Leading Article: England's regional identity problem

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IT IS odd that Flemish separatists should be confident, as we report today, that the new European Union created by the Maastricht treaty will favour the emergence of an independent Flanders. It is true that, on the insistence of the 16 German Lander, the treaty created a new Committee of the Regions, and that it incorporated the principle of subsidiarity, under which power is supposed to be exercised at the most appropriate level. But Maastricht also created new areas of inter-governmental co-operation that bypass the EU's institutions and the regions - unless, as in Germany, there is good internal consultation.

The new committee may look promising to Flemish separatists. But its role is purely advisory, like that of the famously toothless Economic and Social Committee. It might grow in stature to become a focus for effective lobbying by passionate and articulate regional representatives. But that will take time.

Subsidiarity itself remains an elastic concept. The British government sees it as a weapon against the power and influence of the EU's institutions. On the Continent it is reckoned to favour the seepage of power from national capitals upwards to Brussels and downwards to regional and local authorities.

In short, there is no guarantee that Maastricht will, of itself, bring any nearer that nirvana of separatist nationalists; a Europe of the Regions. Yet neither the Flemings, Walloons, Catalans, Basques, Bretons, nor the Bavarians, Lombardians, nor even perhaps the Scots, need be downhearted. Throughout the EU's member states, with the single exception of this country, the trend is massively towards the devolution of power from national capitals towards the regions, and towards direct dealing between the regions and Brussels.

Even the ancient nation state of France, long even more centralised than England, has, since 1982, had 21 locally elected departmental assemblies. In Britain, by contrast, local government has been progressively weakened since 1979 by successive Conservative governments. Initially, the present government did not even want to have elected officials on the Committee of the Regions, and its eventual selection of 24 candidates and 'alternates' was widely held to be biased against Labour.

There is a sort of alibi: unlike countries such as Italy and Germany, which were created out of dozens of separate principalities, Britain - for all the claims of the North-east and South-west - divides naturally only into England, Scotland and Wales. The oldest division of England itself is into counties. Although the next non- Tory government is likely to reverse the trend towards centralisation, it will be hard pressed to create the sort of regional identity and loyalties required for effective lobbying in Brussels.