For the second year running I attended the EU Open Days in Brussels. This event, organised by the European Commission and the Committee of the Regions, and now in its tenth year, brings together local and regional actors from across Europe, along with representatives from the European Commission and Committee of the Regions. Over 6,000 people attended this year’s event.
The programme is based around a number of workshops focusing on a particular topics. I mainly attended events focusing local and regional government co-operation (given these are my research interests), however the programme was extremely broad, encompassing everything from urban transport to energy, to research and innovation. This is not just a Brussels-based event. A number of local events also formed part of the programme, enabling people unable to come to Brussels to still participate.
Based on my two years’ experience at Open Days I’ve learnt it can provide the following benefits to the local and regional actors who participate:
- Find out the latest development in EU regional policy: This was particularly relevant this year as the new round of European Structural and Investment Funds starts in 2014. A number of events gave participants the opportunity to hear, direct from the horse’s mouth, what the latest developments were and how they will impact regions.
- Learn from best practice: The variety of policy areas covered by the programme meant there was a wealth of policy knowledge to be learnt. Participants could see how other regions and localities had tackles a variety policy challenges, as well as promote themselves as leaders in certain policy fields.
- Find out what EU support can do for your locality: A number of EU-funded projects were being showcased at this year’s main project exhibition, ‘100EUrban solutions’. Participants were able to see how various EU programmes had supported a number of local areas.
- Networking: Given Open Days is about bringing local and regional actors together, there were plenty of opportunities for people to meet and network. Such contacts are valuable and can be extremely useful when wanting to look at how local policy is applied elsewhere or when you want to put a collaborative project proposal together.
- Promote your locality: regions and localities can use the Open Days as an opportunity to showcase their areas and themselves as leaders in particular policy fields.
Beyond these there were opportunities for bringing practitioners together with academic research in their area. Each year the Regional Studies Association organises a number of ‘university sessions’ where academics have the opportunity to present their research to Open Days participants (I was fortunate enough to present a research poster at last year’s Open Days). Not only do practitioners have the benefit of understanding how their work applies in a broader research context, but it also gives researchers an opportunity to see how their work applies in a ‘real life’ context. Additionally this year early career researchers were invited to participate in a master class. Again this offers young scholars an opportunity engage with the practitioner community, something increasingly important in academia.
To summarize: practitioners and researchers alike should be taking advantage of Open Days.
However, aside from the benefits to participants (practitioners and academics alike), Open Days highlights some interesting points for the study of local and regional engagement in Europe. Firstly, the level of participation confirms that local and regional government is directly and actively engaging with the EU. Despite the impact of the crisis and austerity limiting EU engagement, if anything it seems to be pushing more and more to participate. Secondly, while some sessions were organised by the Commission or Committee of the Regions, the majority were led by local and regional authorities (or at least Brussels-based organisations representing them). This leads to an interesting debate about the nature of Europeanization. For example is EU policy simply decided at a European level and then applied (or ‘downloaded’) at a local level, or is it first shaped by local and regional government and then ‘uploaded’ to the rest of Europe? Finally, the scope and popularity of Open Days has been steadily increasing over the last ten years. While on the one hand this shows that awareness of Open Days is increasing, the investment made by the Commission and other EU institutions shows they are increasingly prepared to engage with local and regional authorities (who, after all, implement a large proportion of EU policy).