The Committee of the Regions: A Committee for Europe

Article excerpt

SUPRANATIONALITY is one of the touchstones of the European Union, the concept of power being wielded for certain purposes by a body above and apart from the constituent parts. This idea is part and parcel of subsidiarity, which in its simplest form means decisions being taken by the most appropriate and effective body, central or local. Neither of these ideas is new. Arguably the first could be found in the Holy Roman Empire, which lasted in one form or another from 800 until 1806. The second owes its philological origin to use by the Papacy in the 1930s but doubtless has older roots.

Both ideas seem to come together in the new Committee of the Regions, the first new European Union institution to be created since 1955, spawned by the Treaty of European Union (Maastricht) and potentially a great force for the future, both for diffusion and defusion -- diffusion of power and decision and defusion of the ethnic tensions often caused by the concentration of power. The Committee is therefore concerned with power being exercised by a neutralized and, as far as feasible, independent body.

The long-awaited inaugural meeting of the Committee took place in Brussels on 9 and 10 March 1994. The final statement of the Brussels European Summit on 29 October 1993 included an agreement that the first meeting of the Committee of the Regions should take place before 15 January 1994. The fact that this inaugural meeting was almost two months behind schedule has led to problems already, as will be seen later.

The Committee drew a diverse and colourful initial membership to it, emphasizing in miniature Europe itself. The meeting was officially opened by the oldest member, Leon Bollendorf of Luxembourg, assisted by an interim bureau of the four youngest members, a nice gesture to youth and age. The first day of proceedings was dominated by a series of Presidential addresses from the two Presidents of the European Union, the Commission President Jacques Delors and the President-in-Office of the Council of Ministers, Akis Tsohatzopoulos, representing the six-month Greek presidency of the Union at that time. The Chairman of the Committee of the Regions was also elected -- this eventually turned out to be Jacques Blanc, President of Languedoc-Roussillon and Mayor of the Camourge, (France), who polled 55 votes from the 189 members on the first ballot. There had been four candidates originally, but before the voting commenced, one of them, Charles Gray, President of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (CoSLA) and leader of the UKs COR delegation, announced that he would be prepared to withdraw his candidacy if the remaining candidates gave an assurance that no deals would be made, and that each would play the 'democratic game' up to the final ballot. One is tempted to say 'How Scottish!' and refreshing to see an insistence on a 'moral' approach to such a contest!

However, the wordly-wise and practical Leon Bollendorf, as interim Chairman, was unable to give such assurances, but the point had been made and Charles Gray's name was removed from the list. It seemed a shame that he withdrew in a way, for the Scots have always been the standard bearers of Britain in Europe, legally always more compatible and having the great precedent of Lord Mackenzie Stuart, President of the European Court, before them. Pasqual Maragall, the colourful and flamboyant Mayor of Barcelona, who had polled 54 votes on the first ballot, then also withdrew his candidacy, but not before suggesting that the position of Chairman should rotate after two years, allowing representatives of the regions and municipalities in Europe to hold the post in turn. Jacques Blanc expressed his support for this proposal, and going forward as the sole candidate, obtained 97 out of 170 votes cast, and was duly elected for two years.

The election of Vice-Chairman followed, where Pasquall Maragall received 91 votes against Charles Gray's 65. Then, as the official report laconically puts it 'the COR's long first day came to an end'. …