Ambassadors in white tie and tails are not local authorities’ style, but a number of councils have official representation in Brussels, alongside a joint office for the Local Government Association and its equivalents in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
How they, and UK-based council European officers, work can appear impenetrable to those not versed in the fog of acronyms and criteria that surrounds European Union funding programmes.
The fruits though can be seen from more than £8bn of assorted regional development, social, rural development and other funds available in the 2014-20 period.
Links forged by local authorities with European funding bodies and inward investors that want a UK location through which to access the single market run deep after 43 years of EU membership.
But if a referendum results in a ‘leave’ vote it is reasonable to suppose this will stop. Non-EU members cannot access EU funds; investors may look askance at being outside the single market.
Only 22 miles separate Kent CC from its French partner region Nord Pas de Calais, and slightly more from Belgium’s West Flanders, making it eligible for the Interreg cross-border economic growth programme, even if these borders are wet ones.
Kent’s international officer Ron Moys says: “We’ve been working in the EU for 25 years accessing funding programmes working across borders with Nord Pas de Calais and West Flanders.
“Interreg work is on priorities set by the European Commission around growth and jobs, supporting small businesses [and a] low carbon economy. We’ve just secured another £1.8m for Kent based on growth in life sciences.”
Kent helps its businesses by, for example, helping firms exhibit at trade fairs in France and Belgium.
Mr Moys estimates Kent pulled in £30m of EU money in the 2007-13 funding period and “our ambitions are higher for this period”.
Accessing this confusing array of funds needs specialist skills. A chart produced by New Economy Manchester, which negotiates inward investment for the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, lists €416.5m coming from the regional development and social funds, €755m from Interreg’s north-west Europe programmes and money from 10 other funds covering everything from innovation to fisheries.
Richard Kemp (Lib Dem), the LGA representative on international localities body United Cities and Local Governments, has European links as part of that role.
As a Liverpool councillor, he recalls the city for 10 years had EU Objective 1 status, which assists places where economic performance is below 75% of the EU average.
“There were huge amounts of money that helped turn the city round,” he says.
“Local government liked it because we got the money irrespective of central government and that is the great thing about it – if you internationally qualify you get the money even if central government would not have given it to you, but with that amount coming in central and local government have to support it.”
Formal interaction between the EU and local government is through the Committee of the Regions, which scrutinises EU legislation.
Cllr Kemp says: “There are about 360 members, but it works. For example, the working time directive could have been very difficult with firefighters’ shift patterns but we got what we wanted because we were able to work with other countries to evidence that. We do things under the radar.”
The EU is not just about funding. Everything from the requirement to advertise public contracts in the Official Journal of the European Union to rules on working hours flows from it.
Supporters argue this is how a single market works. Contracts must be open across it and employment rules must stop a ‘race to the bottom’, for example countries lowering labour costs by requiring people to work longer hours.
EU sceptics argue this is an intrusion into matters that should be settled at a national level, and at most want only a free trade area.
While EU funding and economic development work may be largely technical processes, the referendum will be deeply political.
Both Labour and the Conservatives have undergone splits over the EU and in both cases the public were dragged to the polling booth to help sort it out.
In 1975 the Tories were pro-EU, much of Labour was against, and prime minister Harold Wilson called a referendum on renegotiated terms to hold his party together.
In 2016, Labour is mainly pro-EU, many Tories are anti and David Cameron has… well, you know the rest.
At one end of council attitudes stands Cornwall Council, which will receive funding worth €603.7m between 2014 and 2020 from the regional development and social funds because of Objective 1 status, which it now shares only with West Wales and the Valleys.
It stated in December: “Europe impacts considerably on the work of Cornwall Council, through all departments and areas, and the council has long recognised the importance of the EU for the county. Europe provides an opportunity for Cornwall to develop and the council can help to achieve this.”
This is a far cry from Havering LBC, where at a recent council meeting members voted to leave the EU on a free vote on a Ukip motion supported by many Tories.
Havering cannot leave, but the UK could. And if it did everything from funding to working practices could look very different.