Select Committee on European Scrutiny Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


APPENDIX 8

Memorandum submitted by the Local Government International Bureau

INTRODUCTION

  1.  The Local Government International Bureau, which acts as the European and international arm of the Local Government Association of England and Wales, welcomes the opportunity to express our views on a number of the issues and questions raised by your Committee's Inquiry. The LGIB and LGA are multi-party organisations, which seek to work by consensus.

  2.  Many of these issues and questions are ones that we are already considering, in the context of the recent European Commission's White Paper on European Governance, and the debate on the future development of the EU. We attach a copy of our submission of July 2000 which set our main ideas on the European governance theme.

  3.  Our overarching approach is that good governance requires an equal partnership and co-operation between all of the spheres of government, to tackle the big issues facing our citizens. We say "spheres" rather than "levels" of government, because we do not believe that the top-down, linear model of decision-making is appropriate or relevant to the modern world. To take a highly current example, the recent attacks on New York and Washington have required, and will require, strong co-operation between the Federal, State and city governments. None can successfully act by itself to resolve the huge issues and problems facing those cities. More widely, the issues of the environment, urban regeneration, employment creation etc. cannot be addressed by one "level" alone.

  4.  We also believe that this European debate on governance, democracy and accountability has importance for our domestic UK consideration of the relationship between the spheres of government. In the near future, the government will publish a White Paper on local government. We believe it essential that this White Paper includes a clear vision and conceptual model for the contemporary central-local relationship—and the discussions across Europe on governance, partnership, proximity and subsidiarity provide important principles to underpin our own system of governance.

TAKING FORWARD THE WHITE PAPER ON EUROPEAN GOVERNANCE

  5.  The recent White Paper on European Governance breaks new ground in some of its key recommendations. Its overall approach is set out in Part II which sets out some key principles, and reflects that the EU's legitimacy "today depends on involvement and participation". The linear model of dispensing policies from above must be replaced by a virtuous circle, based on feedback, networks and involvement from policy creation to implementation at all levels."

  6.  It recommends that the Commission should organise "a systematic dialogue with European and national associations of regional and local government", while respecting national constitutional and administrative arrangements. The purpose of the dialogue is to ensure that local and regional knowledge and conditions are properly taken into account in policy shaping. It also recommends that Member States should have adequate mechanisms for wide consultation when discussing EU decisions and implementing EU policies with a territorial dimension.

  7.  We believe that these recommendations, together with those in relation to civil society, go some considerable way to engage a wider range of actors in European policy-making, without affecting the formal decision-making process and accountabilities. At present, the system is procedurally complex, even arcane, and seen as mainly the preserve of the EU's institutions and central governments within the Member States. This affects, negatively, the sense of "ownership" of European legislation and policy-making. We say this while recognising the important democratic role of the European Parliament, and likewise the consultative role of the Committee of the Regions and of the Economic and Social Committee.

  8.  If local government in the UK is to play, with our European counterparts, a more organised and active role in European policy-shaping, it follows that we will need to ensure that we are connected to our citizens. Central and local government have, in recent years, taken significant steps to improve consultation and participation, and this will need to include more specific European agendas, where relevant. The Commission foresees a link between a closer dialogue with local and regional government, and a commitment on our part to keep citizens informed on European issues and developments.

  9.  The Commission also recommends that local and (where it exists) regional government are more fully consulted by national governments—the latter should "examine how to improve the involvement of local and regional actors in EU policy-making." We hope that the UK government will explore, with LGA and LGIB, how to achieve this within our context. This is another aspect to improving "joined-up government", across government departments, and between the spheres of government.

SPECIFIC QUESTIONS FROM THE INQUIRY

  10.  The following paragraphs give our ideas on some of the questions posed by the Inquiry. Others (not listed below) are beyond our remit.

What are the underlying reasons for the apparent "disconnection" between national electorates and the EU?

  11.  This question raises fundamental issues that go beyond our specific brief. Those issues include the wider "disconnection" of many citizens, even within national states, exemplified in lower turn-outs for most kinds of election. It covers too the problem of how (whether) individuals feel able to influence decisions and events that are taken either in global bodies, or by world regional organisations, of which the EU is the most developed. It also, however, raises the "problem" that, in the UK in particular, there is little sense of self-identification by citizens as being "European" in addition to other identities.

  12.  We believe that there are issues related to the way the EU presents itself and acts, and the current poor quality of much information and communication on EU issues within the UK, where public understanding is generally also of a poor quality. The EU is seen as distant and either irrelevant, or as intervening at an excessively detailed level. We believe that the EU and all of us involved in government within Member States need to improve the presentation of European affairs, and explain more clearly the reasons for EU action. A co-ordinated approach between us is required.

  13.  We also believe that the principle of subsidiarity is usually misunderstood, even by the EU institutions and national governments. In the Treaties, the principle is only seen to apply between the EU and the Member States, but its true meaning requires also that local and regional government are included in its ambit. In essence, subsidiarity means that decisions and action should be taken by the sphere of government closest to the citizen that is effective for the purpose in question. This approach is valid for decision-making within the UK, as well as in relation to European affairs. We believe that most people will understand that in today's world, many decisions need to be taken from a pan-European perspective. But they feel alienated when decisions that are local or regional in essence are determined by the EU or indeed by national governments. In recent times, reference is also increasingly made to the related principle of "proximity". Article 1 of the Treaty on European Union states that

    "This Treaty marks a new stage in the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe, in which decisions are taken as openly as possible and closely as possible to the citizen."

  There are however no current means specified for making this commitment to proximity a reality.

  14.  We believe that a small but important means of bridging the "disconnection" is via mutual exchange of experience. Partnerships between cities, regions and local authorities have played a useful role in improving co-operation and understanding. Twinning has, despite some criticisms, been a means of bringing thousands of people together across Europe's old frontiers. Such transnational links should be of even greater importance in relation to the EU candidate countries, but at present there are no funding programmes—outside the modest European Commission twinning grant—that are easily accessible to local and regional authorities. This is despite the fact that local and regional government play a key role in implementing the laws and policies of the EU, including the acquis communautaire.

What changes are needed to the EU's legislative process to facilitate democratic scrutiny before decisions are made? Is there adequate consultation at early enough stages?

  15.  It follows from our support for the White Paper proposals that we strongly believe in a wider, better organised dialogue and consultation, by the Commission and national governments, at a formative stage in EU policy and law making. There is consultation on many issues, and there are many effective European lobbies, but no overall means of ensuring that relevant interests and expertise are taken into account at the critical time. Once a formal proposal is drafted and on the table, it is far more difficult to achieve any necessary changes. At the outset, it needs to be determined whether European action is necessary, and if so whether a new legal instrument is required, or whether alternative means can deliver the desired result.

  16.  We do not propose any change to the essence of the formal decision-making process, ie to the fundamental roles of Commission, Council and Parliament, but believe that the current legislative processes, with their alternatives, are too complex. We believe that the consultative role of the Committee of the Regions needs to be strengthened, including improvements in CoR's communication with the institutions, and a commitment by those institutions to take more fully into account the views expressed.

  17.  A fuller, better organised role for local government and for civil society in European policy-making is not only required for technical reasons. It can also demonstrate a wider shift in the EU's identity from one effectively for European and national elites, to one that welcomes the positive involvement of all sections of society.

Could national Parliaments play a greater role in informing the public about the EU and its activities, and in channelling the public's views to EU institutions?

  18.  We believe the answer to this is "yes", but that the role is far from limited to Parliaments. As indicated above, we see local government as also playing an important "channelling" role. We recommend that a UK workshop be held, involving central government, MPs, and local and regional government representatives, to discuss how to enhance European information and consultation processes within the UK in a co-ordinated way.

What is the potential contribution of delimitation of competences, subsidiarity and variable-speed Europe to reducing any "disconnection" between electorates and political institutions? Would a clear statement of the EU's purpose help? What impact will enlargement have?

  19.  The current EU has grown up in a fairly organic way, and the way the Treaties re drafted reflects the different historic "layers" of inter-governmental decision-making. The Treaty of Nice was important in preparing the ground for enlargement, but it is exceedingly complex. We believe that in the coming years, there needs to be a rethink about how the Treaties are drafted, without necessarily changing the EU's basic roles in a fundamental way. If the people of Europe are to understand the need for European action, and give greater legitimacy to the EU, we need to achieve more simplicity and transparency in the working of the EU, as well as wider practical involvement.

  20.  First, we believe that there needs to be a clearer statement of the EU's overall objectives, including if appropriate a "mission statement". The current Treaties set out similar but different objectives for the EU and for the EC, for example. The EU has the objectives set out in Article 2, whilst the EC has (in its Article 2) what are called tasks, but are really objectives. There are various other objectives scattered across the Treaty. We do not expect millions of citizens to study Treaties, but a clear set of objectives would, we believe, help in getting a clearer public understanding and acceptance of the EU's role.

  21.  Second, we query whether the distinction between a European Union and a European Community is any longer meaningful. It is another source of confusion, even for those with some general interest in European affairs.

  22.  Third, we believe that it is important to clarify the competences of the EU/EC, but do not accept the need for competences to be "delimited" if, by the word "delimit" is meant a rigid separation. We believe (in line with the Commission's view expressed in the White Paper) that the EU's competences will for the most part be shared competences. This does not mean that all spheres of government can act in the same way on any question—this would be a recipe for confusion. But it does mean that competences such as "the environment" cannot sensibly be allocated exclusively either to the EU, or to Member States.

  23.  Moreover, we need to be clear what we mean by "competences". It is often assumed that a competence means a power to legislate; but the dictionary definition is that of a legal power to act. Legislation is one way of acting, but powers to spend public money, to regulate, to take quasi-judicial decisions etc, are all "competences". Within the EC, one of the current key competences is indeed a non-legislative one—that of co-ordination of employment policies.

  24.  It follows that it is not only the EU, national governments/Parliaments and regions with legislative powers that have competences. All spheres of government, including local and regional governments, have competences. To take the environment again as an example, there is a role for the EU, for national governments, and for regional and local governments. To deliver a better environment requires partnership between all, respecting our different roles, powers and perspectives. The concept of sharing competences, not separating competences, is of vital importance for good governance.

  25.  The way competences are expressed in the current Treaties needs to be made more clear and more uniform, in language and level of detail. Some key competences (currently called "activities" in Article 3) are expressed in general terms with little detail, eg those on state aids and competition. Other competences, of relatively lesser importance, are set out in great detail. But there is also no clarity on how far a competence or activity currently permits law-making, as against other forms of EC action (eg funding programmes).

  26.  In sum, we believe that there is a need for a simplification and clarification of the EU/EC's competences, and that each competence should set out clearly whether it carries a power to legislate, or to take some other form of action. We commend the idea of there being a clear statement of the overall aim, and major objectives, of the EU.

  27.  We have already set out our main view on subsidiarity. We strongly believe that the Treaties should include a definition of subsidiarity, not simply (as at present) state that the principle applies, between the EU and Member States. This definition would make clear that the principle applies within Member States, as well as between national governments and the EU. We accept that the implementation of the principle within Member States is a matter for each State, for two reasons. First, the competences of local and regional government across Europe vary greatly at present, making a uniform approach impracticable. Second, because to try to lay down detailed guidelines at European "level" is itself in contradiction with the principle.

  28.  Whilst arguing for subsidiarity to be defined in the Treaty, we are not seeking to make the principle legally enforceable. To do so would make the EU far too legalistic at this stage of its development, giving too much policy remit to the judges. But this means that strong political bodies are required to oversee the proper implementation of the principle. One such body is needed to "police" the principle between EU and Member States. But we also believe that some such body will be required within each Member State, to monitor the principle as between national, regional and local government. We do not here seek to define the composition of these bodies. In the European domain, we see a role for national as well as European Parliamentarians.

  29.  In tandem with subsidiarity, we believe it is now timely for the Treaties to recognise formally the vital role of local government. The Council of Europe's Charter of Local Self-Government has been signed by all Member States, and ratified by most (we understand that steps to ratify are at last being taken forward in France). We recommend that the principles of local self-government are set out or referred to in the Treaties, giving some broad guidance to the practical application of the subsidiarity principle.

  30.  LGA and LGIB have consistently, on a cross-party basis, supported the enlargement process. There is not space here to go into details, but we do have some concern that enlargement may lead to even more lack of interest in the EU, eg from local authorities who see regional funding "moving east". This makes it all the more important to improve the clarity, quality and relevance of the EU's remit, work and presentation, and to engage wider sectors more fully in European policy shaping.

What contribution can be made by regional and local government and devolved institutions in the UK and elsewhere, and should the EU have any new institutional arrangements in this respect?

  31.  Throughout this submission, we have argued for a fuller involvement of local and regional government in European governance, and do not seek to repeat what we have said. We believe that there should be a European dialogue with local and regional government, analogous to the social dialogue. A dialogue is a two-way conversation, not simply consultation (though it should include formal consultation). This dialogue on Europe should operate within the UK also.

  32.  On the other hand, we do not argue for any major changes to the EU institutional set-up. Since the Council is a legislator, there is a need to make its proceedings more open. Under the Treaty of Nice, all members of the Committee of the Regions will have to have a democratic mandate (already required under UK law), and we consider that the views of the CoR will need to be given more attention than has always been the case. If there are steps to set up a second chamber of the European Parliament (on which we do not have a policy position), then we believe there are strong arguments to include local and regional representatives, as well as national Parliamentarians. This would reflect the existing approach to second chambers within some Member States.

  33.  We should add that there is a further question of importance under this general heading, that of the role of regions with legislative powers (such as the German Laender and Scottish Parliament). Some of these regions are now meeting together as a separate grouping and aim to increase their involvement and influence in European law and policy-making. Some of them have argued that the Committee of the Regions should be split into two separate "chambers", one for this category of regions. The LGA has recently considered this question, and has emphasized the need to maintain the Committee of the Regions as a common forum for all of the infra-national democratic authorities, since local and regional government are of equal importance. LGA recognizes that regions with legislative powers have some common interests which they will wish from time to time to meet to co-ordinate, but that such co-ordination must in no way undermine the overall interests of infra-national governments.

How should the debate on the future of Europe be conducted, eg should there be a convention, and if so, how could it be made representative and how should it operate?

  34.  LGIB/LGA have not taken a specific position on the issue of a convention, but if there is a formal body of this kind, then we strongly believe that local and regional government need to be represented on it. We believe it vital that the Committee of the Regions, at least, has full membership. More broadly, we believe that a purely intergovernmental involvement in the process of Treaty changes is no longer appropriate. The issues are of wide interest and concern, and as part of our overall approach to governance, we emphasize the need for partnership and participation. Local and regional governments are, of course, governmental not non-governmental actors, and our contribution should not be conflated with that of NGOs and civil society.

  35.  Accordingly, we favour the setting up of some kind of body (convention or forum) that brings together the wide range of those with an interest in the future governance of Europe, which by definition includes local and regional government. Such a body does not necessarily need to strive for a single option to put to the IGC, but given the likely divergences, needs to clarify the issues and choices. The convention or forum itself needs to be open and participative, enabling the widest range of inputs from citizens and their organisations.

4 October 2001



 
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