Good leaders make people feel that they're at the very heart of things, not at the periphery.
- Warren Bennis
Regions and cities are the engine of the European Union. Growth, innovation and good governance at local level have an impact on the well-functioning of the European machine. The Committee of Regions (CoR) is the EU advisory body in charge of giving a voice to local and regional authorities in the decision-making process. It promotes multilevel governance and acknowledges the strength of territorial, linguistical and cultural diversity, which contribute to the success of the EU integrated strategy. The CoR works closely with the other EU institutions and with different tier authorities in the Member States. Its activity strongly embraces the principles of subsidiarity, proportionality and partnership, ensuring that decisions are taken in a citizen-friendly way and at the most suitable level of governance.
Advisory role in the definition of monetary funds, sharing knowledge and networking, and community awareness and engagement are the 3 strategic elements that the CoR exploits to promote effective implementation of community policies as well as to maximize the territorial impact of local authorities. These resources are essential and complementary to each other. They enhance coordination and cooperation among local authorities and the success of the EU decentralized implementation system.
The EU Regional Policy is the main investment plan to support regions and local entities in creating jobs, strengthening competitiveness, encouraging sustainable development, fostering growth and improving citizens’ quality of life. It is carried out through European Structural and Investment (ESI) funds, which represent an important financing opportunity for regions and cities. These correspond to monetary resources, whose management is entrusted to Member States. Through such “shared management” type of funding, over 76% of the EU budget is administered in partnership with national and regional authorities. Member States are responsible for allocating these funds to recipients (e.g. companies or municipalities) and delivering effective implementation of the EU programs at national level. The ESI Funds are structured in 5 scope-specific funds that are also subject to additional fund-specific rules. Among these, all regions can benefit from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the European Social Fund (ESF); they correspond to, respectively, around 43% and 18% of the EU budget. While the former contributes to the valorization of the territory based on community-specific features (e.g. geographical conditions), the latter tackles discrimination by promoting integration of marginalized communities in terms of administrative efficiency, education, employment and social policies. The Cohesion fund is another important component of the Regional Policy. It amounts to about 14% of the EU budget but it is available only in the underdeveloped regions.
It is sometimes the case that regional and local entities have trouble accessing these sources of financing, most likely due to two reasons: administrative inability to submit the application to request funds and complexity of bureaucratic procedures to successfully complete the process. Moreover, the regulation requires EU regional investments to be set for 7 years and a long-term perspective that ensures reliability at the expense of flexibility. Nevertheless, the data from 2007 to 2015 shows the undeniable achievements of the regional investment policy: around 1.3 million new jobs, greater access to the labor market, approximately 356,800 projects implemented and increased support to start-ups and research projects. The CoR is involved in the legislative process as advisory body whenever policies with regional or local repercussions are proposed; this is the case in the definition of ESI funds which have shown their crucial impact on regional activities and performance. Although CoR’s opinions are not legally binding, the EU often takes them into account in practice.
EU sub-national public authorities manage about one-third of public expenditure ($2,100 billion per year) and two-thirds of public investments (around $200 billion). Their significant involvement in EU policy-making is one good reason to acknowledge their role in a dedicated annual event: the European Week of Regions and Cities. The idea was born in 2003, when the Committee of Regions gathered Brussels-based regional representations for a small-size showcase event. Growing over time, it has now become an annual 4-day event, hosting more than 6,000 attendees among politicians from different levels of governments, European experts, private companies, financial institutions, European and national associations, journalists and students. In this occasion, participants engage in organized workshops, debates, and networking activities. The event marks a moment of cultural exchange, sharing of know-how and presentation of best practices promoting the harmonization in the EU decentralized policy system. Participants recognize the valuable impact of the European Week of Regions and Cities, mostly in terms of information provided and of professional advice received by colleagues from the other EU Member States, which are useful to improve the management of EU funds. Therefore, this opportunity of learning and networking enhances the potential of availability and administration of monetary resources.
The European Week of Regions and Cities has also experienced an increasing media coverage together with a ripple effect of initiatives in connection with it. In fact, each regional partner is encouraged to organize local events under the “EU in my region or city” concept. These are meant to create more awareness on the impact of EU policies and a more direct connection with citizens as well as policy makers, local authorities and press. In fact, one last important step is creating community awareness of the work performed at local level, thus encouraging citizens’ support and institutional legitimization. As hinted by the opening quote, the EU needs to communicate that local interests are “at the heart of thing” if it wants to be a good benchmark (or indeed a leader) for its Member States, thus putting into practice the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality.
The EU in my region campaign has been a successful initiative over the past 3 years. It engages citizens in discovering EU funded projects in their territory through an annual photo contest, a blog article competition or an online EU quiz. The competition takes place together with EU Projects Open Days that citizens can attend to learn about the projects under way or realized in their regions. This allows them to express a more informed judgment on the EU effort to improve the quality of life at local level. Another example of direct involvement of citizens is the “Reflecting on Europe” campaign. Promoted by the CoR, it consists in events in the format of citizens’ dialogue and online surveys.
In the light of persistent Euroscepticism, the most reasonable approach should focus on a wise allocation of funds for marginalized regions and institutional and grassroots activities for all social layers. The future of a united Europe can crucially depend on local initiatives and to what extent the EU institutions are going to defend inclusiveness.