Celebrating the 20th anniversary of Randstad Regio last week in Brussels, the question arose what the future is for European regions. The economic crisis seems to strengthen the tendency towards centralization both in the European Union (for example, fiscal policy making) as well as in its member states. Still, regions as well as municipalities could play an important role in the Union that is troubled by limited legitimacy. Many citizens do not regard the Union as the government that is providing public services to them.
The economic crisis has led, as an emergency measure, to closer European cooperation on fiscal policy making. With the coming into force of the Fiscal Compact, the member states have designed a complex arrangement of fiscal norms as well as monitoring devices to control national government spending. What is fascinating about this development is that the increase of European fiscal power will reinforce a call for a European view on social-economic policy. Fiscal and social-economic policy making often go hand-in-hand and cannot be easily disconnected. National budgets were often used to combat economic stagnation and to stimulate economic growth and employment. Moreover, these problems have a strong spatial component, because economic problems are not the same in all parts of the EU (or a country if you wish), while solutions to these problems often have a strong regional component. Here lies a first challenge to European regions in the coming years. How can they support and contribute to social and economic development, together with others? And how can regions participate in the further development of these policies both at the national and the European level? In my view, their input will be essential for the success of these policies.
The second and but connected issue relates to the role of citizens in Europe—since 2013 is the year of the European Citizen, it warrants further attention. In his speech on the future of Europe David Cameron mentions one point I agree with and that is that citizens still have a problem identifying Europe as a government for them. I disagree with Cameron that a possible British exit would be the right answer to this problem, but that is a different issue. It seems that so far we have not given a good answer to this problem. In a reply to Cameron, the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schultz, proposes to have more transparency and ‘open’ debates in Europe. I am not convinced that this is the way to go.
Our national governments, including regions, are struggling with the increased mobility of goods, persons and services, while citizens also would like to see their local and national choices being respected. In trying to be as efficient and effective as possible, the Union seems to have taken on more and more tasks over time. Many problems nowadays have cross border effects suggesting that solutions need to be developed at the European level. But is that really necessary? Not all problems with cross border effects need to be resolved by Brussels. Not all problems put on the European agenda need to lead to Europe-wide legislation. Subsidiary needs to be taken seriously, also when it concerns the distribution of tasks between national and sub national governments. Unfortunately, for many the consequences of greater mobility are not yet clear. Moreover, often this discussion is dominated by nationalism and populist rhetoric. Still, what is needed is a discussion about the role of various levels of governments in Europe, including regions. If we want to be democratic, we may have to live with some policy inefficiency. When regional governments can no longer adapt their policy to the demands of their citizens, our democracies will be in danger. That is a second challenge for all of us, also for regions!