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FEATURES - CONTINENTAL DRIFT

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If the EU's decision-making structures are made more democratic ...
If the EU's decision-making structures are made more democratic

it will bring the union closer to the people of Europe, says Graham Welch

According to the graffiti on the walls of tower blocks in Gdansk, 'Brussels = Moscow'. The image is all the more poignant given the role played by the city in bringing down communism in Poland and the knock-on effects in the rest of central and eastern Europe. With Polish membership of the EU less than two years away, fears that the country has escaped Soviet rule to replace it with another centralised state are understandable.

But the wheels have been set in motion for an intergovernmental conference in 2004, when Poland and nine other countries expect to join the EU and get to influence how Europe should be governed.

Together with the European Commission's white paper on governance and the convention headed by former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing debating the future of Europe, this all forms part of the EU's preoccupation with bringing Europe closer to the citizen.

As it is the sphere of government closest to ordinary people, you could be forgiven for thinking that local government would be at the centre of deliberations. Sadly, the reality is a little different.

The convention is made up of over 100 people from member state governments, national and European parliaments and the European Commission. Local and regional government, represented by the committee of the regions, has been given observer status, which should be enough to ring alarm bells about any commitment to taking decisions at the most appropriate level.

But the Local Government International Bureau is not sitting idly by. If the end result of these deliberations is a new European treaty setting out once and for all what the EU should do and what national governments should do, we want to make sure that it includes the principle of subsidiarity. That means guaranteeing decisions are taken by the level or sphere of government most appropriate for the purpose. Having said that, what we do not need is for a treaty to set out how this principle should apply within each country. After all, that is a decision best left for each national government in conjunction with regions and councils.

What we have done to make sure that local government opinions are fed into the debate is to set up a central/local partnership with the UK government.

This week will see an important meeting between leading council members and government representatives, including Europe minister Peter Hain.

The commission's white paper on governance, published last summer, makes encouraging noises about local and regional government's role in European decision-making. We strongly welcome the plan to consult local and regional government at a formative stage of policy-making. The issue here is how to do this without it becoming too cumbersome. We have suggested holding annual meetings between representatives of national and European local and regional governmentassociations and relevant commissioners. But there is a danger this would simply end up being a huge conference where all the right noises are made, but which leads to little real change.

We have also suggested that local and regional government representatives meet regularly with relevant commission officials. We would like to see local and regional government experts on all commission working groups dealing with subjects that affect our work, such as waste, transport and asylum. And we have been in discussion with commission vice-president Neil Kinnock and the Cabinet Office about setting up staff exchanges between councils and the European institutions.

Partnerships between the commission, national governments and councils on specific policies, and a more decentralised approach to regional policy are certainly welcome but curiously, the commission paper leaves out any reference to democracy, preferring instead to highlight accountability.

But democracy is paramount and needs to underpin all aspects of governance, from European to local. If we can succeed in making the EU's decision-making structures more democratic, we will bring it closer to ordinary people right across a European Union that will shortly span almost our entire continent.

Dockers in Gdansk in 1980 would have agreed on the importance of having a say in how they are governed.

Graham Welch

Local Government Information Bureau

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