Maverick sets a cat among EU pigeons

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The Independent Online
THE LEADER of the Belgian region of Flanders set the cat among the pigeons yesterday by suggesting the Maastricht treaty will speed up the Flemish quest for independence. Luc van den Brande's ideas, always controversial in the country that this year introduced a new federal constitution designed to hold Belgium together, risk striking a chord with other regions in a European Union that for the first time gives regional government a legitimate political voice.

Mr van den Brande, the Minister President of the Government of Flanders, has the kind of political vision that gives centralising politicians in London, Paris or Madrid, let alone Brussels, sleepless nights.

In an interview with Agence France-Presse, Mr van den Brande explained that the Maastricht treaty and the single market have removed many of the barriers to outright independence. Unlike Czechoslavakia, whose constitutional split this year is often evoked as a model Belgium could follow, an autonomous Flanders would not have to worry about taking down customs barriers; the creation of a single currency, still the European Union's long-term goal, would make all talk of creating a special 'Flemish franc' redundant, Mr van den Brande explained.

For the French-speaking press the interview, which as one paper lamented 'is bound to be seen abroad as the view of Flanders and not just Mr van den Brande', is a reiteration of an already well- known separatist stance that has more to do with Belgian domestic politics than European integration.

Yet it is true that regionalism is potentially one of the stronger forces released by the Maastricht treaty. For the first time the 12 (going on 16) have underwritten the creation of a representative body, the Committee of Regions, whose job it will be to develop the relationship between local/regional politicians and central government - national ministers meeting in Brussels.

The committee's 189 members have already been designated but other procedural details have to be worked out before the inaugural meeting, which the Belgians, who now hold the EU presidency, would like to hold next month.

'I know the details aren't very sexy, but if it is to be effective it is vital we get this sort of thing right. It is a great step forward and we must try to ensure it becomes a proper political force and not just a hobby-horse for a particular group or faction,' explained a UK local government official.

The Commission, in the interests of subsidiarity as much as anything else, is keen to see the Committee of Regions make an effective contribution and not get bogged down in the sort of technical detail that has dogged the advisory Economic and Social Committee. Designed to represent Union interest groups - unions, management, consumers, farmers etc, Ecosoc has proved too unwieldy to have much clout.

Local government organisations across Europe are determined that they will not miss their chance to influence policy and have already been active through various looser pan-Europe associations.

In one sense, the Maastricht treaty merely acknowledges a trend.

Brussels is teeming with regional lobbyists: cities have banded together to create zones of influence, from northern Portugal into Spain and west France, for example, or the Barcelona, Lyons, Turin 'banana' in the south.

Leading article, page 19