From 20 to 21 October 2022, the interdisciplinary, multiannual research project REGIOPARL held its final conference in Krems before the project will come to an end in December 2022. Under the title “Mapping regional involvement in EU affairs”, the conference sought to address recent developments and open questions in the field of regional studies as well as regional politics with regards to their involvement on EU level. This blog post focuses on the discussions held during the expert roundtable entitled “The role of regions in the EU: Sharing expertise between politics and science” and on the idea behind the format – to foster an exchange between scholars and practitioners in the field of regional studies.
From 20 to 21 October 2022, the interdisciplinary, multiannual research project REGIOPARL held its final conference in Krems before the project will come to an end in December 2022. Under the title “Mapping regional involvement in EU affairs” around 30 academics as well as representatives from public administration and politics came together in three panels, an expert roundtable, and a workshop to debate the current state of regional involvement on EU level. Speaking to the interdisciplinary nature of the REGIOPARL project, the conference program aimed explicitly at including academics as well as practitioners in the conversation.
The conference sought to address recent developments and open questions in the field of regional studies as well as regional politics with regards to their involvement on EU level: How and why do regional level political actors actually engage in EU affairs? Are they currently just bystanders or do they actively get involved in shaping European policy? What form of participation would they like to see in a newly constituted Europe? And could they act as a link between EU citizens and institutions within the multi-level polity?
This blog post focuses on the discussions held during the expert roundtable entitled “The role of regions in the EU: Sharing expertise between politics and science” and on the idea behind the format – to foster an exchange between scholars and practitioners in the field of regional studies. Bringing together science and politics is a concept well-known in political consultation and is widely practiced of course. However, in the field of regional studies and regional politics respectively – especially regarding regional parliaments rather than regional executives – an exchange between academia and the political level is often hampered by several practical obstacles and depends largely on individual factors rather than being an institutionalized process.
This general observation was mirrored in the debate that emerged during the roundtable. Before taking a closer look at the various difficulties marking sharing expertise between academia and politics, however, what also became clear during a first round of statements by the roundtable participants, was that despite all challenges in linking practitioners with academics, the academic literature often actually does capture problems and challenges described by regional politicians and representatives from regional administrative structures quite well. As will be shown in the following section, the roundtable participants shared corresponding views on the question what regional politicians struggle with in their day-to-day work regarding EU affairs -the differences appeared to lie more in explaining these struggles and in offering viable solutions.
We see the problem, but…
Antje Grotheer, member of the regional parliament of Bremen, pointed out that European regions still struggle to have their voices heard at EU level – a statement which was confirmed by Harald Bürger from the Representation of the City of Vienna to the EU who added that regional involvement – or lack of involvement – often is a matter of (scarce) resources. He also pointed out that the European political response to regional activity is often very slow and comes only after regional or national policies have already been implemented to tackle the issue. Both statements were echoed in the remarks by renowned scholars in the field, Gabriele Abels (University of Tübingen) and Katrin Auel (Institute for Advanced Studies Vienna). Auel highlighted parallels in the questions dealt with in the spheres of politics and academia when it comes to regional parliamentary action in EU affairs, namely first and foremost: What works? In both spheres, moreover, the issue of influence is crucial – and challenging: How can regional parliaments exercise influence on EU affairs in their political work if it is so difficult to identify and measure influence empirically in the first place? Drawing these parallels between problems identified by practitioners and academics alike seems important as they confirm a shared focus – even if looking at it from different perspectives.
…“Sometimes, we just don’t speak the same language” (Katrin Auel)
However, during the discussion which followed, the roundtable participants as well as the conference audience identified several challenges when trying to organize an exchange between practitioners and scholars in regional affairs. Scare resources is one of these challenges: Regional political representatives are often (though not always!) part-time politician with even more limited time resources compared to other political representatives. A lack of institutionalized processes or structures at regional level bringing together scholars and practitioners is yet another challenge. Participants raised several other, often very practical, issues such as language barriers and knowledge gaps on EU issues in regional parliamentary work. The latter was echoed by Benjamin Hurard from CALRE who pointed out that the Early Warning System was still highly underused as a tool for regional influence-taking on EU level) as well as a general reluctance from politicians to listen to academic presentations if they are too “theory-heavy”. Several academic representatives pointed to the struggles they face in their research when trying to collect reliable data on regional parliamentary work as the information is not always available and the response from regional political representatives can be somewhat shy when asked for interviews or to participate in data collection formats such as surveys.
At the same time, there was broad agreement amongst the conference participants that especially in a still relatively new academic field such as European regional parliaments and their EU involvement on the one hand and regional politics and public administration which are naturally extremely diverse and politically fragmented across the European member states on the other hand, there is a particularly strong need for linking experts, practitioners and scholars, and for exchanging views, ideas and expertise. The strength of such an approach was made very tangible during the roundtable when policy-specific debates (e. g. migration and its impact on regions and local communities in Europe) as well as discussions on influence opportunities for regions on EU level enfolded right away between regional political representatives and scholars – and stretched the discussions far into dinner time for the conference participants.
Fostering a dialogue between the academic and the political sphere has been amongst the objectives of the REGIOPARL research project from the outset and has been pursued through various activities throughout its five year duration – most prominently during its workshops with regional parliaments and through its close working relationship with the Committee of the Regions, but also by following an interdisciplinary approach and by always including experts from politics and public administration in its conferences. In terms of data collection and sharing expertise, this approach has proven very fruitful, not only for the academic research conducted in the REGIOPARL framework (see for example Kindermann & Meyer: The Future of EU Democracy from a Regional Perspective. Views From Focus Groups with Regional MPs, 2022), but also with regards to furthering and complementing the scope of the debate around regional parliaments in EU affairs. Coming back to the discussions held in Krems, there, indeed, seems to be an appetite but also a need for regular and more institutionalized exchanges between regional political and administrative representatives and regional studies scholars – and both would certainly benefit from future projects focusing on facilitating and structuring this exchange.