Unis eye Euro regeneration funds

June 20, 1997

AS European Union leaders this week thrashed out the Treaty of Amsterdam, the Labour Government proved it could take as firm a stand as its predecessor when it felt its interests are threatened.

But could Labour's undoubtedly warmer approach to Europe improve the United Kingdom's access to European Commission funds?

The spectre of the Treasury looms over all public spending, limiting the matching funds the Government might put into European projects. But the focus at Amsterdam on employment, training and education, and the moves to make more EUmoney available could help ease this pressure.

As well, Labour is unlikely to share the Tories' reluctance to apply for retraining funds for former mining areas, for example, and while Conservative ideology militated against regional planning, Labour has called for a more strategic approach to regeneration initiatives, encouraging "innovative local partnerships".

The European Commission criticised civil servants' dominance of regional planning in the United Kingdom, urging a bottom-up approach to policy. Labour's devolutionary approach appears to be much more in line with this.

While universities and colleges have not been specifically highlighted, Peter John, lecturer in politics at Southampton University, predicts they will play an increasingly important role.

"Labour's proposals for regional chambers leading to regional assemblies will hopefully herald far more of a partnership approach. In the mid-80s, you would find local authorities putting together projects with very little participation from other parties, but now they often want to recruit higher education institutions and Training and Enterprise Councils as part of the bid," he says.

"Most universities have appointed European officers. They have thought quite carefully about their relationship to the wider economy, and participation in European programmes is part of their strategy."

William Paterson, director of Birmingham University's institute for German studies, believes the importance of higher education may be flagged up to government by incomers from industry, such as BP's Lord Simon, now minister for trade and competitiveness in Europe. "I'll be very interested to see the impact of these outsiders, given that they have a strong commitment to research and skills."

Andrew Scott, senior lecturer in Edinburgh University's Europa Institute, warns that the UK faces the loss of funds because of economic improvements. For example, the Highlands and Islands, planning a high-tech federal university, is likely to lose its current Objective 1 status.

"The reality of European structural funds is that somebody's got to pay for them, and I don't think any government will want to increase taxes. But Brussels sees the Labour government as being more constructive in debate."

The Amsterdam Treaty will also affect the science and technology budget, with member states expected to ratify a move away from unanimous voting to qualified majority voting for future framework programmes for research.

The Commission puts up proposals for detailed discussions by member states. But Margaret Sharp, senior research fellow at Sussex University's science policy research unit, says the need for unanimity has meant the Commission ends up pandering to each country's special interests to boost the chances of the proposals going through. The fourth framework programme has no fewer than 18 "action lines" of research to accommodate these.

Ironically, it was John Major who insisted on unanimous voting during the negotiations for the Treaty of Maastricht, which the Amsterdam Treaty will now update.

"John Major said he wasn't going to have qualified majority voting. It was at the end of a long, hard day of negotiations and it went through as a quirky decision," says Mrs Sharp Foreign secretary Robin Cook appears to be happy with qualified majority voting, which Mrs Sharp says could overcome the current log-jam. "Qualified majority voting would enable the Commission to put forward a less detailed but more flexible and coherent outline as a first stage."

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