Self-government and local governance in Europe:
key aspects and Council of Europe tools
Local self-government has become one of Europe’s most important shared values. It is a vital part of modern democratic societies, helping to strengthen democracy, raise public service standards, make public action more effective and, ultimately, improve citizens’ standard of living.
There are myriad arguments in favour of local self-government – local governments have information asymmetry on their side, are better placed to tailor services to local needs and idiosyncrasies, are more accountable to citizens, and are better able to involve citizens in policy-making, decision-making and implementation.
Although local self-government is a familiar part of European and domestic policy-making, it is worthwhile recalling that the concept was founded and developed within the Council of Europe and, more importantly, that the Council of Europe is the only European organisation whose members have come to a formal, wide-ranging agreement on the subject. Other international organisations, like the EU, the OECD and the OSCE, only address certain aspects of local self-government.
In a democratic state, the concept of local self-government broadly covers two fundamental, separate, yet interconnected relationships: the relationship between central government and local authorities, and the relationship between citizens and local authorities.
The relationship between central and local government has to do with how power is distributed by law and the institutional structure of local and regional authorities. Additionally, it relates to the allocation of financial, tax-levying and other specific powers, including responsibility for certain public services.
This relationship is guided by the principle of subsidiarity, which states that powers and resources should be optimally distributed so that decisions can be taken as close to the citizen as possible. Incidentally, this same principle was developed by the Council of Europe before being adopted by the European Union.
The relationship is legally enshrined in the European Charter of Local Self-Governance, the only international legal instrument of its kind, which has been ratified by all Council of Europe Member States.
France ratified the Charter in January 2007 and, in doing so, pledges to abide by European rules on local self-government in general and on the vital relationship between central and local authorities in particular. However, the Charter does not directly impact France.
Meanwhile, the second relationship – between citizens and local authorities – is guided by the principle of good governance in local government. However, the nature of this relationship depends to a large extent on the degree to which citizens and civil society are involved in public life at the local and regional level, and what forms this participation takes. It is also contingent on the extent to which local elected representatives and public officials are committed to raising standards in local government and public services.
This relationship is enshrined in the Strategy on Innovation and Good Governance at local level, endorsed by a decision of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in 2008. The Strategy is designed as a simple, effective way to raise standards in local governance through a coordinated process involving all stakeholders.
The Strategy sets out the 12 Principles of Good Governance at local level and establishes a three-pillar implementation mechanism:
- first, a formal, voluntary commitment to the 12 Principles from local authorities and a pledge to improve performance, through periodic self-assessments
- second, action plans prepared and adopted jointly by governments and local and national authority associations, setting out weaknesses in implementation of the 12 Principles along with measures to address these shortcomings
- third, a European Label of Governance Excellence (ELoGE) for local authorities having achieved a high overall level of local governance, as enshrined in the 12 Principles, awarded by national juries.
These two defining relationships of local self-governance – between central and local authorities, and between local authorities and citizens – epitomise the principles of subsidiarity and good governance in local government. These relationships, in and of themselves, are nothing new. Yet what is new – and worth celebrating – is the fact that both central and local authorities are coming to realise that cooperation is the only way to improve.
Amid growing – and legitimate – demands from citizens, authorities everywhere are increasingly embracing experimentation, seeking out practices that work, and taking their cues from these examples.
The Council of Europe seeks to strengthen cooperation on local self-government matters on two levels: between governments through the European Committee on Democracy and Governance (CDDG) and between local authorities and governments through the Congress of Local Regional Authorities and the Centre of Expertise for Local Government Reform (CELGR).
Compliance with article 5 of the European Charter of Local Self-Government:
Article 5 of the European Charter of Local Self-Government, entitled “Protection of local authority boundaries”, states that “Changes in local authority boundaries shall not be made without prior consultation of the local communities concerned, possibly by means of a referendum where this is permitted by statute”.
This principle underlines the basic requirement that the affected authorities must be notified about any proposal to change their boundaries. This relates to both cases when an individual authority’s boundaries change, and when the whole territorial government system is transformed.
The decision maker, before any final action, is obliged to ask the view of the territorial communities concerned. In other words, any change of territorial government boundary may take place only after seeking the opinion of the affected authorities, municipalities and/or regions. In this way the spirit of the Charter, which requires a partnership between central government and territorial authorities based on mutual trust and cooperation, is respected.
By definition, the general provisions of Article 4 para. 6 also apply to the specific field of changing borders. The requirement of Article 4 para. 6 for an “appropriate way” of consultation is to be seen as a “rationality” principle of consultation, which obviously requires that consultation should take place in a way that provides real opportunity for territorial authorities to formulate and articulate their own views and proposals. Certainly, there is no guarantee that the central authorities, entitled to legislate or make policy decisions by law, will accept the opinions of subnational territorial authorities, but it is an inherent requirement that they have to take them into account, before taking any final decision.
Two countries stated that they do not consider themselves bound by Article 5: Georgia and Greece. Out of the other member states, twenty-two comply with Article 5, while nine partially complied and in three cases a violation of the Charter was found:
- In France, the procedures employed for passing act no. 2015-29 of 16 January 2015 on regional boundaries, regional and departmental elections and changes to the election timetable have not been considered to be in line with the Charter (Art. 4 paragraph 6, read together with Article 5). 0Therefore, the Congress recommended to draw up legislation setting out the procedures for consulting local authority representatives to ensure that they are effectively consulted, i.e. in due time and in an appropriate manner, on all questions directly concerning those authorities, including financial questions, and a fortiori on changes in their boundaries (Article 4, paragraph 6, Article 5 and Article 9, paragraph 6).
- The Russian Federation was asked in 2010 to ensure that settlements are only merged after full consultation with the elected assemblies concerned.
Violations of Article 5 are mostly due to top-down and exclusive policy-making of national governments. Policy makers at the national level are often afraid that consultation with concerned local communities prior to amalgamation and consolidation would facilitate the formation of opposition alliances and blockades that would frustrate their reform strategies. They are also afraid that extensive public deliberation could drastically change or even falsify their original reform plans.
Since territorial reforms are time-demanding and public deliberations are time-consuming, reformers are afraid that they would lose momentum if they initiated complicated public deliberation and complex consultation procedures. Finally, long-lasting public debates sometime result in litigations with unpredictable ends Governments are also avoiding consultation with single local authorities and prefer consultation with national associations of local government or upper houses, since party loyalties and majoritarian politics can suppress localist opposition to territorial reforms.
The Congress recommends introducing legislation which would set out procedures to ensure appropriate and timely consultation of each local authority concerned. Such inclusive procedures take advantage of local knowledge and can drastically increase practicability and public acceptance of reform plans.
Compliance with article 10 of the European Charter of Local Self-Government:
Article 10 – Local authorities’ right to associate
- “Local authorities shall be entitled, in exercising their powers, to co-operate and, within the framework of the law, to form consortia with other local authorities in order to carry out tasks of common interest.
- The entitlement of local authorities to belong to an association for the protection and promotion of their common interests and to belong to an international association of local authorities shall be recognised in each State.
- Local authorities shall be entitled, under such conditions as may be provided for by the law, to co-operate with their counterparts in other States.”
Article 10 refers to associations of local governments. While paragraph 1 covers cooperation on a functional basis in order to achieve greater efficiency, paragraph 2 is concerned with associations whose objectives are much more general and normally seek to represent local authorities. Finally paragraph 3 refers to international cooperation of local authorities.
The Congress has recommended that Bosnia and Herzegovina strengthen and promote inter-municipal cooperation and the joint delivery of certain public services, in particular across the Inter-Entity Boundary Line, in order to guarantee that all municipalities are able to exercise their powers despite the great fragmentation of the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and to actively support existing initiatives in this direction.
The Congress recommended that Croatia re-consider its legislation on the voluntary mergers of local government units with the aim of making voluntary mergers more attractive by disseminating information relating to the benefits of the mergers to communities, including their public services, or considering the implementation of other incentives.
Concerning inter-municipal cooperation on the grounds of task fulfilment, the Congress considers that systematisation and modernisation of the legal framework alongside cooperation incentives, trust-building mechanisms and state assistance could rather easily reduce the existing shortcomings in some countries.
The situation is more complex concerning inter-regional cooperation, sometimes touching upon delicate issues of international relations. Pertinent national legislation, however, can certainly incorporate principles and provisions for international cooperation (including transfrontier cooperation) adopted in international treaties and international law.