Local governments in Europe [1]

Local Governments in Europe

There are currently around 160,000 local governments in the Council of Europe’s 47 Member States, including 90,000 in the European Union’s 28 Member States.[2]

In the European Union (EU), there are 92,247 municipalities and 225 “regional” governments (i.e. government covering the largest territorial division). These 225 regional governments are found in 19 countries – 12 in countries with a two-tier system and 7 with a three-tier system.[3]

Yet there is no one-size-fits-all model of a “local government” in Europe. Every country has its own terminology to describe its local governments (Länder, regions, districts, etc.).

This diverse vocabulary makes it difficult to classify the various organisational models that exist across the continent, and some countries even fit into more than one category. Generally speaking, however, there are five broad models: the centralised or decentralised unitary state, the regionalised unitary state, the federal state, the Scandinavian model, and asymmetrical federalism.

A “unitary” state is one in which all citizens are governed by a supreme central government. The majority of states in Europe, and worldwide, have a unitary system of government. A unitary state may be centralised, decentralised or regionalised. In so-called regionalised states, local governments have substantial legislative powers, although these powers are typically less extensive than in federal states.

A “federal” state consists of a series of self-governing federal entities, each with its own government. These entities enjoy a large degree of independence, while recognising the same supreme authority. Under this model, sovereignty is shared between the federal (central) government and the regional entities (or states). A federal state is typically viewed as the opposite of a unitary state.

The Scandinavian model has emerged over the past 50 years with the development of the “welfare state” in Sweden, Finland and Denmark. Here, the national governments have given local governments greater independence and more powers in the interest of more efficient resource distribution. This has seen local entities grouped together, with several municipalities merging into one.

The asymmetrical federalism model applies to states that have granted special status to one of their regions. Examples include Denmark (Greenland), Portugal (Madeira), and Finland (Åland Islands).

About the Council of European Municipalities and Regions

The Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR) is the oldest and broadest European association of local and regional governments. It is the only organisation that brings together the national associations of local and regional governments from 42 European countries and represents, through them, all levels of territories – local, intermediate and regional.
Since its creation in 1951, CEMR promotes the construction of a united, peaceful and democratic Europe founded on local self-government, respect for the principle of subsidiarity and the participation of citizens.

CEMR’s work is organised around two main pillars:

  • Influencing European policy and legislation in all areas having an impact on municipalities and regions;
  • Providing a forum for debate between local and regional governments via their national representative associations.

CEMR is also the European section of the world organisation United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), through which we represent European local and regional government on the international stage.


CEMR’s work focuses on five thematic areas, which affect all aspects of the lives of European citizens as well as the local and regional governments that represent them: 

[1] Fact sheet on the role of local governments in the Council of Europe and the European Union (www.vie-publique.fr, 2015)

[2] A 2016 study by the CEMR found that, among the 42 affiliated countries, the number of local governments had remained largely unchanged (down 1.6%) in recent years, other than in Turkey (down 15%). Across all CEMR members, there are currently 129,472 city authorities and municipalities, 401 provinces and counties, and 401 regions. Conversely, the number of regions in Europe has increased by around 10% since 2012.

[3] CEMR figure, 2016