A symbiotic relationship between the EU and subnational entities
Any territory where political power is exercised is obliged to create in its citizenry a sense of belonging. This sense of belonging to the territory, called identity, allows a political entity to obtain legitimacy. Through this legitimacy, such a political entity ensures its own existence because the citizenry accepts the presence and the decisions of the political authorities.
The European Union has this aim: building an identity based on a common culture and/or on the results of its political activity. In fact, currently, concerns regarding the weakness of EU identity are at the centre of debate because it is feared that this weakness has resulted in many of the problems the EU is experiencing. Among the possible reasons why it has been so challenging to foster a strong European identity, it is worth mentioning the following. Firstly, the lack of clear goals for the EU project. Secondly, the composition of the EU, in particular the degree of territorial diversity, especially since the enlargements implemented in this century. Thirdly, the democratic deficit that EU institutions suffer from because the election of the Members of the European Parliament is the only direct election that takes place. Fourthly, the presence of other territorial identities – national and subnational – with which the European identity must coexist. Fifthly, the distance between the EU and the societies that give it legitimacy.
I would like to focus on this last issue. How can the European Union minimise this distance from its citizenry? The proposal presented below outlines a way to establish a symbiotic relationship between the European Union and the subnational – regional and local – entities. However, it is advisable to first explain the influence of European integration on the subnational entities and the role that these play in the EU.
The subnational entities’ right to participate in the EU
The functioning of the EU is based on the exercise of competences (power) that, prior to European integration, belonged to the central States or to the subnational entities. Thus, the EU reduces both national and subnational power. However, the hardest hit are the subnational entities because of the presence of members of the central government in the main EU institutions. Thus, the EU generates a process of recentralisation that should be minimized through the participation of the subnational entities in the EU. Nevertheless, this right to participate is not only derived from power that has been undermined, but also from power that subnational entities still exercise and which must be developed within and beyond their own territorial frontiers in a context of globalisation.
The only institutionalised mechanism to ensure subnational participation in the EU is the Committee of the Regions. However, two of this Committee’s defining aspects effectively neutralize subnational participation. Firstly, the Committee has only advisory powers. Although, it should be noted that recent reform of the Committee has changed the situation slightly in that it now has legal standing as a plaintiff in the EU Court of Justice and it has also gained greater say in the EU legislative process. Secondly, there is the issue of the Committee’s heterogeneous composition: regional and local entities have representation and each entity has quite different features due to the different national processes of territorial decentralization of political power. Ultimately, the Committee only allows the subnational entities to establish contacts and informal cooperation networks, comment on the decisions taken by the rest of the EU institutions and exercise territorial lobbying, a practice that they can develop individually using other informal paths.
Political power vs. Proximity to the citizenry
In this post, I wish to propose a blueprint for establishing a symbiotic relationship between the European Union and these subnational entities and, in this way, reduce the distance between the EU and its citizenry.
The suggestion is that subnational entities should be empowered through their participation in and through an effective Committee of the Regions, which would enable them to benefit from the power of the EU. This would allow them to implement their right to participate in the EU effectively and it would increase their power because they would be permitted to take part in EU decision-making.
Furthermore, the EU itself would benefit from this improved position of subnational entities as it would bring the EU closer to its citizenry resident in these subnational entities. In this way, subnational entities would become powerful tools in transmitting EU policies downwards, boosting citizen participation and engagement with the EU and transferring the legitimacy from society to the EU, thus ensuring the EU’s continued existence.
At present, the phenomena of globalization and territorial decentralization of political power involve the presence of two forces: the advance of globalism and the defence of localism. Theoretically, they are antagonistic forces, but they can be mutually reinforcing each other in practice. In this context, the potential of subnational power to help strengthen European identity remains untapped. In order to build a strong European identity, the EU must cease to behave like one union of sovereign States by embracing its subnational entities.
|Óscar Moreno Corchete is a researcher in training at the Faculty of Law of the University of Salamanca, for which he was granted a fellowship by the Spanish Government (FPU). Currently, he is guest researcher at the Institute for Comparative Federalism at Eurac Research. His research field is the territorial decentralization of political power and, in his doctoral thesis, he focuses on the territorial identity. He loves spending his free time with his friends.|