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The Regional Democracy Think Tank for West Yorkshire

Regional Democracy and the EU – a view from West Yorkshire

This blog reflects the personal views of Leila Taleb (Bradford), Andrew Wilson (Huddersfield) and Ian Martin (Leeds). All are members of the Same Skies network

An unusual thing happened on Sunday morning. The newspapers were full of celebration for the benefits of freedom of movement within the EU. Well, the back pages anyway. A lad from Gloucestershire had grown up on the Algarve after his family moved there to work in 2004. Eric Dier eventually joined the junior system at Lisbon football club, CP Sporting, and scored the opening goal for the England team at Euro 2016.

Funny how things can look very different from another’s perspective. Funny how both the Leave and Remain campaigns during the EU referendum seem to be talking about a very narrow perspective on our future. It’s not one that we recognise. It’s not one that seems to be interested in the future of us here in West Yorkshire.

For example, there seems to be very little interest in hearing the voices of young people about their future prospects in the region and beyond. We know that many young people are struggling to find work and that many are therefore leaving to find work elsewhere. Even an optimistic view of the government’s current efforts in the North would suggest that young people may still need that option for years to come. Is there a danger that those who don't need the opportunity to benefit from EU freedom of movement for work will vote to deny that opportunity to young people in the North? Is it really fair to suddenly limit our young people to jobs in the South East even though their parents could also work freely around the EU (such as on German building sites)?

If we are to provide those opportunities for our young people here in the North, history shows it is actually the EU that has been much more interested in and supportive of the regions than the UK’s own government.  The EU was there for the North, as part of investments made all over the continent, in the wake of deindustrialisation. Left in the hand of a centralised UK government viewing this island from a narrow Londoncentric perspective, things would have been even worse. Given our island’s history, it is mostly the EU’s commitment to solidarity between regions and its redistribution of funds raised from the UK and other member states that has enabled the North to invest in regeneration despite the best efforts of Whitehall. Investing in the North in the 1990’s helped us prevent the sort of decline that has befallen places like Detroit and a lot of that is due to investment from the EU. When that relationship between Yorkshire and the EU has been strained, it has been due to decisions made in Whitehall.

We believe that our region does best when it can have direct relationships with other parts of the world, rather than when our needs are mediated into nothing by the dominant interests of London and the South East. The EU currently enables that opportunity for regions within the EU and the fact we actually have much more in common with other regions of the EU, such as Nordrhein-Westfalen, than with the South East means we want to develop our region’s role within the EU, not throw it away. For example the developers of the impressive transport infrastructure serving the dispersed industrial cities within Nordrhein-Westfalen could tell us more about how to address the chronic transport problems in West Yorkshire than anyone in UK government.

In fact most of the good models for how to do better #RegionalDemocracy come from other EU members. For example, despite its problems France’s progress in decentralisation and regional reorganisation is much better than the UK. France’s second and third tier cities are much better off compared to Paris than cities like Leeds and Bradford are compared to London, despite similar histories of centralisation, monarchy, empire and war. This is not to mention the impressive efforts of Germany’s federal states in addressing regional inequalities despite the challenge of absorbing former East Germany and powerful Dutch cities that are currently using their freedoms to trial new ideas such as basic income. There is much to be learned from our EU partner regions and the EU itself provides great possibilities for funded exchanges and collaborations to make it happen.

Like many, we are concerned about a democratic deficit in the EU but not in the way that the Leave campaign like to present it. To us the questions about democracy in the EU are actually questions about democracy in the UK (and other member states). When people are unhappy about EU decision making (which is fair enough, especially when it comes to issues like policy towards Greece's crisis), they are unhappy about decisions made by member state governments together or by the Commission using powers given by member state governments together.

When the UK government makes decisions that are Londoncentric or which fail to take into account the needs of the most vulnerable, we are especially affected in the regions. The UK government often takes this attitude into EU Council of Ministers' meetings, for example in getting special treatment for banking in the City of London but not for steel in industrial Britain

For us therefore the failure of democracy in the UK leads to a failure of democracy in the EU. Sorting out UK democracy is the first step to sorting out the democratic deficit in the EU. Sorting out UK democracy means a big role for #RegionalDemocracy. This would be totally in keeping with the EU principle of 'subsidiarity' ie. decisions made at the lowest appropriate level.

If we want to sort out EU democracy, we need to base it first on reforming UK democracy towards #RegionalDemocracy and not by giving even more power to Westminster. Even if you distrust Brussels, do you really trust London?

Leila recently took part in EU referendum debates organised by JUST West Yorkshire and South Leeds Life as well as Made In Leeds TV’s Between The Lines Remain or Leave special.. She will also take part in a BBC Radio Leeds debate at Bradford College on June 15.

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