Select Committee on European Scrutiny Thirty-Third Report


156. Sub-Member State authorities, including the UK's devolved institutions, have no formal status in the EU, which is a partnership of Member States. They are recognised only through the Committee of the Regions, which has a purely advisory role. To a substantial extent their problems in respect of the EU are similar to those of national parliaments, especially the lack of openness and transparency in the legislative process, and they would benefit from the same remedies, such as more time to consider proposed legislation. However, they are also a step further removed from EU decision-making, and their interests usually have to be defended by their Member State.

157. There is of course a great variety of sub-Member State authorities. Pressure for change is greatest among those with legislative powers. The recent report of the Scottish Parliament's European Committee criticised the fact that Member States negotiate on proposals without direct input from sub-Member State authorities, even when new legislation relates to devolved matters, that sub-Member State authorities consequently have to pursue policies which accord with priorities set elsewhere, and that the EU 'remains in the main wedded to a conception of the Member States as unitary States'.[288] Up to 18 March 2001, only about 10% of Council meetings had been attended by Scottish Executive Ministers.[289] However, the Scottish Executive's Deputy First Minister considered that 'it would be wrong to over-estimate the difficulties', and cited examples of Scottish interests being taken into account, and the Scottish Executive states that it enjoys 'good relationships with the UK Government in contributing to UK policy making on EU matters'.[290] Nevertheless, the Deputy First Minister wanted greater flexibility in EU legislation and an opportunity for sub-Member State authorities to make their views known at an earlier stage of legislation, together with 'a more formal recognition by the institutions of the Union that we exist'.[291]

158. The Laeken Declaration is virtually silent about regions, other than asking how it can be ensured that a redefined division of competences does not lead to encroachment on the competences of Member States 'and, where there is provision for this, regions'. Subsidiarity can of course apply within Member States, but it would be a contradiction of the principle for the EU itself to seek to apply it within Member States. However, proposals for change in the EU's relationship with sub-Member State authorities have been made recently by the Commission and have been considered by the EP's Constitutional Affairs Committee.

159. In its White Paper on European governance, the Commission notes criticisms that the role of regional and local government 'as an elected and representative channel interacting with the public on EU policy is not exploited', that 'legislation adopted by the Council and the European Parliament is either too detailed, or insufficiently adapted to local conditions and experience', and that 'national governments are often perceived as not adequately involving regional and local actors in preparing their positions on EU policies'. It proposes that:

  • 'The Commission should ensure that regional and local knowledge and conditions are taken into account when developing policy proposals', and it should therefore 'organise a systematic dialogue with European and national associations of regional and local government';

  • 'There should be more flexibility in the means provided for implementing legislation and programmes with a strong territorial impact, provided the level playing field at the heart of the internal market can be maintained';

  • The Commission should test whether certain EU policies could be better implemented through target-based tripartite contracts between Commission, Member States and regions or localities;

  • 'The territorial impact of EU policies in areas such as transport, energy or environment should be addressed'.[292]

160. The Local Government Information Bureau believes the Commission's proposals, including its recommendation relating to consultation by Member States, will 'go some considerable way to engage a wider range of actors in European policy-making, without affecting the formal decision-making process and accountabilities'.[293] The Scottish Executive and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities also regard the White Paper as 'a major step forward', which they warmly welcome, though they also call for direct consultation of sub-Member State authorities by the Commission and make other proposals.[294]

161. The proposals put to the EP's Constitutional Affairs Committee for 'partner regions of the Union' status are a matter of ongoing debate, though they would apply only to regional authorities designated by Member States. The status would confer certain rights, 'linked to their involvement in Community policies': 'representation in the Committee of the Regions (where not all regions with legislative powers sit at the moment); [the] right to be consulted by the Commission when it is preparing legislation falling within their jurisdiction; [and the] possibility of bringing actions directly in the Court of Justice on competence disputes concerning them'.[295]

162. The Committee argues that almost half the States of the Union now have regions with legislative powers, and, as the Commission is not officially aware of their existence, 'the number of problems involving the conception, application or transposition of Community law has recently increased'. Moreover,

    'the forthcoming enlargement of the Union to include many small countries may raise political difficulties for large regions in the existing Member States. This is because it will create a situation in which entitities with a few thousand inhabitants are entitled to be represented as such in the Union, each one having a minister and a right to vote in every formation of the Council, one Commissioner, a quota of Commission staff, and members of the European Parliament, as well as having its language recognised as an official language of Europe, whereas historic regions with several million inhabitants, which make a major contribution to the economic dynamism of the Union and to the funding of its budget would still be unrecognised by the European treaties'.[296]

 The Constitutional Affairs Committee's draft report also put forward the 'common sense' argument that the Commission should consult those responsible for an area of policy in accordance with the way Member States have chosen to devolve such responsibilities.[297]

163. We note the conclusions of the Scottish Parliament's European Committee report in 2001 on the subject of partners of the Union:

    'We recommend that the Commission refines its ideas for "partnership agreements" with the constitutional regions/nations. We recommend that a vital component of such agreements must be for these countries or regions to have privileged access to the Commission for pre-legislative consultation'.[298]

164. The Constitutional Affairs Committee's draft report acknowledged that there is opposition to the partner regions of the Union proposal, partly based on the view that the Treaties should not mention sub-Member State authorities at all and partly because some States have no regions which would benefit.[299] Commissioner Barnier drew attention to the inequalities which would arise between authorities with and without legislative powers[300] (for example Scotland and Wales), and indicated that the problem was 'how can we recognise the role of regions without undermining the position of the Member States'.[301]

165. We would not support new rights which undermined the position of Member States by making sub-Member State authorities their competitors in the EU. Also, we emphasise that the EU should not intervene in the internal organisation of Member States. There are still unanswered questions about how the proposal for partner regions of the Union status might work in practice. However, despite the silence of the Laeken Declaration on the subject, we do believe the Convention should discuss the involvement of sub-Member State authorities in the EU.

166. As regards the specific rights proposed to be linked to 'partner regions of the Union' status, we have not examined in detail the composition of the Committee of the Regions. The Scottish Executive's Deputy First Minister was not enthusiastic about direct access to the ECJ, on the practical grounds that a political process for remedying subsidiarity problems would be quicker.[302]

167. As for consultation, we note that the Government welcomes improved consultation between EU institutions and the devolved, regional and local authorities.[303] We regard it as common sense for the Commission to consult authorities with legislative powers which will have to transpose and implement new EU legislation and to take particular notice of their views. We believe that the Convention on the Future of Europe should fully explore whether any such consultation or access to the Commission should be 'privileged'.[304]

288   Scottish Parliament, Paper 466, paras. 31-6, 54. Back

289   Q. 365. Back

290   QQ. 347, 355; The European governance White Paper: joint comments: Scottish Executive and COSLA, March 2002, para. 18. Back

291   QQ. 347, 351, 377. Back

292   European governance: a White Paper, pp. 12-13. Back

293   Ev. 182. Back

294   The European governance White Paper: joint comments: Scottish Executive and COSLA, paras. 3, 7. Back

295   EP, 2001/2024 (INI), Lamassoure report (draft), p. 20. Back

296   EP, A5-0133/2002, Lamassoure report, p. 24. Back

297   EP, 2001/2024 (INI), Lamassoure report (draft), p. 20. Back

298   SP Paper 466, para. 213. Back

299   EP, 2001/2024 (INI), Lamassoure report (draft), p. 20. Back

300   Q. 114. Back

301   Ibid. Back

302   Q. 377. Back

303   Ev 113. Back

304   SP Paper 466, para. 213. Back

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