizens!

Several speakers said that the aim now was to “preserve” both Europe and peace on the continent. The word “separatism” was the subject of much comment during the debate, for, although it is not necessarily a bad thing in itself, as pointed out by Andrew Boff, a member of the London Assembly, it is also a consequence of excessive centralisation. Françoise Dupuis said that there was a risk of Europe and its values breaking up, and other speakers then pointed to the extent to which the crisis had become unbearable for Europeans, and particularly for the younger generations.

“We can feel anxiety and instability increasing in Europe”, summed up Marie-Madeleine Mialot-Muller (SOC, France), Vice-President of the Regional Council of the Centre region, Congress rapporteur on regionalisation, who was afraid of increasing public rejection of Europe. A strengthening of regions’ institutional and economic role may help to forestall such rejection, but regions also needed to convey their citizens’ views better to the European bodies. They should point out that Europe needed solidarity and cohesion, and, through their action, help to give new hope to young people.

The Chamber of Regions will continue its work along three main lines:

-          Governance: what is the best way of distributing powers between European, national, regional and local levels with due regard for the principle of subsidiarity?  What new means of enhancing citizen participation in the decision-making process are available to local and regional authorities, particularly through the use of new information technologies?  

-          Economic efficiency: how do we see to it, through an efficient distribution of powers and resources and effective co-operation between the various levels of responsibility, that the best possible use is made of public money? This is particularly important in current times, when the financial and economic crisis is threatening to turn into a social and political one and the level of mistrust between citizens and their political leaders is especially high. In this context, promoting an ethical approach and preventing corruption become particularly important.

-          The rise of regional forms of nationalism: what are the causes of this and the possible consequences, and what kinds of political response are available to us?