Britain lagging in power for Europe regions: Westminster is being accused of stifling the voice of local democracy, writes Andrew Marshall in Brussels

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The Independent Online
EUROPE'S regions are reaching for more power even before a new body to represent their interests is established. But opponents of the British Government claim it is taking the country in the opposite direction, stunting local democracy.

A report from the European Parliament sets out ideas on how the new Committee of the Regions, established by the Maastricht treaty, can be expanded into a real voice for local democracy.

It underlines that the regions see both a threat and an opportunity in Maastricht. The treaty 'means that there is an even greater risk than before of interference in the powers of the regional and local authorities', it says. But at the same time, it notes that this is 'accompanied by measures aimed at encouraging participation by the regions in . . . decision-making processes'. It says that subsidiarity - the British- backed idea that decisions be taken at the most appropriate level - should be used to push decision-making down to the regional level.

Even before the Committee is established, the regions in other European countries are extending their influence. Some already have diplomatic representation in Brussels, and a seat at the table when ministers meet to decide policy.

The German Lander already have official representation in the German mission to the European Union in Brussels. At a meeting in Bonn in Monday, some Lander - led by Bavaria - pushed for an independent team of representatives.

Under Maastricht, special meetings are held in Bonn before officials meet in Brussels to co-ordinate policy with the Lander. And a newly constituted chamber of the Bundesrat, the Europe Chamber, which includes regional representatives, can be convened to consider difficult issues.

Representatives of the regions can also represent member states at meetings of the Council of Ministers, instead of representatives of the central government. This is important for federal states like Germany and Belgium, where some powers - over education, for instance - are formally devolved to regional level.

But in Britain, the trend in local democracy and regional representation appears to be going in the opposite direction. Labour members of the European Parliament yesterday attacked the Government's choice of representation for the Committee, claiming that it ignores or under-represents many areas, and is skewed towards the Conservative Party.

'Other European countries are making the Committee of Regions a top priority - they recognise how important it is for local and regional government in different parts of their countries to have a say,' said Wayne David, MEP for South Wales and Labour spokesman on regional affairs.

'I am frankly astonished by the nominations of the British Government,' said Franz-Josef Stummann, Committee secretary of the Assembly of European Regions (AER), a non- partisan body.

Britain lags behind most countries in its degree of regional representation, argued Mr David. 'Over the past thirteen years, only in Britain has power moved towards the centre at the expense of local government,' said Mr David. The AER has attacked local government reforms in Wales which further weaken local authorities, and fears these will be extended to England and Scotland.

The Parliamentary report suggests amending the treaty to add to the powers of the Committee of the Regions when reform is next considered, in 1996. In particular, it recommends giving the regions the legal power to use the Court of Justice against EU institutions - and member states.