With about 70 per cent of legislation coming directly from the EU, COSLA believes it is crucial Scottish local government is represented at the heart of Europe. The COSLA Brussels office sits alongside other European local government counterparts and its work aims to ensure the interests and rights of Scottish councils are safeguarded and advanced by EU policy and legislation.
Key to the work of COSLA in Europe is the ability to effectively forecast development and to actively influence policy and legislative stages at the earliest possible moment. The organisation nominates and supports the Scottish local government members of the Committee of Regions and the Council of Europe. In Brussels, officers work individually, as well as with their UK and European counterparts to influence EU legislation. COSLA is also an active member of the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR) – the EU umbrella body for local government – and the European Local Authority Network.
The Council of European Municipalities was founded in Geneva in 1951 and today it is the largest organisation of local and regional government in Europe. Its members are over 50 national associations of towns, municipalities and regions from 41 countries. Together these associations represent some 150,000 local and regional authorities. CEMR works to promote a united Europe based on local and regional self-government and democracy. To achieve this goal, it endeavours to shape the future of Europe by enhancing the local and regional contribution, to influence European law and policy, to exchange experience at local and regional level and to cooperate with partners in other parts of the world.
Serafin Pazos-Vidal, head of COSLA’s Brussels office, told Holyrood about the role of the organisation in Europe. He said: “Our work is like the work of COSLA in Scotland, policy and development, but the jurisdiction is different, we have European legislation which is different in terms of scope and timescales to the domestic work. We try to understand what is happening, and we try to ensure that the people in Scotland who need to know, are aware of what is going on. Hopefully we do this with time enough to actually inform the Scottish Government position and the UK Government position, where that’s applicable.
“Another part of our work is trying to actively influence policy, which we do in co-operation with our European counterparts. This means we can have a quite significant critical mass, in terms of building know-how but also through our local government politicians when they come to Brussels.
“We are COSLA Brussels office but we actually have a wider perspective. Our work is to provide policy formulation and advice to the organisation. Even if for practical reasons we’re in Brussels, because most of the work takes place here, our work is also domestic as well. We oversee all EU policy development of the organisation. It is both as much a representation here as it is primarily a policy development role. Normally, that means overseeing policy development, in many ways because we have the focus and the time to do that, we have to take things to develop further, either through COSLA internal resources but also the different policy neighbours across local government.
“For historical, practical and personal reasons, we are based here but a lot of our work is actually in Scotland. We are the Brussels office but the real role is the European service of the organisation. In a way, we are the part of COSLA which is trying to articulate the views of local government across the country in regards to European policy issues.”
Pazos-Vidal said they are a small office because Scotland is a small country, especially in comparison to some of their other local government colleagues. However, despite this, Scotland plays an active role in working with other European countries to look at different issues.
He added: “Because local government always has to fight in each country to have its own voice, we don’t have much problem working with colleagues from other countries. It is very good because it enables us to critically assess what we do. When we were doing some work on single outcome agreements (SOAs), I compared this with what other countries were doing. I found Scotland was the only one doing something as comprehensive as single outcome agreements, in other countries you have some specific outcome-based delivery but not in a comprehensive public sector approach we have in Scotland.
“That helps you to understand what we are doing better and where we need to improve. At the same time, it enables others to learn from you. If you look at CPPs (community planning partnerships) or SOAs, many don’t have them. The Dutch, Flemish and Icelanders have all visited Scotland and a lot of the reason they chose to go to Scotland was to have a better understanding of how these policies work so they can try and adapt it to their own countries. They were impressed by a lot of things, for example, our Icelandic colleagues, because of the crisis in their country, it was four years since they had meetings outside the country and they chose to go to Scotland because the backroom conditions of local government are not that different and also because they knew from the bilateral dialogue we have with them through their contacts here, that there were some useful things they could quite easily copy. I like the possibility of having a coffee with a colleague next door and seeing how they see things, it is quite humbling and also satisfying because you have something to contribute.”
Every year, the European Commission proposes a detailed work programme, comprising both legislative and non-legislative proposals. On this basis, COSLA sets its EU priorities, approved by its political leadership. COSLA currently works on 25 key legislative dossiers grouped under five main policy fields. These include: cohesion; environment; rural and maritime; public services; and social affairs and employment. While the EU budget 2014-20 is still being negotiated, COSLA has been working with the Scottish Government for well over a year on the Scottish Partnership Agreement 2014-20.
COSLA will continue to campaign, both in Brussels and Scotland to ensure that local development is a key pillar of the Scottish Partnership Agreement and in so doing, the specific status of the Highlands and Islands, which the draft EU proposals consider a transition region with additional funding than the rest of Scotland, needs to be safeguarded.
Public services, services of general interest (SGI), are subject to legal obligations in the EU treaties to ensure fair competition across the EU. These mostly concern the requirement for compulsory competitive tendering. However, the Lisbon Treaty of 2009 contained a protocol on SGIs to protect local government from excessive interference from the European Commission when it acts as the watchdog of the EU internal market. During 2013, COSLA has continued to work on the new rules on EU public procurement and any other EU limitations that may be placed on the shared service arrangements. This will directly affect the domestic procurement reform discussions and COSLA would be keen that the new provisions secured in the EU rules are fully exploited in the Scottish implementing legislation.