New regional assembly president faces imminent electoral challenge

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Italian socialist politician Mercedes Bresso, who was yesterday (10 February) elected new president of the Committee of the Regions (CoR), could have a short-lived reign if she loses a political contest for leadership of the Piedmont region on 28-29 March.

Her victory was the fruit of intense political bargaining between the three major political groups in the CoR: the EPP (European People's Party; 130 members), the S&D (Socialists & Democrats; 127 members) and ALDE groups (47 members).

With 230 of the 255 members present backing the Italian, the results point to a behind-closed-doors agreement concluded in advance of yesterday's vote. The 25 abstentions stemmed from non-aligned members.

In her address to the CoR plenary, Bresso pledged to continue strengthening the regional assembly in the manner of her immediate predecessors: Belgian Christian Democrat Luc Van den Brande and French Socialist Michel Delebarre.

She highlighted the new powers awarded to the CoR by the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty (EURACTIV 10/02/10), but warned that "we should not forget that this Treaty will be what we will make of it". In particular, she stressed its potential for improved territorial cooperation and citizens' initiatives.

Bresso's March election test raises eyebrows

However, despite the new possibilities afforded to her presidency by the treaty, Bresso could not ignore the long shadow that looms over her in relation to the upcoming electoral challenge in Piedmont. "The merit of political representatives is measured through elections. Today I succeeded in the election of the presidency of the Committee of the Regions, but […] next month I will face the verdict of the polls in my region," she said.

In the March regional elections Bresso faces opposition from right-wing coalition candidate Roberto Cota, a member of the far-right Northern League, the junior party in Silvio Berlusconi's government.

Even though Berlusconi's party, the PDL (People of Liberty) voted with the rest of the EPP to elect Bresso to the CoR presidency, eyebrows were raised among some of its members, who claimed that Bresso's candidacy was a forced act considering the timing.

If Bresso is voted down in the March elections she faces two options: she can either resign or attempt to cling to power by being appointed to an administrative role.

Although the latter option would technically be at odds with CoR practices sanctioned in the 2002 Nice Treaty, the precedent set by outgoing President Luc Van den Brande points to a window of opportunity for Bresso.

Van den Brande did not stand for re-election after the end of his term as a member of the Flemish parliament in June 2009. Instead, the Belgian government – of the centre-right like Van den Brande – appointed him to an administrative role as a member of Belgium's consultative federal committee for European affairs.

This possibility nevertheless seems unlikely for Bresso, given that she, as a member of the Italian centre-left opposition, would have to rely on Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right government to secure such an administrative role. Moreover, she appeared to rule out such a move in the opening remarks of her inauguration speech.

Committee of the Regions President Mercedes Bresso stated that "as regional and local representatives, we should in the first place make use of the new instrument represented in the objective of territorial cohesion. This means that we have to remind to member states that regional policy is a community policy".

"This is even more pressing in a moment when in the debates about the post-2013 financial perspectives we witness a re-surfacing of voices pushing for re-nationalisation of regional policy," Bresso stressed. 

Italian MEP Oreste Rossi (Northern League) underlined that "the timing for this presidential vote was not ideal. Moreover this offers a boost of visibility to Mercedes Bresso in the run-up to the election for the government of Piedmont. If such a vote could have been postponed for a couple of months it would have certainly been fairer".

"Anyway, I welcome the election of Bresso to this prestigious post, especially considering the under-representation of Italy in EU institutions: we have lost the post of president of the European Parliament and that of High Representative, one after the other. The election of an Italian to the presidency of the Committee of the Regions, even if of a different political colour, is a welcome event," Rossi added. 

The Committee of the Regions (CoR) is the EU's assembly of local and regional representatives, and as one of the EU institutions, provides sub-national authorities with a direct voice in Brussels.

Mercedes Bresso is the first woman to preside the regional assembly since its creation in 1994 and one of only a handful of women politicians to have presided over an official EU institution.

The Lisbon Treaty entered into force on 1 December 2009.

According to the CoR, the Lisbon Treaty "gives more weight to the political levels that are closest to the public: local councils, county councils and regional parliaments. When new EU legislation is drafted, their competences must be taken into consideration and they must be heard in wide-ranging consultations at an early stage. From 1 December, the EU must also publish, alongside each legislative proposal, an analysis of its financial and administrative impact on regions and municipalities. At the same time, the Committee of the Regions, the voice of the EU's cities and regions in Brussels, gains new rights and a stronger position in relation to the other EU institutions".

"The Committee of the Regions can now challenge new EU laws in the European Court of Justice when it believes that those laws violate the subsidiarity principle. The Lisbon Treaty also strengthens the Committee's consultative role: in future not only the Commission and the Council, but also the Parliament are required to consult it.  If this does not happen enough, the Committee can involve the Court of Justice. Furthermore, with the new treaty the CoR will have the right to be consulted by the three institutions on new policy areas, such as energy and climate change."

"For the first time 'territorial cohesion' is enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty as a fundamental objective of the European Union. The treaty also recognises local and regional autonomy and provides for greater subsidiarity monitoring by national and regional parliaments with legislative powers (such as the German Landtage)."

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