Crises and EU multilevel differentiation: the view from the regions

What role can regions and local authorities play in the ongoing Conference on the future of Europe? This and other questions were discussed at a policy dialogue organized by ARENA on 26 May 2021. This conference report sums up the main issues discussed at the event.

The Conference on the Future of Europe is a forum for discussion meant to give citizens, sub-national authorities and civil society a chance to shape the future of the European Union (Photo: European Parliament)

The recent crises (euro, refugee, Brexit, Covid) and their policy responses have imposed tight fiscal measures upon member states that have cascaded upon regional economies, further aggravating regional disparities. On 9 May 2021, the EU launched the Conference on the Future of Europe, a forum for discussion meant to give citizens, sub-national authorities and civil society a chance to shape the future of the European Union. The Conference is mainly construed as a top-down exercise, but its attempt to involve many expressions of civil society bears the promise of an innovative exercise.

In multilevel governance systems like the EU, democracy works at various levels. Citizens bring a variety of sensitivities, preferences and orientations. The same individuals – consulted as members of the EU demos, citizens of member states, members of local or regional community, card-holders of functional associations, or members of non-governmental organizations – may express different opinions and suggestions that only when fully accounted for contribute to a truly inclusive and participated European Union. This is particularly true in turbulent times when the costs of the crises and the benefits of various kinds of support may create increased differentiation between different sets of citizens. It is therefore important to underscore the importance of local and regional communities, functional associations and civil society organizations in bringing the ‘voice from below’ to bear on EU decision-making.

Based on these observations, ARENA organized a policy dialogue on the regional dimension of differentiation, to discuss the regional voice in the Conference on the future of Europe, the regional concerns of the EU's cohesion policy and the contribution of regions and subnational entities to multilevel democracy. 

The overall aim of the event was to bring together regional representatives within EU institutions, members of regional associations, representatives of civil society associations as well as scholars in academia, think-tanks and research foundations to reflect on whether the ongoing Conference on the Future of Europe is an authentic listening exercise and an opportunity of deliberative democracy.

The importance of doing deliberative democracy right

Karl-Heinz Lambertz, President of the Parliament of the German-speaking Community of Belgium and former president of the Committee of the Regions (CoR) shared some experiences on the use of deliberative democracy from the eastern part of Belgium. This region has created a permanent citizens’ assembly, a citizens’ council, as well as plans for the regional parliament to follow up and respond to the recommendations of the citizens. It was highlighted that deliberative democracy is not a miracle tool, but it is an important instrument that can be used at local, regional and European level. What matters most is that the proposals that come out of these deliberative processes are taken seriously and are reflected in formal decision-making.

Several other speakers underlined the importance of following up the citizens’ deliberations after the conference is over. So far, the conference on the future of Europe and its joint declaration has been vague in this regard. Further, the speakers argued that the conference should not simply be used as a public relations tool. It is important that this exercise is used in a way that can really empower citizens. At the same time, the EU institutions need to manage expectations in terms of what citizens can actually decide in this process. Otherwise, the conference can risk leading to further dissatisfaction and distrust from citizens, as one speaker pointed out.

Deliberative democracy as a supplement to representative democracy

It was also argued that deliberative democracy cannot be a substitute for representative democracy, but rather a supplement. In this lies also the importance of ensuring inclusive democracy and making sure that the voices of minorities are heard. Some of the speakers were concerned that the Conference on the Future of Europe lacks mechanisms to hear the voices of minorities, but rather applies a one-size-fits-all method. One way of ensuring that minority voices are heard, is to better involve civil society organizations in the conference, one speaker stated.

The tensions between the three main institutions in the EU – the Parliament, the Commission and the Council – have been visible in the process leading to the Conference, but there is a chance that the involvement of new actors can bring new voices to the table. Drawing upon the findings of the research project REGIOPARL, several speakers reported that members of regional parliaments are concerned about the current functioning of EU institutions, and that they expect a stronger regional voice at the EU level. From a multilevel democracy point of view, the regional voice is important because regions bring a distinct perspective to bear on the problems and remedies engendered by the crises and they are closer to citizens than national governments. One way of giving the regions a stronger voice would then be to more actively involve regional parliaments in the conference on the future of Europe.

In both deliberative and representative democracy, time is of the essence. It was remarked that it is preposterous to try and squeeze too many topics into short consultation events, with the risk that none is properly discussed and nothing concrete comes out of these encounters. Representatives of citizens’ associations that regularly consult with their members online know how important it is to have clear indicators of what would qualify as a successful consultative exercise and what would not. Collecting information from disparate consultation exercises is useful, but, echoing a remark made also by Karl-Heinz Lambertz, it would be even more useful if a correct methodology was applied by all and if simultaneous consultations were conducted in several member states. Another way of strengthening the regional voice at the European level would be to improve the relationship between the European Committee of the Regions and the Council which, according to at least one of the speakers.

Cohesion policy between convergence and competitiveness

Another session of the event discussed the regional concerns with regards to Cohesion policy. The speakers described a trend of centralizing Cohesion policy in the EU, where more decision-making power has been moved to the member state level and away from regions. It was argued that the emphasis on citizen participation in the Conference on the Future of Europe could also have positive repercussions for EU cohesion policy.

Cohesion policy has long hovered between the promotion of convergence and the stimulation of competitiveness, with a growing emphasis on the latter. These are two rather different strategies. While in the past, the goal was to promote economic, social and territorial cohesion (i.e. convergence) in Europe by investing in the individual regions’ productive strengths (the ‘place-based approach’), the emphasis today is on competitiveness, which clearly sets region against region and sometimes regional centers against their peripheries. Academic experts present at the event stressed the importance of providing basic services uniformly in all territories and allowing regions to grow on their own strengths, both requiring a long-term perspective. 

One speaker explained that, on the positive side, the much-dreaded cut in Structural Funds in the 2021-27 Multiannual Financial Framework has in fact not taken place. It is true that the emphasis of Cohesion policy has shifted from convergence to competitiveness and that a certain proportion of Cohesion money will be devoted to the goals contained in the Next Generation EU, but regions will also receive the ReactEU (Recovery Assistance for Cohesion and the Territories of Europe) funds for investment to support job maintenance, job creation and youth employment measures, health care systems and the provision of working capital and investment support for small and medium-sized enterprises. By taking all resources in consideration, the amounts mobilized in 2021-27 are comparable to those of the 2014-20 budget.

A new meaning of ‘structural policy’?

The question animating the second session was also whether the term ‘structural’ is now associated with the ‘structural reforms’ imposed by the European Semester exercise, hence reforms aimed at the competitiveness of markets anywhere, or still with the need to make ‘structural investment’ to sustain regional growth. Representatives from civil society organisations at the event reported that they initially were concerned that the structural policy might change and become more centralized, but then discovered that the Common Provisions (the regulations for the disbursement of 2021-27 funds) still contained a lot of what was there before, which is the basis for a potentially citizen-centric approach. The partnership principle is still there, emphasis is still on local community development and, for all its faults and disconnects, the Conference on the Future of Europe is clearly going to lead to bigger emphasis on a permanent role for citizen participation in the EU. The clear intention of EU institutions appears to be to try and take something from the Conference and develop it. The Conference appears to be a marketplace for ideas and the most attractive ideas will stand a real chance of being implemented.

Multilevel democracy: the regional input

The last session went back to the notion of multilevel democracy. The importance of hearing the regional ‘voice’ was repeated but the issue of how to acquire and balance the voice from regional parliaments (where they exist) with those emanating from regional authorities and regional societies remains problematic.

A member of the CoR Expert Group on European Democracy discussed the notion of European democracy. The issue is not so much whether the EU (understood as European institutions) works as a democracy, but whether the EU together with the rest of the other parts of the system - member states, regions, cities - is gaining capacity to work on global issues in a more democratic way. In other words, the issue is its democratic quality. Regions sometimes receive legislation that they are forced to implement without having contributed to discuss and approve it, while sometimes they are involved more deeply.

The very creation of the CoR in 1994 after the Treaty of Maastricht was a significant step forward in multilevel democracy, particularly given that roughly half of all EU legislation must acquire its opinion in order to become law. At the same time, it is unclear what has been achieved particularly in terms of the enactment of the principle of subsidiarity which remains a contentious concept and a difficult one to translate into concrete actions. The Task Force on Subsidiarity, where Mr. Lambertz participated, has certainly been an important step in the right direction and the Conference on the Future of Europe may be the next step. While progress has been made in the relationship between the CoR, on the one hand, and the Commission and the European Parliament, on the other, more needs to be done with Council, according to the speakers.

Bringing citizens into EU multilevel democracy

Concluding this section, three final points were raised. The first theoretical point is how to embed deliberative democracy exercises, which are becoming increasingly common in Europe at the local level, within representative democracy. Citizens see them as decision-making moments, authorities as communication exercises. The second political point is how to boost multilevel democracy perhaps through a Treaty change when member states do not seem to be ready for one. The third, substantial point is how precisely EU citizens can contribute to EU decision-making, whether through regional authorities or through other forms. At the moment there is an executive bias even at the regional level, whereas the real issue is to involve citizens – whether through regions or in other ways – into EU multilevel democracy.


Simona Piattoni, Professor, University of Trento and ARENA Centre for European Studies

Ragnhild Grønning, EU3D Communications Adviser, ARENA Centre for European Studies

Published Feb. 22, 2022 9:54 AM - Last modified July 20, 2022 12:27 PM