Eight years on the Committee of the Regions convinced me we’ll be better off out of the EU

Eight years on the Committee of the Regions convinced me we’ll be better off out of the EU

The institutions of Brussels are large and complex. Everybody has heard of the Commission of course, and the Parliament, but the European Committee of the Regions (COR) is a relatively low-profile organisation. Based in the Jacques Delors Building just a stone’s throw from the Parliament, the COR exists to provide a voice for local and regional government within the EU.

For eight years from 2008 to 2016, I represented London at meetings of this European committee.

In an organisation dedicated to amassing more powers for itself, a mechanism for local voices to be heard is no bad thing. The COR provides a valuable platform for cities to work together and learn from one another. Earlier this year, for example, following the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels, I was able to offer London’s condolences and support, including advice on security and community integration.

However, the COR also highlights and suffers from problems of scale and empire-building which bedevil the wider European Project.

The largest contingents on the COR come from Germany, France, Italy and the UK, each fielding 24 members who are themselves elected councillors or mayors. Malta, Cyprus and Luxembourg have the smallest contingents with just five members each. On a population basis the smaller countries are over-represented and wield disproportionate power during votes and debates. The whole committee comprises 360 members – by far the largest committee on which I have ever served.

In my experience, if you want a committee to actually do things, six members is the optimum number. For wider debate and representation, 20 or 30 is a good size. At 25, the London Assembly gets it about right. London boroughs with their 50 to 60 members are too large for everyone to be heard and involved. 360 members escalates this problem to a whole new level. Many of the COR members are reduced to spectator status, with only a small number getting to contribute regularly.

Interpretation also presents a challenge, with speeches translated into the languages of every country – and potentially every region – involved. Whilst the COR doesn’t shuttle between Brussels and Strasbourg like the Parliament, the expense and bureaucracy is still massive.

A key function of the COR is to promote subsidiarity – the principle that the EU should not take on powers better suited to local and national government. Unfortunately, many of the members are true believers in a European superstate; indeed all the political groups were signed up and committed to ‘ever closer union’ until the UK Conservatives left the federalist EPP group of Christian Democrats and formed the new grouping of European Conservatives and Reformists, seeking to halt the march towards federalism. So in practice there are often calls from COR members for standards and laws to be set at an EU level and subsidiarity is conveniently overlooked.

With so little time for individual contributions, it is surprising that a large part of the agenda is devoted to listening to presentations from Commissioners, MEPs and others of the EU great and good. Following a half hour presentation, perhaps half a dozen members will be invited to ask questions or speak for five minutes at most. The EU is a painfully hierarchical institution and it is very clear where the power truly lies. And it doesn’t help matters when many of the contributors believe that the longer you speak for, the more you have to say.

On one memorable occasion two MEPs turned up to present their findings, following a review of the widening gulf between the public and EU institutions. Their conclusion was that the public were ill-informed, the dupes of a hostile press and unhelpful national governments, particularly in the UK. What was needed, we were told, was a publicity campaign to make people understand the benefits of the European Union. This would of course require more money and more bureaucracy.

I managed to get called to respond and in my allocated three minutes I told them that in my experience politicians who say “the public don’t understand” really mean “I can’t explain this”. And politicians who can’t explain should find themselves another job. The outrage and ruffled feathers was amazing to behold.

Eight years ago I arrived in Brussels with a strong belief in reforming the European Union from within. It is a belief to which many of those who voted to Remain still cling. Eight years of meetings in Brussels convinced me that reform is not possible. There are too many powerful individuals who passionately believe in ever closer union and who will do everything they can to further The Project. There are too many vested interests who support them.

They have a dream but the UK public doesn’t share it – we never did. Which is why we will be better off out.