BRUSSELS — Europe's regions have not won the prominence and influence they enjoy today only by their own efforts: They have been given a generous leg up by the European Union.
Indeed, nearly 40 percent of the EU annual budget is spent on one sort of local initiative or another - $30.7 billion this year to spur growth in poor regions, bring new business to rust-belt regions, encourage cross-border cooperation, help regions find their identities, fund local research and development efforts, build roads, and so on.
These "structural funds," as they are known, are designed to make the single European market and its single currency, the euro, work. Since workers in Europe don't move easily to wherever jobs spring up (because of language and cultural differences), the EU spends a lot of money to attract businesses - and jobs - to wherever there is high unemployment.
That aid has given local leaders across the Continent the power that comes with money, and a new confidence. And they know whom they have to thank.
Officially, the European Commission - the bureaucracy that implements EU policy and works to integrate the union's 15 members - is neutral about how individual governments organize themselves. It works with federal Germany and with more-centralized France on equal terms.
But, says one EC official, "We hope to show that certain ways of doing things are better than others, and to reinforce regionalization."
In fact, whenever national governments have second thoughts about how much sovereignty they are ready to concede, it is to the regions that the commission looks for allies. "Our best friends are the people in the regions who see integration working on the ground," says another senior EC official. "The natural constituency of EU integration is successful regionalism."
The feeling is mutual. When the Treaty of Maastricht, giving the EU broad new powers, was put to a referendum in France, it passed only because of the enthusiasm with which Brittany and Alsace - two regions with strong identities - voted for it.
Many of Europe's regions, fed up with being ignored or overruled by national capitals, now come directly to Brussels in search of funds, or to lobby for their interests. More than 150 regions or regional groupings have set up mini-embassies in Brussels to get their points across.
At the same time, says Michel Barnier, the French European commissioner in charge of regional affairs, EU policy has a deeper political goal. The idea, he says, is that "people should not feel chewed up and standardized" by the creation of a giant union stretching from the Atlantic coast of Ireland to Ukraine. "If people feel rootless, they are fertile ground for all kinds of nationalist demagogues," he warns.
A similar line of thought inspired the Interreg program, which encourages neighboring regions to work together across, and despite, national borders (see main story). "The point is to bring down the political and administrative frontiers that have historically led to conflicts, or been walls of indifference," says Mr. Barnier. "We want to engender a common spirit."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society