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Brussels, 10 September 2007

Michel Delebarre: the IGC must strengthen the role of the Committee of the Regions in the future Treaty

Portugal is currently experiencing something of a political paradox, as explained by Francisco Nunes Correia, the country's Minister for the Environment and Regional Development, at the extraordinary meeting of the Bureau of the Committee of the Regions (CoR) in Vilamoura, the Algarve, on 6 and 7 September: "Few subjects are discussed so passionately as decentralisation – but it has not yet come to the mainland".

The process was stopped dead in its tracks by a 63.5% "no" vote in the 1998 referendum. To date, only the outermost island regions of the Azores and Madeira have autonomous status, with broad executive and legislative powers.

The rest of the country must wait, and in the meantime reopen the debates on decentralisation, such as the discussion held by the Committee of the Regions in Vilamoura. The town is situated in the Algarve which, according to the unanimous view of Portugal's national and local elected representatives, is the part of the mainland that comes closest to constituting an identifiable region.

Relaunching decentralisation in Portugal?

The discussions in Portugal centre upon the possibility of creating regions. The 1998 referendum concerned the establishment of eight regional authorities; implementation of the European structural funds would fit in more easily with five.

For Francisco Nunes Correia – as for all his governmental colleagues at Vilamoura – "the important thing is to create a favourable climate for a national consensus on the regional issue and on territorial organisation, so as to avoid the risk of another failure with our citizens".

In the meantime, the Minister pointed out, the Portuguese State continued to work through the municipalities which, in Portugal, "have all the features of micro-regions, and serve as the backbone for the country's political and economic life – this has to be put on the plus side in the decentralisation debate".

The present trend would therefore be to strengthen the role of the mainland's 278 municipalities. "There is room to do so" pointed out Mr Nunes Correia, referring to the on-going decentralisation programme for municipalities with powers in the fields of education and social policy.

The Minister mentioned the possibility of "reorganising the decentralisation of State services and public policies" around the NUTS II regions and NUTS III sub-regions. The aim was to make "a decisive contribution to rapidly reaching a political consensus on the geographical lay-out of the political and administrative units to be submitted to a referendum after 2009, during the next parliamentary term".

Fernando Ruas, Chairman of the National Association of Municipalities, pointed out that there were however some advocates of relaunching the decentralisation process among the municipalities. He underlined the significant progress they had achieved in opening up public access to infrastructure, education and culture.

Carlos Tuta, Chairman of Monchique Municipal Council, who greeted his CoR colleagues, felt that this was "a matter under constant construction" for them. He was backed by the CoR's First Vice-President, the Belgian senator Luc Van den Brande, who argued that "regionalism is a pillar of multi-level governance and represents the path to rational democracy, but the models for regionalisation are specific to each country – they are not for export".

Mercedes Bresso, President of the Italian Piedmont Region (PES-IT), emphasised that any reform must include economic and financial compensation mechanisms in order to reassure citizens in the poorest regions.

Highlighting the unflagging efforts of CoR members to bring the Union closer to its citizens, Ms Bresso restated the importance of retaining the "recognition of the role of the Committee of the Regions and of local and regional authorities in the European integration process" in the draft treaty.

In the words of Michael Schneider, State Minister for Federal and European Affairs and representative of Saxony-Anhalt to the German Federal Government (EPP-DE), "the way decentralised institutions are organised, and their real role, are explained by the weight of each country's history".

Speaking on behalf of the UEN-EA group, Seamus Murray argued that the regions ensured that decision-making took place close to citizens, and that this must be taken into account by the Union's Member States.

Lord Graham Tope, London Assembly Member and representative of the ALDE group, focused on respect for the principle of subsidiarity, stressing that the role of local authorities must not be forgotten. He favoured the devolution of powers from central government towards the regions, but argued that regionalisation must come about at the expense of municipalities.

As President of an assembly representing European regional and local authorities, Michel Delebarre assured his Portuguese hosts that the countries which would cope best with the challenge of globalisation would be those that made a determined commitment to the process of decentralisation. His advice was that once the time for a necessary and enriching debate was over, they should make up their minds and make decentralisation a reality.

IGC: support from António Vitorino for the Committee of the Regions

Michel Delebarre also drew attention to the Portuguese Presidency's strategic place on the European agenda.

The visit to Portugal provided the Committee of the Regions with the opportunity to establish a presence during the proceedings of the IGC (Intergovernmental Conference) on the reform treaty. Last June, the European Council enshrined recognition of respect for local and regional self-government, the new regional and local dimension and the principle of subsidiarity, the inclusion of territorial cohesion among the Union's objectives, and recognition of the principle of consultation of local and regional authorities in drawing up, implementing and evaluating Community policies based on the constitutional treaty.

The CoR draws attention to the need for its political role within the European institutional system to be recognised.

The CoR Bureau members have adopted a declaration supporting the introduction of a Charter of regional democracy, along the lines of the existing charter for local authorities, and await a favourable response from the Member States of the Union.

At Vilamoura, the representatives of Europe's territories received high-level support for their vision of European integration and governance from António Vitorino, currently the Portuguese Presidency's special advisor for the IGC and the former European Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs, who stated that "the Committee of the Regions can count on a sympathetic hearing from the Council Presidency of its political requests and expectations concerning the reform treaty, as local and regional authorities are closely involved in the European process".

The members of the CoR Bureau, advocating a European Union which looks to the Mediterranean, decided in favour of setting up a Euro-Mediterranean forum of local and regional authorities. Michel Delebarre sees this as "a shared arena for exchanges between local and regional elected representatives from both shores of the Mediterranean. We can point to a significant range of best practices in the field of decentralised cooperation. In this way, the Committee of the Regions will bring added value to the Barcelona process, which merits a new impetus".

For further information, please contact:
Laurent Thieule
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