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Schadenfreude – EU ‘regionalism’ is divisive

Institutualisation of regional identity has become a force to be reckoned with in European politics – writes our secret columnist in Brussels Schadenfreude

It can be plausibly argued that the European Union has the unforeseen effect of stimulating separatism within its member states. One symbol is the Committee of the Regions, giving regional spokesmen recognised official status as well as direct access to European Commission services without the intermediary of national authorities. All of which helps to strengthen the sense of regional identities.

Another factor in separatism is the EU’s regional fund. It was a British innovation, and almost a condition of United Kingdom membership. It was intended to be the vehicle for payments to Britain, which did not expect lavish gains for agricultural support.

Although the allocation of regional funding is a matter for central governments, expenditure is on the ground and under the day-to-day supervision of local authorities. This helps to augment the sense of identity and encourages intra-regional solidarity. It makes central audit difficult. It also enables the commission to bypass restrictive central governments.

Another localising influence emanating from the EU is the principle of ‘subsidiarity’. This is EU doctrine, intended to bring Brussels closer to the European citizenry. Under treaty, national parliaments have the opportunity to comment on whether draft legislation is sufficiently ‘subsidiary’ but parliamentarians do not appear to give the question much attention.

Subsidiarity is notoriously difficult to apply. In principle, it should limit the intervention of union regulation into everyday lives but it would be hard to show that it has the intended effect – or any effect whatsoever.

It would, of course, be absurd to contend that in its different forms EU action has been a driving force for a Scottish Parliament or the backbone of the action groups demanding greater local autonomy in member states. However, the institutualisation of regional identity has become a force to be reckoned with in European politics.

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