Territorial reforms: key trends [1]

Dexia and the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR) published a study on the organisation and finances of local governments in the EU. There are various different models in coexistence, but the general trend is towards territorial reorganisation and institutional reform, especially since the 2008 economic crisis, for resource streamlining and pooling purposes.

Of the 28 EU Member States, three have a federal system of government (Germany, Austria and Belgium), one has a quasi-federal structure (Spain), and the remainder are unitary states. The number of levels of local governments varies across Member States. Eleven countries have just one level of local governments, i.e. municipalities, ten others have two levels (municipalities and regions), while the remaining seven, including France, have three levels.

Municipal mergers/concentration

The average size of municipalities varies extensively from one country to the next. Some 80% of the 89,000 municipalities across the European Union are concentrated in just five countries: France (41%), Germany (13%), Spain (9%), Italy (9%) and the Czech Republic (7%). Conversely, in eight Member States, municipalities have an average population in excess of 30,000 people. England is an extreme outlier, with an average of 152,000 people per municipality.

A number of European countries have embarked on a process of merging municipalities in recent years. The financial crisis has accelerated this trend. Greece cut the number of municipalities by two-thirds in 2011 (from 1,034 to 325), and the figure has fallen by 7% in Germany in the space of four years. On 1 January 2012, the number of municipalities in Luxembourg was reduced from 116 to 106. This figure fall further – from 105 to 102 – on 1 January 2018.
The same trend has not been seen in France, however, which has more municipalities than any other European country. Of the 89,752 municipalities across the EU 28 in 2013, 80% were located in just five Member States – 41% in France and 13% in Germany.

In Italy, plans to abolish municipalities with a population of less than 1,000 people met with reservations and were ultimately abandoned.

In France, most mayors remain opposed to plans to merge communes with a population of less than 5,000 or 10,000 people (other than in mountainous areas), despite its European neighbours having taken this route since the 1960s. [2].

France is something of an anomaly on the European stage. In 2016, it had 36,658 municipalities – 40% of the entire total across the European Union. The country’s record has come in for regular criticism from the OECD, which has suggested that French should “simplify the structure of subnational governments including merging the smallest of its 36,700 municipalities and eliminating departments, which would generate significant economies of scale. The average population of a French municipality is around 1,800 people, compared with 5,500 across the European Union and 55,000 in Denmark”.

Although other Romance language-speaking countries such as Italy and Spain have not reformed their systems of municipal government, they have long had far fewer municipalities than France, for example. Italy (population: 61 million) has 8,101 municipalities, and Spain (population: 47 million) has 8,167 municipalities. According to 2016 figures, France (population 66.9 million) has 36,658 municipalities.

Growing inter-municipal cooperation

Aside from mergers, governments are increasingly encouraging inter-municipal cooperation. Since 2015, for example, pooled procurement has been compulsory in Italy for municipalities with a population of less than 5,000 people. In Ireland, meanwhile, local governments are encouraged to set up shared services in waste treatment, water, rent recovery and other areas.

Creation of metropolitan areas

Many European countries have stepped up inter-municipal cooperation at the urban centre level. Around a dozen metropolitan areas were created in France at the end of 2013, and many other European cities are following the same route.

In Italy, the act passed in March 2009 created a special status for Rome and for nine metropolitan cities (Turin, Milan, Venice, Genoa, Bologna, Florence, Bari and Naples, and Reggio Calabria).

In Ireland, meanwhile, the “Local Government (Dublin Mayor and Regional Authority) Bill 2010” created the position of an elected mayor to manage Dublin and its region and handle questions of territorial development, housing, waste and water management, as well as regional transport.

In the Netherlands, the Rotterdam and the Hague metropolitan region has emerged, while the City Deals process has been launched for England’s biggest 10 cities.

Abolition of intermediary levels

Seven EU countries have intermediary-tier authorities, which occupy a position between regions and municipalities. This level of the system is gradually being abolished. In March 2014, Italy’s then-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi pushed through a set of reforms for Italy’s provinces (the equivalent of France’s “departments”) which would see them combined and would reduce the number from 110 to 60. This initiative predated François Hollande’s May 2014 plans to abolish departmental councils – reforms that never came to fruition. Similarly, counties are gradually disappearing in England, while provinces are seeing their powers, and the number of elected officials, cut in Belgium.

The reinforcement of regions: a mixed picture

The regional level is also being strengthened across the EU. In Belgium, for example, reforms were passed in late June 2013 to transfer powers from the federal government to the regions and communities, particularly on employment and health policy. Here too, France followed the example of its European neighbours by creating new “super-regions” in late 2015.

Although the regional level has been strengthened overall, it has, in fact, been weakened in certain countries. The United Kingdom is a particular case in point. Although Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have gained greater institutional and financial autonomy since devolution in 1998, regionalisation in England seems to be more compromised since the government decided to abolish regional development agencies.

[1] Article by Gaspard Dhellemmes, JDD, 2014

[2] Article by Manon Meistermann, iFRAP Foundation, 2013