EC regions committee could deflect demands for devolution

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Indy Politics
SUSPICION that the Government might try to use the proposed EC Committee of the Regions to deflect demands for full-scale regional devolution was prompted by Tristan Garel-Jones, the Foreign Office minister, yesterday.

The Committee of the Regions is a consultative body, proposed under the terms of the Treaty of Maastricht, that would give guidance to the European Commission on the strategy for economic and social cohesion - supported by funds exceeding pounds 1.2bn for the UK this year.

Under the terms of the treaty, the United Kingdom will have 24 seats on the 189-strong committee, and ministers expect a close Commons vote on Opposition demands that members should be chosen 'from elected local government representatives'.

Because the treaty does not lay down the way in which representatives are to be selected, the Maastricht legislation would not be destroyed by a Government defeat on the issue - a live possibility, according to some sources.

Of the 12 EC members, only the Greeks have so far chosen their representatives - 8 of their 12 members are local mayors. It is most unlikely that Whitehall would follow that precedent.

Although Mr Garel-Jones said in a written Commons reply last Friday that no decisions had yet been taken on the way in which UK members would be chosen, there will be little surprise if they are dominated by the Conservative faithful.

But Mr Garel-Jones did cause surprise yesterday when he told the Commons Select Committee on European Legislation that the regions committee could be important. He said: 'It is difficult to predict but it could become an organisation of some importance and consequence.'

David Harris, a Conservative member of the committee and of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, said that marked a change of emphasis. 'In the past, the Government has always been a bit dismissive about it,' he said.

'There is obviously a keenness as far as the Commission is concerned, and a dead keenness as far as the local authorities and regional authorities in this country are concerned. They obviously see it as a possible way of trying to by- pass Whitehall and building up their links with Brussels.'

One Government source said, however, that ministers were considering the possibility of using the committee to 'step over' demands for Scottish devolution.

Dennis Canavan, a Labour member of the foreign affairs committee, said he did not want to detract from the importance of the Committee of the Regions. 'But it is purely a consultative body, and certainly cannot be seen as a substitute for a Scottish Parliament, with real legislative power.'

Richard Caborn, Labour chairman of the Trade and Industry Select Committee, said he wanted the regions committee to force subsidiarity and a devolution of power to the English regions.