March 9 1994 and I was attending the inaugural meeting as a delegate to the EU Committee of the Regions (CoR).
The photo here shows a lot of male representatives – I think the UK delegation was more mixed. Unlike some of my fellow UK delegates I had little direct experience of EU politics or structures. Many of them were on other European bodies – like the Council of Europe’s regional and local government assembly. Others were involved in the close links between their council or region and Brussels – with some having an office in Brussels. Most knew Brussels well – the EU buildings, the complicated EU institutional structure, the language, and the best restaurants.
Forward to 31 January 2020 and the UK will cease having representatives on the CoR from today. How will this affect UK local government?
The Committee is a formal EU institution and the main voice for sub-national, regional and local interests in the EU. It advises the Council of Ministers, the European Commission and the European Parliament on local and regional matters. We may no longer be EU members but UK local government will still be very much affected by what happens in Brussels. So we lose that influence. Even if it is hard to assess how effective the CoR has been in protecting the subsidiarity principle – possibly because as an institution CoR has had rather a low profile in the UK.
Clearly local and regional government and the devolved administrations will want to continue collaboration with the EU whatever the eventual deal we reach. There will still be Brussels based offices representing diverse UK interests. The government needs to make future participation in networks easier and not harder – for every sector.
The involvement, then, in numerous EU networks won’t disappear. The UK delegation to CoR has been developing ideas on the future relationship between the UK and the Committee of the Regions. Brexit has raised critical issues for English, Scottish and Welsh local government and for the devolved administrations on the role they will play post Brexit. Will leaving the EU be an opportunity for strengthened decentralisation and indeed for genuine subsidiarity? I think it would be fair to say that experience so far in local government has not been that positive. The MJ reported, last November, concerns about a replacement for CoR’s consultative arrangements being watered down.
The situation with the devolved administrations is extremely complex but the Scottish government has consistently called for greater devolved powers post Brexit and has expressed concerns about how EU law will be repatriated in relation to devolved policy areas. Scottish local government will want any strengthening of devolved powers to the Scottish Government to be reflected in devolution to the local level, fully reflecting the subsidiarity principle.
So will CoR be missed? Yes, even though it has never been at the top of UK local government’s list of priorities. I have to say that being a member of the Committee of the Regions wasn’t my favourite part of being a councillor (and council leader at the time). The plenaries seemed to go on forever, with every delegation expecting to make long (and polite) speeches, especially when EU commissioners were invited. I escaped sometimes to the cafes of the Grande Place (not that often). I suspect my previous lack of direct involvement with the EU and its institutions didn’t help. But I did find the commissions (sub committees) much better. Especially the urban one – where listening to the mayors of major EU cities highlighted the huge importance of local government in shaping our communities and places. The CoR may not have been exciting. It was not as well known in UK local government as it could have been. But it is important to sub-national government across the EU – both symbolically and practically.
Local government needs to ensure that it continues dialogue and shared learning with the EU, EU countries and their sub-national governments. It is crucial that local government has a voice in shaping policy and legislation as the implications of Brexit become clear. Brexit presents both opportunities and challenges. Local government in the UK needs to make sure that what the CoR represented as the guardian of the subsidiarity principle isn’t lost in a post-Brexit UK.