Belgium’s decentralized system favours greater autonomy for regions and results in an effective governance, improving service delivery to citizens and enhancing democratic stability, according to the President of the Committee of the Regions, Michel Lebrun.
Michel Lebrun is President of the Committee of the Regions (CoR) as well as a local councillor in Viroinval (Belgium).
He spoke to EURACTIV Greece’s Sarantis Michalopoulos in Brussels, during the European Week of Regions and Cities.
There is strong criticism on one side, for the lack of involvement of the Regions in the discussion about the new Multiannual Financial Framework and on the other hand, for the poor performance of many regions (mainly in the South) in terms of absorption of funds and transparency. Where does CoR stand on this issue?
The Committee of the Regions is a consultative body in the EU decision-making process and has played an important role in making the voice of regions and cities heard during the Multiannual Financial Framework negotiations. Thanks to these efforts, with a budget of more than €350bn accounting for around a third of the overall EU budget, cohesion policy has been confirmed as the main tool for investment in Europe. This is a huge achievement if we consider the persistent calls to cut the EU budget, the tide of scepticism against the idea of promoting convergence among EU economies, and attempts to “re-nationalise” development policies in some Member States.
However, we have had to defend cohesion policy allocations whilst in some Member States, national and regional governments did not manage to take advantage of the opportunities it has to offer. The situation on the ground is not that simple.
In the last part of the programming phase, expenditure delays have been reduced. Nevertheless, during the worst phase of the crisis, several national and regional administrations have had huge difficulties in finding the resources needed to match EU funds (co-financing). The Stability and Growth Pact ceiling applied to the overall expenditure made it impossible for them to invest the money needed to mobilise cohesion funds without respecting the ceilings of the Pact. This is an issue that I have raised with the new Commission. I am confident that EU states and the European Parliament will be very attentive to our concern.
What is the answer of the regions to the economic crisis?
Overcoming the economic crisis has proved to be mostly a regional challenge as 60% of the investments made by local and regional authorities are done with the help of cohesion policy
In most cases regions and cities are the only engines that are capable of restarting growth and creating jobs, boosting innovation and recovering competitiveness by mobilising local energies and assets on place-specific priorities. The EU budget for regional policy (€450 billion – including national and regional co-financing) should be directed to priorities such as supporting SMEs, innovation, education, low carbon economy, infrastructure. A stronger focus on a limited number of objectives will allow for a stronger and more immediate on economic growth and job creation.
Do you feel that the CoR should take a more institutional role in the next treaty –be transformed to a real representative of the regions in EU?
In a European Union where sustainable growth and job creation are increasingly achieved through targeted action at the regional and local level, there is a clear need for the greater involvement of regional and local representatives in EU decision-making process. I would call for the Committee of the Regions to develop into a “European Senate of the Regions”, a second territorial chamber. This “European Senate” would, of course, require a more in-depth debate in the context of a possible European Convention, something I would be pleased to see come to fruition in the longer term. In concrete terms, it would allow EU regional and local authorities to participate and decide on key issues relating to economic, social and territorial cohesion.
Taking into consideration Scotland, Catalonia, Italy some say, it seems that regionalism is gaining ground in Europe. What is CoR’s standpoint on that issue?
The Committee the Regions does not take any position on the internal constitutional arrangements of Member States. However, we do consider decentralisation and regionalisation as a key factor to develop democracy and proximity to citizens. With regards to the process of decentralisation that Europe is currently living, the Committee adopted an opinion [hyperlink] on this particular issue. We are of the view that any region that secedes from a Member State should apply to become a new member of the EU.
Isn’t it contradictory that the CoR has offices only in Brussels? Would you consider creating representation offices on national level to enhance visibility and synergies?
In a way, the Committee has more than a single representation office in each Member State as it can count on its “European ambassadors” on the ground. Our members, both local and regional elected representatives, act to represent the voice of their citizens in the European area, whilst at the same time bring Europe to the local level as part of their daily activities.
The Committee is committed to decentralising its actions, especially in the sense of improving its communications with citizens. With this in mind, the Committee and its members are keen to reinforce cooperation with the European Parliament Information Offices in each of the Member States, the European Commission’s representations, as well as the Europe Direct network.
There are significant differences between the competences Regions have in different member states. What is your most preferable model?
I would like to speak about what I know best: Belgium. As a strong advocate of decentralisation, regional autonomy and local self-government, the Belgian “model” is also obviously very dear to my heart.
Belgium is actually one of the most decentralised states in the European Union. As part of a federal structure, Belgian regions have extensive powers, exercising their authorities with regards to the economy, employment, housing, public works, energy, transport, the environment, foreign trade, and so on.
The sixth Belgian State reform from 2011 goes even further in the decentralisation process, with the transfer of additional competences from the Federal State to Regions and Communities and the strengthening of region’s fiscal autonomy.
The Belgian administrative and political system is obviously not perfect – no system can be – but the high degree of autonomy it has given to its subnational entities prove to be a great factor in achieving good governance, improving service delivery to the citizens and enhancing democratic stability.