Despite having been largely ignored by commentators, regions believe the new Lisbon Treaty will empower them to become stronger players in EU decision-making, a EURACTIV round-up has found.
The Committee of the Regions (CoR) will hold a general assembly in Brussels today (10 February) to elect a new president and discuss how best to wield its new Lisbon Treaty weapons.
French MP and Mayor of Dunkerque Michel Delebarre told EURACTIV that these changes mean "the CoR is not a paper tiger anymore".
Delebarre, himself a former CoR president, believes the assembly's new powers, and particularly the right to go before the European Court of Justice, make it far more than "just" a consultative body.
"It has become a de facto institution," he argued.
Privately, many CoR officials said that in their opinion, the body does not get the credit it deserves for its input into EU legislation. As such, they hope the new scrutiny powers afforded to it by the treaty will not only lead to improved EU decision-making, but will strengthen the CoR's image as a genuine political player.
In the words of one official, the CoR can be more of a "policy pitbull," snapping at the heels of the other EU institutions to ensure they respect the subsidiarity principle enshrined in the Lison Treaty, according to which the Union does not take action "unless it is more effective than action taken at national, regional or local level".
Restraining the policy pitbull
However, not all regional leaders are convinced that the CoR should trumpet its potential new role so loudly, or so soon.
Jurgen Martens, justice minister of the German Saxony region, which recently joined the CoR, told EURACTIV that it remains to be seen whether the committee will be able to better defend the interests of the regions, in spite of these changes.
"We have to be careful that the CoR is not used by some regions to hinder the European policy of the Commission and the Parliament on the pretence of defending subsidiarity," he argued.
These powers should only be used with discretion, he argued, adding that particularly in policy areas where the regions have a marginal influence, the CoR should take a back seat.
"However, when discussing central policy issues the CoR should take a decisive stance, and by focusing on the central issues its powers should grow further," he added.
Across Europe, regions hope for a greater role
A snapshot of some European regions offers a mixed picture, with some feeling positive about the new powers and others sceptical as to whether they will make any difference.
In the Czech Republic, genuine worries persist that the nation's regions are not yet ready to make the most of these new opportunities.
Petr Schlesinger, a legal expert for the Union of Towns and Municipalities of the Czech Republic (SMO?R), told EURACTIV.cz that he is convinced the "subsidiarity check" harbours both the biggest potential and the biggest challenge for regional and local authorities.
He recognised that while these bodies cannot directly play the "yellow card," they have ample new opportunities to influence the EU legislative process, by pressuring MPs to act in case of a breach of the subsidiarity principle.
However, Schlesinger admitted he could not imagine how this would work in the current Czech conditions. He said there were historical reasons behind this reluctance to be more assertive, as local communities were still fighting to find their way out of the old (communist) way of thinking.
They often see themselves as a part of a centralised public administration and not as political actors with their own policymaking responsibilities, he argued.
For similar reasons, there is not enough pressure exerted by local citizens as they do not view local authorities as being empowered with legislative responsibilities, Schlesinger concluded.
At the regional level, enthusiasm to make the changes that would exploit the new Lisbon opportunities does not seem to be very large. Jaroslav Palas, president of the Moravian-Silesian region, told EURACTIV his region did not envisage any new measures for influencing EU legislation under the Lisbon Treaty.
In Slovakia, by contrast, regional and county authorities contacted by EURACTIV.sk warmly welcomed their new Lisbon Treaty powers. They particularly welcomed the right of the Committee of Regions to "attack" EU legislation they suspect of breaching the subsidiarity principle.
They also highlighted that the treaty is the first EU document to explicitly mention "territorial cohesion" as a guiding principle of EU policy, together with economic and social cohesion.
Slovak regions plan to strengthen regional cooperation between local authorities and their partners on social and economic issues. Moreover, they want to further develop and deepen not only interregional cooperation, but also communication between regions and the European Commission.
They all expressed the ambition to interact more with their partners and to exchange know-how and best practice in order to improve regional development.
During an interview with EURACTIV.sk, Slovak Ambassador to the EU Ivan Korcok cautioned that while it is too soon to talk about any real progress by Slovak regions at EU level, the European Union will in future be more strongly based on regions since they are increasingly becoming influential political players.
"But they need to cooperate and be active" to achieve this, he concluded.
In Bulgaria, Krasimir Mirev, the head of the Bulgarian CoR delegation, told EURACTIV's partner Dnevnik that the Lisbon Treaty gives even greater opportunities to the local and the regional authorities of all EU member states, including Bulgaria. "In this sense, the role of the Committee of the Regions increases," Mirev said.
Commenting on the CoR's new power to refer EU laws which infringe the subsidiarity principle to the Court of Justice by a simple majority, Mirev argued that this power should be used sparingly.
"I see this right as a very extreme measure, because a founding principle in the work of the Committee and its work with other EU institutions is to seek to achieve consensus," he concluded.