EU legislation has a strong impact on the member states which is after decades of European integration not surprising. EU laws are negotiated and adopted between the three central actors of the EU, the EU Commission, the European Parliament and the Council and have to be implemented by the member states. What is sometimes overlooked is that sub-national actors such as regions and municipalities often have to implement EU laws. This leads to the question of what role subnational actors (can) play in European policy affairs. This contribution asks whether these subnational actors are only spectators of European integration or whether they actively shape EU policies.
EU legislation has a strong impact on member states. This is hardly surprising. EU laws are negotiated and adopted between the three key players of EU Commission, EP and Council and have to be implemented by the member states. Regardless of political systems, various territorial authorities below a national government and a national parliament have more or less strong decision-making powers. However, these regional authorities often have to implement laws passed at the EU level. Public perception sometimes gives the impression that regions are passive actors, simply implementing EU laws and becoming, so to speak, “spectators of European integration”. You can think of it somewhat as regions being allowed to stand on the sidelines, like at a soccer game, but not playing themselves.
Staying in this metaphor of the soccer match: Are regions just spectators on the sidelines watching the “EU game” or are they playing? In order to find answers to this question, on 06. and 07. May the international conference “From takers to shapers? Challenges for regions in a dynamic EU polity” took place digitally at the University of Tuebingen under direction of Prof. Dr. Gabriele Abels, Chair of Comparative Politics and European Integration. Co-organizer of this conference was the REGIOPARL project, which is in a joint research network with the University of Tuebingen. Only a few of the conference contributions presented will be briefly sketched which contribute to answering the following question for this blog post: Are regional political actors spectators or players in the EU?
Since the 1980s, under the heading of subnational mobilization, more and more regions have been making efforts to increase their involvement in European politics. Since then, the regions have been enabled to play in the European game. Several key developments took place that explain the change in the relevance of the regional level in the EU: At the supranational level, changes in the EU structural funds and institutional renewals of the Maastricht Treaty led to new opportunities for subnational actors to gain access to financial resources and to become more politically engaged at the EU level. Another factor in this process of Europeanization and regionalization were national governments’ decentralization policies, which strengthened the competencies of subnational actors since the 1970s. In addition, regional governments were increasingly responsible for implementing European legislation. As a result, subnational governments claimed greater consideration of regional interests in the formation of European policy positions of national governments. The most visible expression was certainly the creation of regional offices in Brussels. In this context of increasing importance of regions in the EU, the expression “Europe of the Regions” became somewhat familiar. This expression was supposed to change the EU polity with a strong anchoring of regional representatives. It was also discussed to what extent the Committee of the Regions, established by the Maastricht Treaty, should become a “third chamber” with real decision-making power.
These developments, which are certainly positive from the perspective of the regions, are viewed with skepticism on European level. What remains decisive is the unchanged strong role of the member states, which can currently still be clearly observed in very contentious issues. As Prof. Beniaminio Caravita di Toritto (Sapienza University Rome) pointed out in his presentation on “European constitutionalism and the role of regions”, the challenges for the nation-state in the 1990s, in which European integration and growing regionalism (and the subnational mobilization wave) were undermining the nation-state. However, he concluded that further European integration is only possible through the political will of the member states. Nation-states remain the “masters of the European integration”.
The desire of some regional politicians and academics for a “Europe of the Regions” has long since faded. Because of the achievements made for the regional level since the Maastricht Treaty, it is realistic to speak of a “Europe with the Regions” as some contributions in the literature argue. This approach advocates the participation of regions in EU decision-making processes in the essence of multilevel politics, but not a fundamental change in EU polity. This would not conflict with the fact that member states remain key actors in the EU system. However, regions represent additional actors that try to articulate their interests and influence central EU institutions. In short, the process of subnational mobilisation shows a strengthening of regional actors, but to a different and heterogeneous extent. The regional “potpourri” is far too diverse for that, if one thinks of the different political systems in the member states. It should not be forgotten here that research on subnational mobilisation is strongly focused on regional executives; regional parliaments have often received little attention in the past. It is therefore obvious that regions with legislative powers (often referred to as “strong regions”) are much more involved in European politics than their “weak” counterparts. Strong regions have more resources, more structural capacities and better networks than weak regions. The regional actors are playing in the Brussels game, but each in their own way. Not all regions are equally active in European policy. Speaking with the football metaphor, we find, as in any competition, weaker and stronger teams with different levels of resources and mastery of the game.
At this point, Dr. Anna-Lena Högenauer (University of Luxembourg) argued that regions in the EU have been strengthened, but not in the same way. She took a contrary position to the argument put forward at the beginning by Prof. Caravita di Toritto. She thus followed the line of argumentation of the multi-level approach that various actors pursue European policy alongside or together with the nation state. Högenauer’s presentation “Look back in anger? Regional involvement and treaty challenges since 1990” provided an overview on EU treaty changes and their relevance for subnational authorities.
Högenauer showed that a strengthening of the regional level took place through the various treaty changes. In the course of Europeanisation, regional parliaments became increasingly professionalised, whether through the establishment of special EU committees, information offices of parliamentary administrations in Brussels or through networking with other political actors or parliaments. Dr. Sarah Meyer (Danube-University Krems & REGIOPARL project) and Mario Wolf (REGIOPARL project) gave this insight with their joint paper “Getting involved despite obstacles? German regional MPs networking activities in EU affairs”. Against the background of a lack of formal EU access points for regional MPs in the multi-level system of the EU, the presentation was focusing MPs’ informal EU-related activities, asking with whom MPs cooperated with, why, and how often. This contribution underlined that regional MPs participate actively in European policy affairs with different political actors in regions, on the nation state level and on supranational EU level. This highlighted the importance of inter-parliamentary networking.
It has been shown so far that regions are active players in the Brussels game. Now, however, some contributions in the literature even go a step further and claim that regions themselves can make a democratic political contribution to the EU. These considerations are embedded in debates on strengthening EU democracy and in discourses on reducing democratic deficits in the EU. This is linked to the claim that by further adding a political level, the democratic legitimacy of the EU must be strengthened per se. This seems to follow the idea that if the member state or supranational level fails to give the EU stronger democratic legitimacy (because these levels are not perceived as “close to the people”?), then it makes sense to include the regional and local level. Paul Kindermann`s (REGIOPARL project) presentation “Conceptualizing the (potential) role of regional parliaments in democratizing the EU – an analytical framework” asked from a democratic-theoretical, normative standpoint how regional parliaments can be involved in European politics. He made the claim that the widespread assumption that the subnational level is closer to the citizen and contributes to the democratic legitimacy of the EU is too shortsighted. Kindermann linked parliamentary functions and their potential to reduce various democratic problems in the EU. He concluded the importance of differentiation of normative rationales of regional parliamentary involvement in EU politics according to different democratic problems.
So far, regional political actors in EU affairs such as regional governments or parliaments have been addressed. When looking at the role of regions in EU politics, the Committee of the Regions must not be overlooked. Independent of regional involvement in European affairs (e.g. EU affairs committees, regional offices in Brussels), the Committee of the Regions ensures that regions have a voice in the EU and can thus play in the “EU game”. The CoR sees itself as a “bridge builder” between the EU institutions and EU citizens. The guiding principle of “closeness to citizens” is particularly notable here. This is also displayed at the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) which officially started on 09 May 2021. It provides an example, where sub-national actors want to play in the EU “Champions League”. The CoFoE is seen as an opportunity for subnational authorities to set impulses for a reform of the EU polity, even if their position in the planned composition of the CoFoE’s governance institutions may seem marginal. The team of authors with Prof. Dr. Gabriele Abels, Dr. Martin Grosse-Hüttmann (both University of Tuebingen), Dr. Sarah Meyer, and Simon Lenhart (both Danube-University Krems & REGIOPARL project) analyzed in their contribution “The Committee of the Regions and the Conference on the Future of Europe” that the CoFoE as an opportunity structure can offer a chance for the CoR to involve subnational political actors more strongly in EU affairs in the sense of institutional activism. However, the CoFoE is a moving target.
What’s the conclusion? Regional players have long since ceased to be spectators at the big “EU game”. Quite the opposite! They are no longer just passive spectators, but active players. To portray regional political actors simply as “fund hunters” would be too simplistic in view of the complexity of interests and structures in the EU’s multi-level system. Regions have, of course, quite rational interests as far as the acquisition of EU funds is concerned – and this, among other things, is considered an important motive for the mobilization of subnational interests in the 1980s and 1990s. Various contributions of the conference “From takers to shapers? Challenges for regions in a dynamic EU polity” attested that the policy shaper role has gradually emerged, where regional actors independently monitor policy developments in Brussels and, where appropriate, try to get at an early stage relevant information or to exert influence in the EU legislative process – with or without the Committee of the Regions. Finally yet importantly, regional parliaments are striving to become more involved. This may be through various activities of regional governments and regional members of parliament. The normative and empirical-analytical questions of how regional parliaments are involved in European politics and whether and how they can be more involved are subject of ongoing REGIOPARL research activities.