Arc of influence puts nations in the shade

From rain-swept Galway to the sunny Algarve, the peoples that occupy Europe's Atlantic seaboard are turning away from their capitals and linking up with each other. Sarah Helm examines a fundamental shift in power

By the sea at Spiddal in Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, we are talking of the windmills of Galicia, on the west coast of Spain. A stiff breeze is blowing in from the sea, and hardy bathers are dipping their toes in the waves of the outermost rim of Europe's Atlantic Arc.

"The thing is," explains Sean O'Neachtain, a local councillor and headmaster, "Galway has a lot to learn from Galicia when it comes to energy conservation and windmill technology. We can learn from all the regions on Europe's Atlantic seaboard. We have a lot in common - the same sea, the same wind, the same maritime history. And we all want to preserve our cultural identity. We are the same people. Don't forget that many of us are Celts."

Mr O'Neachtain, ordering his beer in Gaelic, says the people of Galway feel on the very edge of Europe, and they want to unite with others who feel the same. "We all have many similar problems to solve. So the logical thing to do is to connect."

The 32 regions that comprise Europe's Atlantic seaboard - stretching from the Highlands of Scotland to the Portuguese Algarve - are indeed connecting as never before. They have formed an association called the Atlantic Arc, which has its own administrative headquarters in the French town of Rennes. Mr O'Neachtain is an Atlantic Arc vice-president, and every week he and local council officials from Brittany, Wales, Cornwall, Aquitaine and Andalucia pack their European Commission briefs on "spatial planning" and funding for "inter-reg 11" and fly off to prepare joint plans for building dry stone walls or preventing oil spills or mapping out new maritime links for Atlantic ports.

"Sailors from our ports - Bilbao, Plymouth, Bristol - once explored the world. Pirates from St Malo and Dartmouth plundered together," says Roberto Franceschini, a planning officer at Devon and Cornwall County Council. "We have a shared history. We will not be left out."

The activities of these regional bureaucrats and local politicians are viewed with suspicion in national capitals. It is all an excuse for another giant junket, say some critics, a way of clogging up European airports with day trippers in suits. If latter-day Celts want to surf to Gaelic web sites on the Internet then let them, scoff civil servants in Dublin: but to believe these regions can exercise any real power is to have been blinded by the Irish mist.

Such voices protest too much. There is growing evidence that the regions of Europe are asserting themselves and jostling for power. Furthermore, regions are banding together across national boundaries in a way that is stirring rumblings in the European substrata.

Taking their cue from the single market and the removal of physical borders between nation states, local authorities are stretching their muscles and finding they sometimes have more in common with regions in other member states than with those in their own. As well as the Atlantic Arc, there are four other main regional groupings within the European Union, centring on the Baltic coast, the Mediterranean area, the North Sea and the Alps, and numerous smaller alliances are being forged every day as regions choose to hunt in packs for EU funds.

Their coming together is being orchestrated in part by the European institutions in Brussels, who are offering aid for cross-border projects, enabling regions increasingly to bypass national governments. Last week in Brussels, agreement was reached on new inter-regional funding providing pounds 1.3bn over the next four years.

Since Maastricht, EU member states have been strutting the European stage, fretting about loss of national sovereignty and the changing political landscape. Meanwhile, regions have been quietly burrowing away, pushing holes through national boundaries and making new links that could bring more fundamental change to the real European landscape - physical and political - than any arcane institutional changes national governments are discussing.

Just imagine, for a moment, how the European landscape looks today from the depths of peripheral Devon and Cornwall. Down in the West Country, they have watched the industrial and political heartland of Europe take root in the so-called "blue banana", centred in northern Europe in a bent splodge from Frankfurt through Brussels, south-east England and northern France, and down to Milan. It has been hard for a region like Devon and Cornwall to make its influence felt in Brussels or London. Ports such as Rotterdam and Antwerp now take the bulk of European traffic, while Atlantic seaboard ports such as Bristol and Plymouth have been run down, and funding for infrastructure on the western rim limited.

While Devon and Cornwall may seem to have little in common with rich Atlantic Arc regions like Basse Normandie or Andalucia, all such peripheral areas voice similar fears about emigration and the decline in their traditional rural cultures. And their fears of marginalisation have been accentuated by the prospect of EU enlargement to the east, which would deprive the poorer areas of the Atlantic seaboard of European aid funds.

These regions also have a historic distrust of central government, wherever it sits. The Celts were always a stubborn, independent lot. Their descendants today understand the Eurosceptic fears of being subsumed and homogenised in a single Europe, and they complain as much as Jimmy Goldsmith about globalisation and the power of multi-nationals. Their answer, however, is not to advocate withdrawal from Europe, but to exert greater influence in Brussels and lobby for greater recognition of their regional identity. Regionalism and federalism, they say, should be two sides of the same coin. Together, regions with common problems can have a voice in wider European decision-making.

On a small scale, regional "influence" might mean greater recognition for minority languages or the fact that Brittany and Galway are working together to exploit the fuel potential of their peat bogs, with the help of EU funds. On a wider scale, the Atlantic Arc has a "business plan" for rebuilding maritime links all along the seaboard, including the regeneration of Atlantic seaboard ports.

While the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, proposes "repatriating" the EU's powers to oversee disaster relief, the Highlands, Brittany and Galicia - all victims of recent oil spill disasters - are drawing up plans for early warning systems at sea to prevent future spills. Which approach is likely to win more points from the "citizen" - political posturing from a Eurosceptic minister, or practical plans for action from people on the spot?

Regional officials say their European agenda is practical not political. "Politics never enters into it. Continentals might ask what the weather is like in Cornwall but never what's the politics," said one local councillor. Meanwhile, "spatial" planners at the European Commission encourage such co-operation, as they draw up plans for grand trans-European networks, trans-European environment programmes and trans-European infrastructure plans that know no national borders.

Frustration at having to bow to superior powers of national governments is a constant refrain in the European regions. Why should approval for an EU tourism grant to restore Galway's Spanish arch (where 16th century EU galleons unloaded their rum) have to be approved in Dublin? Roberto Franceschini complains, "The infrastructure we have to live with was built to serve nation states. We want region-to-region links. Direct flights to Brittany for a start."

Anyone who dismisses the growing influence of Europe's regions need only take a walk in the streets around the EU institutions in Brussels and observe the plethora of regional offices. Before 1990, only a handful of Europe's regions had offices in Brussels. Today more than 130 geographical units are represented here. Even little Galway has found a foothold this year alongside the European Commission. Many such offices are largely lobbying bodies and listening posts for the authorities back home. But their work is mushrooming as businesses, universities, and chambers of commerce increasingly use the regional offices - rather than the national embassies - to represent their interests when EU policy is decided. "Nobody in business operates with nation states anymore", said one English regional official. John Redwood, the Conservative Euro-sceptic, attempted to close the Welsh regional office in Brussels when he was Secretary of State for Wales - a sure sign that he understood the implications of growing regional power.

The disparate sizes of the regional offices connotes the enormous imbalance in their powers. The proud German Lander occupy whole hotels de maitres, while Cornwall and Devon is squeezed into two rooms. "They invite us to receptions but we don't have the money to ask them back," said one Cornish official. The so-called four motors (regions with attitude) of Lombardie, Baden Wurttemberg, Catalonia and Rhone-Alpes are the wealthiest regional grouping of all. Catalonia, which occupies vast office space with a staff of 14, has recently won devolved powers to direct its own policy on EU affairs under the new coalition deal forged in Madrid. How long will it be before the weaker European regions demand the right from their national government to punch their weight in Brussels?

Working together, the Atlantic Arc group may acquire money and influence. But how can Sean O'Neachtain make his voice heard over the mayors of Barcelona and Rome, with their vast entourages and political clout? How long before the Committee of the Regions demands to be directly elected and given real powers in EU decision making? And with devolution now a real prospect under Labour, how long before Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland demand delegated powers in Brussels? "We are one of the oldest nations in Europe. But we have no bargaining power at the top table," says Winnie Ewing, the Scottish nationalist member of the European Parliament.

While Britain fusses about the theft of its parliament's sovereign powers from above, how long before the citizens of Europe demand that more power over European government be seized by democratically elected regions below?

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