Belgian politician Luc Van den Brande has been the President of the EU's Committee of the Regions since February 2008. He is the eighth President of the political assembly, which gives local and regional government representatives a voice in European decision-making. A lawyer by profession, Luc Van den Brande started his political career in 1977 after being elected to the Belgian House of Representatives. He became a member of the forerunner of the Flanders Parliament in 1980 and was designated as a Community Senator in 1999.
According to Mr Van den Brande, who has been a member of the CoR since its creation in 1994, CoR and European associations “must work side by side to achieve common goals”.
EM: During the Open Days opening session, you mentioned that you are for the “Europe with regions” instead of the “Europe of Regions”. What did you mean exactly?
LVB: The answer to this has a lot to do with a modern European Union based on multi-level governance. We have to give up the pyramidal hierarchical approach in the European Union which places Europe above the Member States, the Member States above the regions, the regions above the cities and the local communities. Instead, we need a new partnership between these entities. Europe's regions are crucial partners in the system. They must have a real say in the European decision-making. Common objectives can only be achieved if all political layers work together. This is the message I wish to bring across during my presidency: We must build Europe in partnership with our regions.
EM: Why are regions still so important for the European construction project?
LVB: Our local and regional authorities are not merely the executors of decisions taken in 2km2 of Brussels or subcontractors of other levels of government. Being closest to the people, they are on the front line in tackling tangible issues and challenges, such as unemployment, health care, the environment and immigration. Today, regions and cities are more important than ever in political terms. Regions are key actors in research, innovation and education. In recent years, sub-national public sector expenditure in the EU grew to reach 2 000 billion euros, or 16% of the European GDP. One euro in three of EU public expenditure is spent at sub-national levels. In the 12 new member states, sub-national levels are responsible for even two thirds of public expenditure.
EM: If you look at the map of the Open Days’ participants, you might note that the most powerful regions of Europe (the pentagon) did not participate. What is your opinion on this? Why do cohesion policy and cooperation not interest those regions of Europe?
LVB: Some regions still see cohesion policy as a solidarity tool mainly for developing less favoured areas or regions economically lagging behind. It is a mistake because cohesion policy does not reach only this or that territory, but rather all European citizens. And this must be stressed in particular for the future of regional policy, since all Europeans need solidarity, or better "common strategies", when it comes to face the new challenges of the XXI century and the consequences of a globalised economy.
EM: What is your first reaction to the Green Paper on Territorial cohesion?
LVB: I am convinced that the moment to launch the paper on 6 October, the first day of the OPEN DAYS, was well chosen. The OPEN DAYS have set the scene for a step forward the debate on the future of European cohesion policy. I would like to stress again the commitment of the CoR for a strong and efficient regional policy, rejecting any attempt of re-nationalisation of a policy that has already proved to provide good results. This is evident if you look at the increased Gross Domestic Product (GDP) recorded in several European countries since the first regulation came into effect in 1988. Greece for instance increased its GDP per person from 73 to 89% of the EU average between 1988 and 2008, Ireland from 69 to 123%.
I also support the idea that regional policy should target all European regions. Of course, special efforts need to be concentrated on special territories in order, but it should also target other regions to fully develop their potential, adapting their economy to the new challenges of demography, climate change and globalisation, and help them to offer equal rights and opportunities to its citizens wherever they happen to live or work in Europe. A first reaction to the Green Paper will be delivered at the beginning of 2009, both with a specific opinion of the CoR and during the Summit of regions and cities to be organised in Prague on 6 March next year.
EM: How do you see the future relations between the CoR and regional associations such as CPMR?
LVB: CoR and European associations must work side by side. We give to regional and local authorities the institutional visibility and role they need within the EU, whilst European associations such as CPMR complement regional and local activities by giving necessary inputs, developing strategies and studies, networking, consolidating partnerships between territories and lobbying towards decision-makers: all necessary and complementary actions that I welcome. The recent strong cooperation between the CoR and associations, for instance, in establishing a regional and local assembly within the Barcelona Process: Union for Mediterranean, with the fundamental support of Claudio Martini and Michel Vauzelle, is a new good example of how European associations and the CoR can work together to achieve common goals.
Enrico Mayrhofer (firstname.lastname@example.org)