woensdag 19 september 2012

Open Days 2012 Special: Why have a regional representation in Brussel

There are over 200 regional representations in Brussel. Every year during the EU Open Days we celebrate the partnership between the EU and regions. As part of this the coming weeks, EU KNOW HOW blogs will focus especially on EU regional interest representation; Our first blog answers the question on why have a regional representation in the first place?

Lobbying requires a lot of resources. Budget does help, but it  is third in importance compared to manpower and political will. A certain cost benefit analysis should be at the basis of any rational behind deciding to have a regional representation in Brussels. Still, when making a cost-benefit analysis you should also take into account the so called “opportunity costs”. While a lot of representations have a hard time measuring how much did their lobby benefit from being based in Brussels or the national capital, it is quite easy calculating how much it costs when you are not involved in European Affairs. There are numerous examples of regions facing problems with legislations or being the last to get funded. Often -if not always- these laggards  have been “sleeping” while legislations was passed. And while no regional representation is alike, I think there are basicly tree main reasons regional lobby’s should lobby in Brussels.

  1. Monitoring and influencing Legislation

More then 50% of national legislation originates in Brussels. This figure rises to almost 80% if you only take environmental legislation into account. Bearing in mind that local governments are often responsible for carrying out, monitoring and upholding this legislation, it becomes all the more apparent that it is important to be aware of upcoming legislation in an early stage. This is no trivial matter, as the wrong application of EU legislation can lead to claims in court, complaints at the European Commission , decision to be annulled, fines and/or repayment of unintentional damages. But more important is the damage to the reputation of a local government. Citizens of local governments have the right to depend on sound governance, and you can imagine how a European court-case undermines the respectability of a municipality or region.

  1. Monitoring and seizing financial opportunities

The EU has an agreed budget of €120.7 billion for the year 2011 and €864.3 billion for the period 2007–2013. About 30% of this budget are reserved for structural action, which target the regional and municipal level. In times of crisis and budgetcuts the EU budget can make a real and sustainable impact to regional development. Regions often joke that the EU is a bigger friend to local governments then their own national ministries. By being in Brussel it is easier to monitor and seize the financial opportunities that the EU provides. By maintaining contacts, you will be able to hear about call for proposals before they come out and find partners to tea up with for the development of your EU project.

  1. Building the profile of your municipality or region

Building a European profile of your municipality or region is a must if you want to have success influencing the EU legislative process or seizing the financial opportunities the EU has to offer. How many times have I seen local governments go to Brussels as part of a annual trip, in the hope to make a statement. This is a utter waste of time and resources. Brussels is a constant flux of people, and just visiting once a year will have no impact.  “Being there” is an advantage you have over thousands of competitors EU-wide. However, just being there is not enough. While no region is alike, you should at least be seen as a reliable partner that not only “takes” but also “gives”. As a former MEP told me at the start of my career; “If a problem arises in the EU, the whole of Europe wil start calling 1 or 2 members of European Parliament. Make sure they know you and appreciate you before you have a problem!”. And indeed, as a legislative proces reaches its decisive stage policymakers are inundated with e-mails and phone-calls. The policymaker will decide to answer only those that have a track-record in contributing with sound advise.

All the wrong reasons to have a regional representation in Brussels.

While I think it is important that every region is present in the national capital, at the same time regions should think twice before opening shop in Brussels. Some say; Europe is becoming increasingly more important!  But is it really? Does the region have a good overview of it’s “European interests”. Here are at least tree wrong reasons why regions enter the world of EU lobbying.

This is a bit of a contradiction of the beforementioned reason to actually be present in Brussel. A lot of regional representations are in Brussels because of the EU Budget. And while the EU Budget is an attractive reason to be based in Brussels, one should always be cautioned not to be struck by gold-fever. In reality, EU funds are very difficult to come by. Cohesion funds are allocated by a National Envelop, and so are funds from the CAP. To get money from yearly calls for proposals depend as much on having a good project proposal as on lobbying. Lobbying does help, but only if the project proposal is already excellent, and it needs that extra push in the midst of competing excellent projects.

Not a local or regional issue
The European Union spans a wide range of policy issues, from enlargement to transport. Does your local government really have the competencies to deal with all EU issues? Does your Province really have to have an opinion on the European Union wind-energy policy? Or the European Union pension system for that matter? With the right stretch of imagination, you could make a case that everything has a local or regional dimension to it, and before you know it you will be involved in countless meetings spending numerous hours discussing things that only have a marginal relevance for your region. Sometimes it is difficult to judge if something is important for your local government. In case of doubt it is even better not to take action then to take action. In Brussels there are numerous professionails with their own pet projects, and they will do anything to convince you that this policy issue is pressing. Avoid getting tangled in their web. The golden rule is; a policy issue is only important if a lot of people are working on it, and if there is substantial budget involved.

Not an European issue
As a lobbyist at the European Union for the Dutch Province of Zeeland, a lot of local stakeholders came to me with issues which they hoped to solve on EU level. However not every problem or issue can be resolved on the EU level. Paving a local road with little importance for the EU, or building a local yacht harbour are just some things that come to mind. And while it certainly is not impossible, it is not always easy to interest the EU for a local issue unless you can prove that more European regions face the same problem.     

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