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Councils' role in policy and legislation is becoming more valued in Europe, says Damien Welfare ...
Councils' role in policy and legislation is becoming more valued in Europe, says Damien Welfare

The Convention on the Future of Europe has been making headlines. Behind the scenes, practical legal changes are under discussion which would affect how much councils - and the devolved administrations and English regions in the future - may be able to use the legal structures of the European Union to make their voices heard.

The convention is redrafting the treaties which govern the community. The opportunity is being taken to look at legal concepts, such as subsidiarity, which lie at the heart of the way the EU operates.

The UK government has been taking a lead in this debate, producing discussion papers and proposing a number of amendments to the draft treaty text as it has emerged. It proposed, for example, that the definition of subsidiarity - the principle that the community should act only where and insofar as the objective cannot be achieved by member states - should be extended to functions carried out by local and regional government.

The Committee of the Regions - councils' formal consultative voice in Europe - was accorded six observers at the convention. It has the right to give its opinion on a range of European policy matters, including employment and social policy. Its role can be expected to grow after the enlargement of the EU, given that it will represent nearly 10,000 regional or local councils, which the Council of European Municipalities & Regions estimates implement some 60-70% of European legislation.

The committee has been pressing to become a full EU institution, for the right to refer infringements of its role in the legislative procedure to the European Court of Justice and to give the public a right to its papers.

It has come a long way since the UK government of the day had to be defeated on the floor of the House of Commons to secure seats for councillors on the new body.

Other suggestions have been that pre-legislative consultation with councils through the CoR, and that draft legislation should list the bodies consulted at the pre-legislative stage and whether they have responded.

There should be greater use of framework legislation, so that community rules can be applied more flexibly, and more use of tripartite contracts whereby the commission, member states and councils work together to develop policy.

The convention will present its proposals to the European Council in Thessaloniki on 20-21 June, though that is unlikely to mark the end of the process. Even if the results, in terms of the text, prove not to be dramatic for local government, there appears to be a new acceptance of the value of councils' role in the policy and legislative process, which the convention process has helped to develop.

Damien Welfare


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