Tradition. Identity. Progress. – Regions in Europe

During the Open Days 2012, the biggest conference in the world of regional and urban policies, the latest discussion of the FNF-event series “Discussions on Europe” was all about Regions. How will they balance the triad of tradition, identity and progress in the future? During the panel discussion, which was co-hosted by the Saxony Liaison Office in Brussels, Saxon State Minister Jürgen Martens, Bernd Biervert, Deputy Head of Cabinet of Vice-President of the European Commission Maroš Šefcovic, Sean O’Curneen, Secretary General of the ALDE Group at the Committee of the Regions, Michael Theurer MEP, Substitute Member of the Committee on Regional Development, and Rob van Eijkeren, Co-ordinator of the House of the Dutch Provinces shared their insights.

In his opening statement, Jürgen Martens welcomed the joint contribution of FNF and Saxony to the Open Days 2012. The 10th European Week of Regions and Cities brings together over 6000 participants from more than 200 European regions to showcase and discuss the future shape of EU regional policy. Martens raised key questions of the debate: How can the competitiveness of communes and regions in Europe be strengthened so that they become true motors of innovation? Which institutional role should the regions play in the legislative process at the EU? Regional identities have become stronger in many parts of Europe. Regional backgrounds and traditions seem to have gained importance in the era of Europeanization and globalization. However, EU citizens feel that they have little say in the EU decision making processes which take place far away from them in Brussels. We must win back the confidence of both the regions and its citizens, the Minister said.

Liberal MEP Michael Theurer presented the Danube strategy as an example for a successful macro-regional approach. The strategy, which has been modeled after the Baltic Sea Strategy, was set up by the EU to boost the development of the Danube region; “And it is up-and-coming”, said Theurer, “even though it remains a challenge for citizens to overcome national bureaucracies and cut red tape.” There are 14 countries in the Danube region and many of their problems go beyond their borders. Consequently, more and more citizens see the river as something that connects, rather than separates them, and cooperate to develop solutions to common challenges.

From the perspective of the Committee of the Regions (CoR), Sean O’Curneen elaborated on multiple identities in Europe. “Just like anybody else I have multiple identities”, he said. Half Irish, half Spanish, O’Curneen was born in the USA, brought up in Madrid, then educated in the UK and in France. He looked at the creation of identities from a constructivist perspective. “As we can see in the Danube region, we are now in the process of creating new identities”, he explained. Individual identities in our modern world are and will always be multiple and fluid. “Celebrating and fostering them in their diversity is a key to success.” O’Curneen described the CoR as an institution where members have the unique opportunity to share their European dimension back home. The CoR also fulfills another important task by channeling the interests of the European regions. O’Curneen concluded that it is therefore not enough that the CoR remains only consultative. There has to be an official institution with real powers to represent the interests of the periphery.

From a customer’s viewpoint, Rob van Eijkeren agreed and pointed out how important it is in our daily lives that the EU works well. “It is our job here in Brussels to make this clear to the EU citizens”, he said. But could the current lack of democratic legitimacy at the EU institutions at some point be balanced by an increasing influence of the regions? Will the Committee of the Regions eventually develop into a real third chamber of the EU, alongside the Council and the European Parliament? No, both Theurer and van Eijkeren agreed. Neither do we need a new institutional discussion, nor new European institutions. Let’s focus on what we already have and work on streamlining processes and creating synergies instead, they concluded.

Bernd Biervert complimented Jürgen Martens for the perfect balance of the triad of identity, progress, and tradition in Saxony. Commenting on the title of the panel debate, he underlined that this does not necessarily have to be a contradiction. In his view, the CoR is an excellent body as it not only represents the regions in Brussels, but also ensures that their voices are heard. “At the European Commission, we make sure that the CoR-opinions are not only registered but also carefully read. Wherever possible, we take them on board.” Currently, it is being discussed how structural and cohesion funds should be handled in the new multi-annual financial framework 2014-2020. Cohesion policy, Biervert emphasized, is to be seen as a clear statement for solidarity within the European Union. It has the stated aim of improving the economic well-being of regions and softening regional disparities in the EU. That is why more than one third of the EU’s budget is devoted to regional policy.

Moderator Hugh Barton-Smith concluded the evening with a quote from French writer and film director Philippe Claudel: “Borders are just strokes of a pen on a map. They divide worlds, but they don’t separate them. They can sometimes be forgotten as quickly as they are drawn.”

Ellen Madeker