Researching local involvement in Europe: a roundup from UACES 2013

Christopher Huggins |

The 2013 UACES annual conference has just come to a close. This year there were five panels focusing on the role of local and regional actors. This is compared to only one or two in previous years. Not only is this evidence of increasing academic interest in the field, but also reflects the growing prevalence and importance of these local and regional actors at a European level.

The panels provided an opportunity for several aspects of local and regional involvement in Europe to be discussed. This included pretty much everything from cross-border ‘Euroregions’ to the effectiveness of local government transnational networks. During these discussions a number of key points emerged:

Firstly, there is a lot of scope for interdisciplinary research beyond the usual political science approaches. This was reflected in the papers presented, analysing the role of local and regional government from a number of different perspectives, many not usually considered. For example, Sébastien Platon gave a lawyer’s analysis of local government’s legal position in the EU. Tassilo Herrschel’s paper was grounded in political geography and regional studies. And Roger Lawrence was able to offer a unique practitioner account. Discussions in the various panels also ventured into international relations, spatial planning and sociology. It is clear each discipline has much to learn from the others. There was also a range of qualitative and quantitative methods being employed.

Secondly, it became evident that local and regional government provides a good testing ground for wider theoretical assumptions. Anil Awesti, Anne Gibney and Marius Guderjan all demonstrated the value of using local and regional case studies to test wider theoretical claims. These theoretical contributions were complemented by a wide range of empirical studies highlighting local examples from the length and breadth of Europe.

Thirdly, there is real potential for a link between academia and practice. Arno van der Zwet’s paper on assessing maturation in Interreg territorial co-operation programmes not only has academic value but will be of direct relevance to practitioners involved in the capitalisation of the 2007-13 territorial co-operation programmes and the forcoming 2014-20 programmes. Roger Lawerence’s presentation again showed how practitioners can offer unique insights into the day-to-day dynamics of local government European activity – something which can be hard for academics to get a real sense of.

Finally, the discussions raised a number of key questions for future research. Without getting into too much detail these included (among many others): Are local authorities engaging with Europe as a reaction to Europeanisation or are they being much more entrepreneurial? What is the role of local political and administrative leaders in Europe? Should local and regional authorities be given a more formal / legal role in EU policy making or should they focus on working within the existing arrangements? Is local engagement in Europe set to continue?

Possibly the most salient point highlighted, however, was the need to understand the political power that was at the heart of this activity. How much do local and regional actors have and what impact does it have on wider European politics and policy?