A small team based in Brussels that helps organisations in the East of England to get the most from Europe is under threat.
While other partners pledged to continue funding the East of England European Partnership office, it is set to lose the funding it receives from local councils, which would force it to close.
The office, which has been in place since 1998, is based around the corner from the European Parliament and other European institutions. It acts as a conduit between the sometimes difficult to navigate European bureaucracy and local government, businesses and other organisations in the East of England, by providing them with information about funding and policy opportunities and helping to match up Eastern region organisations with European equivalents to enable them to undertake cross-country projects.
Clearly, Britain’s future relationship with the rest of the EU currently remains uncertain. However, other British nations and regions, including Cornwall, have decided to keep their offices in Brussels open.
The vast majority of European regions, inside and outside the EU, have a regional presence in Brussels. With talk of a Norway+ model still on the table, it is salient to note that even though they are not in the EU, every single Norwegian region has an office in Brussels.
While of course local government faces huge financial pressures, the East of England Office has more than returned on EELGA’s annual investment of £159,000 from across 52 councils. Indeed often European funding programmes that have been successfully bid for are delivered through the very same local councils.
It is likely that come 29 March, Britain will be left in a situation with no MEPs, no Commissioner, no right to attend Council meetings and no Brussels based civil servants with an automatic seat at the table where European decisions are made: that is an inevitable consequence of Brexit. Yet I would argue that East of England businesses and organisations will still want to work with our nearest neighbours and trade in the world’s largest single market. We may well be part of European schemes and projects just as Iceland is a member of the European Environment Agency, students from the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia study on Erasmus programmes and Swiss regional authorities share experience with their European Union counterparts on putting public policy in practice through Interreg.
As our automatic right to be included ends, soft power will become more important, and so throwing down the drain twenty years of experience, relationships and goodwill at this time is unwise. In fact, the briefing document for members of the management committee considering the proposed closure said it would have a “major impact” on the region.
The East of England is a global player in life sciences, services and manufacturing, so now is the time to make sure we can plough ahead, rather than put up a ‘closed’ sign on the East of England.