Catalan chief tipped to lead Europe's regions

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The Independent Online
JORDI PUJOL, the controversial President of Catalonia, may head Europe's new Committee of the Regions.

He is emerging as a leading candidate for the presidency of the European Union's newest body, which represents the opinions of the regions and localities. As President of the existing Assembly of European Regions and standard-bearer of Europe's 'new regionalism', he would give the body a high profile. Another candidate may be Jacques Blanc, President of Languedoc-Roussillon in France. Mr Pujol would assert the rights of Europe's regions and local authorities under the Maastricht treaty in ways that would be unlikely to please Britain any more than the EU's central institutions.

'What public opinion doesn't know is that this treaty, even though it has the faults all compromises have, fixes limits for EC-centralism,' said Mr Pujol this year. 'The regional participation in European politics it guarantees will bring the level of decision closer to the citizen, but right now people are being made to believe the opposite.'

At a meeting last week in Brussels, most of the work on setting up the 189-member body was finalised, though only about half the countries have put forward lists of delegates. The remaining issues will probably be dealt with on 2 or 3 December at a meeting in Barcelona - Mr Pujol's own capital.

Mr Pujol, 63, would be an outspoken supporter of regional rights. He speaks English, French, German and Italian as well as Spanish and of course Catalan. He has been running Catalonia since 1980 as chief minister of the autonomous government, the Generalitat. This year Catalonia ran a publicity campaign which called the region 'a country in Europe with its own language, culture and identity'.

The new body is likely to affect legislation in ways similiar to the European Parliament. But its supporters are keen that it should develop as an explicitly political, not technical, body.

The selection of a president may influence a crucial debate about the organisation's future. The committee will include representatives of regions and localities, the first of which have more ambitious views of how the organisation should develop - as effectively a second chamber of the European Parliament.

The local authorities - including Britain's representatives - see it as a practical mechanism for influencing EU policy on concrete issues, producing 10 or 20 opinions a year. They want work to be concentrated in issue-oriented rather than the full, plenary session.