The idea that European integration along supranational lines might provide an overarching framework for the re-emergence of the regions of Europe can be traced back to the immediate post-war years. Several bodies providing for direct cooperation between regions were founded in the 1940s and 1950s (see below). Some, but not all, regions have an ethnic or linguistic dimension (Flanders, the Val d’Aosta, Catalonia) and considerations of national unity, notably in France, the United Kingdom and Franco’s Spain, led many countries to resist the emergence of powerful regional entities within their borders. The original Treaty of Rome made no explicit provision for regional representation in EC decision-making. However, under the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, Article 146 EC (now Article 16(2) TEU) was amended to allow for representatives of regional governments occasionally to take the place of national min­isters in the Council of Ministers, and a new consultative body, the Committee of the Regions, was set up.

The position of sub-national levels of government varies widely among the member states of the European Union. All small member states, with the exception of Austria and Belgium (since 1993), are unitary in character. Among the larger countries, Germany has an explicitly federal struc­ture; Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom are unitary states that have granted specific regions a special legal status; whilst France and Poland are unitary states that are divided into regions, all of which are equal in status but subsidiary to the central government. (See federalism and confederalism).

Supporters of devolution of power have been quick to point out that the subsidiarity principle may be applied to the division of responsibility between national and regional government, as well as to that between member states and the institutions of the Union. Some, but not all, of the responsibilities that regional governments exercise (or are seeking) have a European dimension in the sense that they are covered by the Treaties. One of the reasons why the Maastricht Treaty was challenged in the German Federal Constitutional Court was that among many of the Länder it was felt that the federal government was ceding to the Union some powers which under the German Basic Law were wholly or partly their own (see Karlsruhe judgements).

The Council of Europe, founded in 1949, has a long-standing involvement in regional government. Initially through the Standing Conference of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe and since January 1994 through the Congress (of the same) that replaced it, the Council of Europe seeks to engage local and regional authorities in all aspects of its work. The national composition of the Congress replicates that of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). However, unlike both PACE and the Committee of the Regions, the Congress is bicameral, with one chamber for regional authorities and a another for local authorities, each nominated by the member states. Like the Assembly, the Congress adopts resolutions for consideration by the Committee of Ministers. A standing committee allows the work of the Congress to be continued between the annual sessions.

A quite separate body, the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR), was founded in 1951. It seeks to enlist the support of its membership of some 100,000 local and regional authorities in 39 countries for a ‘united and democratic Europe’, and in recent years has played an important part in promoting effective local government in central and eastern Europe. The CEM, which has its headquarters in Paris, is responsible for the ‘town-twinning’ programme – sometimes involving bizarre conjunctions, such as that between Mainz, Valencia, Zagreb, Dijon and Watford – and helps local authorities with appli­cations for aid from the European Union’s structural funds, especially the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).

A third body, the Assembly of European Regions (AER), was founded as the Council of European Regions in 1985. The main aims of the AER – which now encompasses 270 authorities in 33 countries, and is headquartered in Strasbourg – are ‘to promote regionalism and federalism in Europe’ and ‘to reinforce regional representation within the European institutions’.

A different type of regional activity has emerged in some cross-frontier areas possessing common interests and concerns. For example, in the Franco-German-Swiss region between the Vosges, the Black Forest and the Jura, and centred upon the international Basle-Mulhouse-Freiburg airport, a number of bodies have been set up for regular consultations on issues affecting the area. Equally, a Communauté de Travail des Pyrénées brings together three regions in France and four in Spain, as well as the principality of Andorra (see micro-states), to advance their joint economic and environmental priorities. These and many similar regions are members of the Association of European Border Regions, founded in 1971, which promotes cross-border cooperation. It is based in Gronau, Germany (next to the Dutch border). An association of a similar type is the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions in Europe, set up in 1973 with its headquarters in Rennes, France. The Conference aims to represent the common interest of coastal regions from the Western Isles to the Aegean, and from the Baltic to the Azores, in fishing, tourism, the environment and the coastal economy.

Further reading: Charlie Jeffery (editor), The Regional Dimension of the European Union, 1997; Carolyn Rowe, Regional Representations in the EU: Between Diplomacy and Interest Mediation, 2011; Roger Scully and Richard Wyn Jones (editors), Europe, Regions and European Regionalism, 2010.

September 2012

Copyright: Anthony Teasdale, 2012

Citation: The Penguin Companion to European Union (2012), additional website entry

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