Committee of the Regions prepares for new watchdog role

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The entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty last week (1 December) created a new role for regions and local authorities, which are now able not only to be consulted earlier in the legislative process but also refer matters to the European Court of Justice if they think the EU lacks the competence to propose new laws.

During a plenary session on 3-4 December in Brussels, Committee of the Regions (CoR) members discussed new Lisbon provisions under which they can refer EU laws that infringe the principle of subsidiarity to the Court of Justice by simple majority. Subsidiarity forbids the EU to take action if it would be more effective to do so at national, regional or local level.

Thus the Lisbon Treaty boosts the institutional role of the regions’ representative body in Brussels, throughout the legislative process. Indeed, the new treaty strengthens the institutional role of the CoR by giving it the right to bring legal actions before the European Court of Justice in two distinct cases. Firstly, to protect the CoR’s own institutional prerogatives and, secondly, to request the annulment of EU legislative acts that it considers to be in breach of the principle of subsidiarity: but only in those policy areas where the treaty requires that the CoR be consulted.

Moreover, the CoR will have the right to be consulted by the three institutions (the European Parliament, the European Commission and the Council) on new policy areas, such as energy and climate change.

The Lisbon Treaty also identifies regional parliaments with legislative powers as new actors in the EU decision-making process: they will be involved in a so-called ‘subsidiarity monitoring procedure’.

As a consequence of the strengthened role of the CoR, the Party of European Socialists (PES) has decided to reinforce the role of PES Group in the Commitee of the Regions. “The PES Group in the CoR is now granted exactly the same status as the S&D Group of the European Parliament, with a much more enlarged delegation to PES Congresses and Councils,” read a statement released at the 8th PES Congress, held in Prague on 7-8 December.

"The subsidiarity check tool is like an atomic bomb: it is good to have it but never use it," Committee of the Regions  spokesperson Christian Gsodam told EURACTIV. 

"The CoR is reflecting on how it can leverage the new rules in order to influence better policies and position itself better with the other institutions," he added. 

"We also need to forge new alliances with national parliaments, which have a reinforced subsidiarity role," Gsodam said.

Committee of the Regions President Luc Van den Brande (Belgium, EPP) said that obtaining the right to initiate infringement proceedings at the Court of Justice is a great achievement in itself. "We see this new right to challenge EU laws in court more as a deterrent than an actual threat. We are convinced that this new possibility will deepen our relations with other EU institutions and national parliaments," he said.

Tirol Landtag President and head of the Austrian delegation to the Committee of the Regions Herwig Van Staa said: "This decision of the Committee of the Regions is good news. It makes clear that subsidiarity will not remain a mere theoretical issue. The Committee has given itself an efficient procedure to defend regional and local competences, should they be threatened by the EU." 

The European Union's Lisbon Treaty, eight years in the making, came into force across the bloc's 27 member states on 1 December.

EU leaders believe the Lisbon Treaty will rejuvenate the decision-making apparatus of the EU institutions, making the functioning of the 27-member Union more efficient and democratic.

The treaty re-writes the EU's basic rules, first enshrined in the 1957 Treaty of Rome, in response to some of the criticisms of its member states and their citizens.

The Committee of the Regions gathers regional and local representatives from across the EU. With 344 members from all 27 EU member states, its mission is to involve regional and local authorities and the communities they represent in the EU decision-making process and to inform them about EU policies. 

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