The European Union is composed of 242 regions and 1.2 million representatives of local and regional authorities (LRAs). The extent to which they are involved in national and EU lifelong learning policies varies greatly. Results from the 2021 Regional and Local Barometer indicate that 88% of LRAs representatives consider that they should have a bigger say in EU policies. 90% of respondents think it is “very” or “fairly important” for LRAs to increase their influence on national policy-making. If we take the drafting of National Recovery and Resilience Plans as an example, this is very apparent. Only 1% of the Barometer respondents indicated they were ‘fully involved’ in the drafting, and only 9% were ‘partially involved’: that leaves out around 90% of respondents who were not involved at all!
Source: To what extent was your city/region involved in the preparation of the Recovery and Resilience Plans of your country? Source: Regional and Local Barometer and EU Annual Report on the State of Regions and Cities 2022.
Nevertheless, there are EU bodies, mechanisms, frameworks and programmes that aim to enhance interregional cooperation and enable LRA’s involvement in EU policies. The main institution that coordinates regions’ participation in EU policies is the Committee of the Regions (CoR). Within the CoR, SEDEC is the Commission that deals with employment, social policies, education, training (including lifelong learning), sports and culture. The Conference on the Future of Europe came to an end in May 2022 with a number of recommendations for strengthening democracy across the EU. One key conclusion concerned the reform of the CoR “giving it an enhanced role in the EU’s institutional architecture, if matters with a territorial impact are concerned”.
There is also an EU funding programme for interregional cooperation called Interreg Europe, it is the EU territorial cooperation programme as part of the Cohesion policy. Within Interreg, a Policy Learning Platform was created to support interregional policy cooperation by organising knowledge-sharing activities (good practices, reading materials and webinars on most relevant policy trends); Community-building activities (online and offline); And expert support (written advice, peer review meetings) for LRAs representatives.
Regional interest in lifelong learning policies
When local and regional politicians are asked which topics they think regions and cities should become more influential in EU policy-making, ‘education, culture, youth and sport’ is the third most mentioned topic (according to 50% of the Barometer respondents). This should not be surprising, if we consider that in several EU Member States education is – at least partially – a regional competence. Furthermore, education and training comes 4th as a topic of projects which have been funded by Interreg, and that was the case even before the new 2021-2027 programme set it as the key policy objective n°4 Social Europe “improving equal access to inclusive and quality services in education, training and lifelong learning”. This priority was a novelty as before, there were no targeted funding objectives for projects on education.
In the past years, the Committee of the Regions has contributed many times to EU education and training policies by submitting opinions. For example, it published opinions about “Achieving the European Education Area by 2025”, “Strengthening STE(A)M education in the EU“ and “A New Skills Agenda for Europe”. Thus, the question is more about whether this involvement is sufficient and systematic.
Indeed, perceptions of insufficient involvement of regions in EU education policies sometimes seem to meet reality. In November 2022, an Annex to the European Education Area (EEA) midterm progress Report (Staff Working Document – Annex 2) on “Co-creation of the European Education Area with EU Member States and a wider stakeholder community” made no reference to regions as stakeholders. While it mentions a list of bodies, expert groups and networks involved in EEA, there is no information on whether regions were consulted in the review. And that is the case, even though, in 2020, an important step was taken by DG EAC and the Committee of the Regions through a Joint Action Plan to boost cooperation in research and innovation, education and culture. The Joint Action plan explicitly referred to the involvement of the Committee of the Regions in “consultations related to the implementation of the European Education Area”.
Therefore, while the activities of the CoR and SEDEC show strong interest from regional policy-makers in EU education policies, this involvement does not seem to concretise sufficiently and systematically.
Why involve regions in lifelong learning policies?
With the recent announcement of 2023 as the EU Year of skills, regions have expressed their interest in being involved. The CoR published a Resolution in December 2022 which recalls that
“in accordance to the principle of subsidiarity and from a multilevel governance perspective, in most Member States, local and regional authorities have key responsibilities for education and training policies, and they play a strategic role in the fields of employment policies. Stresses therefore that cities and regions represent the level of governance where operational links between education and training institutions and the labour market are the strongest and therefore, should be financed, implemented and followed up;”
Because very often regions have competences in education, training, social inclusion and lifelong learning policy fields at large, it is important to highlight the relevance of involving LRAs in national and EU policies. First of all, there are federal States (Germany, Austria, Belgium) where regions, by definition, have large policy competences in education. There are also non-federal States where the competence for education partly lies at regional levels. In Italy, vocational education systems are very regional. Finally, there are centralised States with interest in enhancing the participation of LRAs. In the recent Integrated skills strategy 2030 of Poland, the government decided to create coordination teams at regional level.
Regional authorities are also very much aware of the specificities and needs of their territory, for instance of the local ecosystems: business, education institutions, training providers, NGOs. If we consider skills needs for instance, different regions of the same country have diverse needs in terms of skills development, it is only natural that a national skills strategy reflects those territorial specificities. With that in mind, it would be a pity not to foresee a stronger involvement of LRAs in ongoing initiatives such as the EU year of skills.
In LLLP, we strongly believe the involvement of regional authorities and stakeholders in policy-making at EU and national levels could be strengthened. Find more about LLLP work at regional level here.