First Minister's Speech for Regleg Conference - 12 November 2003
From Salzburg 2003 to Edinburgh 2004
When I was asked, this time last year, if I wanted to Chair the REGLEG Group, I was honoured and happy to accept. By the standards of many round the table here today, the Scottish Parliament and the Executive are still fairly new creations and I think it is a very positive sign that Scotland is already recognised as playing a full part in Europe .
At the debate yesterday, we spoke about how the role of the regions has been reflected in the draft Constitutional Treaty. The Declaration that we have adopted this afternoon sets out those successes; and those areas in which there is still more to be done. I wanted to use the opportunity today to reflect a little on what the REGLEG group has achieved; to outline my thinking about how we can pursue those achievements together over the next 12 months and to offer some general reflections on the future role of the Group.
The first thing to say is that we have come a long way. Ours is an important agenda. 56% of EU citizens live in regions with legislative powers. That means 56% of EU citizens depend upon regional governments to implement - and of course in some cases to transpose - the legislation that delivers the environmental, economic and social benefits that the Union provides. Europe remains, of course, a Europe of Member States, but recognising and accommodating the diversity of constitutional arrangements within those Member States and their regions is a crucial part of more effective and transparent decision and policy making. And that benefits everyone.
So, although I think it is true to say that we as a Group, and the regional cause as a whole, have perhaps achieved more than might have been thought possible when we set out on the Convention process, that has been good news all round. The 'gains' made by the regions should not be seen as at the expense of Member States but to the benefit of all.
And to their credit, the Commission have recognised that openness, participation and effective governance are all served by recognising the diversity within, as well as across, Member States. The Commission's Governance Agenda is about increasing openness, participation, accountability, effectiveness and coherence in European decision making.
Against this backdrop, the draft Treaty references to the role of the regions and the protocol on subsidiarity are real achievements for everyone in Europe . And this is why the REGLEG group is an important contributor not just to the regional debate but to the wider governance debate in the EU.
So, the draft Treaty presently being considered by the IGC needs to be considered as a window of opportunity. Not just for the new Member States coming in during this historic enlargement, but for the existing Member States to improve the accountability and efficiency of EU institutions. We are stronger, richer and more secure in Union ; and the process of debating and agreeing a Treaty continues to offer us the opportunity of demonstrating that to our citizens.
Regleg - the next 12 months - implementation
So we have good reasons to be proud of what has been achieved so far. And good reasons to be confident and assertive in continuing to press for our gains to be implemented. I want to take this opportunity to set out what I see as the priorities for REGLEG over my year as Chair.
Firstly, we have to continue to capitalise on the gains we have made as the Intergovernmental Conference progresses. As I have just outlined, we have a persuasive case that what has been achieved is a real step forward. We must ensure that the IGC does not reconsider those Articles in which our gains are set out, so we must continue to make the case for their inclusion with our respective Member States and on the European stage.
Beyond the conclusion of the IGC, there will continue to be a role for REGLEG and its members in ensuring that as the Union implements the new Treaty Articles, it does so in a way sensitive to the requirements of the regions with legislative power. We should all work together to support the ways in which regional parliaments might best be involved in the implementation of the subsidiarity mechanism. I think that this is an obvious case where exchanging experiences, information and best practice will help us all develop systems which use the resources and expertise that regional governments can provide.
There are other areas in which REGLEG must continue the work it has done in recent years.The draft Treaty strengthens the position of the Committee of the Regions. To make the most of that opportunity, REGLEG must keep representing the view of those regions with legislative power inside and outside of the Committee of the Regions as it looks at how it might best make itself more effective and more efficient.
We all have an interest in ensuring a strong regional voice is heard in Europe . The devolution of power is one of the ways in which governmental and EU decisions are brought closer to the daily lives of the people they represent. Regional authorities are in many cases the institutions closest to the citizens of Europe . It is important for everyone, therefore, that the Commission consults widely before bringing forward new legislation and that that consultation includes direct consultation of regions with legislative powers. The more effective legislation that results from this approach will do more than just deliver the policy benefits we all get from membership of the EU more effectively; it will help demonstrate those benefits to the ordinary citizens of the Union .
Regleg - the future
One theme that has emerged from what I have said so far is the advantages that REGLEG has as a network for strategic co-ordination and a forum for the exchange of experiences and best practice. Across a membership as diverse as ours, no-one would pretend that we do - or even could- always speak with a common voice.
The benefits to Scotland of an outward focus are apparent and the same is true of REGLEG. Our declaration indicates that the coming year will see us co-operating with the Conference of Presidents of Regional Legislative Assemblies (CALRE). It strikes me that there is great potential to deepen that co-operation in considering, for example, how the subsidiarity mechanisms might work.
REGLEG will also need to consider how best to engage with colleagues from the new Member States, and from those regions in Member States who aren't involved in REGLEG at the moment. As we move from an Union of 15 to an Union of 25, the onus will be on us to continue to represent the interests of our regions while showing that we are engaged with, and important to, the wider European project. We will also need to spend time in the second half of next year establishing ourselves with the new European Parliament and incoming Commission.
We have a lot to do and I am happy to be playing my part. Some of you I already know well and others I am looking forward to getting to know through our work over the coming year, both in Brussels and in Scotland for our next conference.