Regional body flexes muscles

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BRUSSELS - A discreet battle was being fought yesterday for control of the newest Euro-fiefdom as the regions struggled to make themselves heard, writes Sarah Lambert. The fight to become the first president of the Committee of the Regions, which holds its inaugural meeting and presidential election today, is a mark of the organisation's political potential.

Regionalism is now a powerful force at work within Europe. In Spain, Catalonia, as the political power-broker and economic powerhouse, has used its limited autonomy to manipulate Madrid. In fully federal states, such as Germany and Belgium, central government is powerless to act on certain issues, such as education, without the regions givng the go-ahead.

Countries such as these see in the committee an opportunity to develop an alternative pan-European power base the better to promote the politics of devolution. Yet this is not its brief: the committee was designed to bring the European Union closer to its citizens.

For supporters of centralised government, such as the British and the French, the committee should be the voice not so much of the regions as of the town halls. Of Britain's 24 members, only two are regional representatives: Charles Gray, of Strathclyde, and Duncan McPherson of the Highlands, although there are three other district representatives.

Few others represent places that spring to mind as regions. The West Country, for example, is represented only by Simon Day of Devon County Council. Wales has three district, borough or county council representatives, Northern Ireland two - including Reg Empey, the Lord Mayor of Belfast. The London boroughs of Croydon, Haringey and Sutton all have a voice. Gateshead, Lancashire, Birmingham, Suffolk, Nottinghamshire, Norwich, Waverley, Trafford, and East Sussex are all represented. More peversely, there is a system of stand-ins but they are drawn from quite different areas, such as Leicester or Barnsley.

Officially the committee, created by the Maastricht Treaty, has a purely consultative role on a narrow range of issues: education, training, culture, public health, trans-European networks, social and regional policy. But already its 189 members are anxious to interpret this as widely as possible.

Regional committees already exist and some have joined forces to ensure the committee has clout. But they are friends only up to a point. The regional big boys want to ensure the committee is weighted toward a regional point of view and have suggested their own candidates for the presidency: Luc Van Den Brande, who runs Belgian Flanders, and Jacques Blanc, head of the Languedoc-Roussillon regional council. Both are conservatives. The localists have, unofficially, put up their own contenders, both socialists: the mayor of Barcelona, Pasqual Maragall, and Mr Gray from Scotland. Significant support for Mr Maragall could throw up a compromise candidate: Jordi Pujol, the president of Catalonia.

The election of Mr Pujol or Mr Van Den Brande, given their confrontational approach, would stamp the committee as a political force, but their detractors suggest this might not be the best way forward.

The British government doubts the committee can ever become a stalking horse for nationalist/separatist interests because of its limited power. But the EU is in flux. The admission of new countries with strong traditions of decentralised and open governments could shift the old balance.