Interview with Andreas Kiefer,
Secretary General of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe
What is a leading tendency in Europe nowadays – Integration or Fragmentation?
Europe, both in the smaller dimension of the European Union and in the larger pan-European approach of the Council of Europe, is a continent of many levels of government and territorial structures: local, regional, national and European. In this Europe of several formal levels, there are also several, complementary, levels of identities, which we feel and live. For most people it is no question to be / to identify and feel Tyrolean and Austrian as well as European. For some, however, it is different: a number of Scots do not feel British but Scottish and European. In Catalonia and Flanders, where the Spanish or Belgian identity is being questioned, the European one is being put forward.
If we take the Council of Europe, it has doubled its size in terms of member States over the past 25 years – and the only European country, which is not a member State of the Council of Europe – Belarus – has shown willingness to strengthen its co-operation with this Organisation, and to integrate international experience into its domestic practice – in particular with regard to local self-government.
Also when new states appeared – after the separation of Czechoslovakia and the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia – the new countries found their place in the organization of fundamental values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
The Council of Europe has succeeded in creating a common European legal space of norms and standards, through its system of conventions and soft-law recommendations and its monitoring mechanisms. Through its specific platforms of political co-operation – the Committee of Ministers, the Parliamentary Assembly, the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities – and its committees of government experts, the Council of Europe fosters dialogue between different branches and levels of governance across the continent. This is all part of a process of integration.
Integration means to voluntarily weave a net or fabric of commonly accepted norms, standards and behaviours and a network of politicians at national and regional level, in governments and parliaments and assemblies, who pursue weaving the fabric while maintaining unity in diversity. The fabric cannot sustain without the attitude and action of the people and the politicians they represent.
If we take the European Union, where the talk of fragmentation is the most evident because of Brexit and the rise of anti-EU parties, let’s look at the results of the latest European elections: pro-EU parties, both on the right and on the left, have won an overwhelming majority, with a voter turnout that averaged over 51% across the EU – highest in decades; and the United Kingdom took part in elections, while Brexit has not yet materialised.
If we speak about the regional level, it is interesting but not surprising that regional nationalists in Western Europe continue to favour a stronger European Union even as they call for greater regional autonomy within their national States. This means that although they want to be separate, they do not want to be isolated – and fragmentation is first and foremost the result of isolation and the policy of isolationism.
Legally speaking there is no room for fragmentation. The European Commission of the EU and the Courts of the EU (Luxemburg) and the European Court of Human Rights of the Council of Europe (Strasbourg) are the guarantors of the treaties, of the commonly achieved integration and the legal provisions in place. Human rights and fundamental freedoms are universal and indivisible. There is, however, a tendency towards fragmentation in some policy fields like migration, immigration and budgetary discipline.
More generally, if we look at the subnational level, there is a strong tendency towards co-operation and greater integration across national borders – be it in the form of European Groupings of Territorial Co-operation (EGTC), the so-called Euroregions, which number 72 in the EU today, or in the framework of the Council of Europe’s Outline Convention on Transfrontier Co-operation, the Madrid Convention. The sheer number of European associations that promote inter-regional co-operation, as well as inter-municipal co-operation, is also telling: the Assembly of European Regions, the Council of European Municipalities and Regions, the European Conference of Regional Legislative Assemblies, the Association of European Border Regions, the Conference of Peripheral and Maritime Regions.
All this gives us hope, and supports our conviction, that the overall dynamic for greater integration remains and will prevail – but it might be in a different form and at a different depth.
Should regions be stronger or national governments should control them?
The way this question is formulated suggests, that if regions become stronger, national governments will lose “control”. In the Congress, we do not believe this to be the case – and there are plenty of examples to prove this statement wrong: Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and many others. While there is a need for coherence, a national constitution must provide an umbrella of principles valid for all actors. The national constitution sets the legal framework for democratic self-government and all the checks and balances, joint institutions, transparent schemes for financial equalisation, responsibilities and division of powers and legal conflict resolution schemes, in case a political solution cannot be found. These are elements that a modern system of accountable multi-level governance comprises.
The constitution shall also set out the control mechanisms of the national level, which shall not be a political control but a control of legality. And: supervision and control must be proportional. This was confirmed on 4 April 2019 by the Committee of Ministers in their Recommendation to the member states of the Council of Europe CM/Rec(2019)3 on the supervision of local authorities activities. Most of these principles also hold true for the regions.
The Recommendation takes into account current rules and practices as well as recent trends in supervision of local authorities’ action and provides guidelines for member States to improve supervision of local authorities’ activities in full respect of the European Charter of local Self-Government. It thus helps to provide adequate oversight while ensuring that local authorities have “the right and the ability …, within the limits of the law, to regulate and manage a substantial share of public affairs under their own responsibility and in the interests of the local population”.
For us in the Congress, stronger regions mean stronger States. We are convinced that regions, as much as local authorities, must be strengthened through a transfer of competences, finances and democratically controlled decision-making autonomy from the central level. This will allow for an optimal use of local resources, as regions – together with local authorities – are better placed than national authorities to identify the needs of their communities and adapt national policies – and the use of available resources – to local specifics. It is telling that in times of economic crises, decentralised economies perform better and rebound faster.
Our philosophy in general is that public responsibilities must be exercised at the level closest to citizens. This principle, known as the principle of subsidiarity, is enshrined in the European Charter of Local Self-Government – a key Council of Europe convention ratified by all 47 Member States, and the major international reference treaty for local democracy, a first of its kind.
This includes also the delegation of powers from national ministries and agencies to the regions like placing state administration offices in the regions under the authorities of regionally elected and accountable executives and assemblies. This requires a clear and transparent legal system and procedures, an institutional set-up with clarification of the responsibility in own competences and delegated matters, and, not least, an atmosphere of mutual trust.
By adopting the Charter in 1985, national governments recognised local self-government as the foundation of any democratic regime. Indeed, the proximity of public authorities and institutions of governance to citizens means their greater accessibility, and provides a practical possibility for engaging people in decision-making processes, as well as for holding authorities accountable in a more tangible way than at the national level. This creates a necessary link between citizens and authorities and a relationship of mutual trust. It is telling that the level of public confidence in local authorities has been traditionally higher than in national politicians, and stands today – for the European Union at least – at 50%. In comparison, only 36 to 38 % of EU citizens trust their national governments and parliaments.
The European Charter of Local Self-Government stipulates that its principles apply to the same extent to regional authorities as they do to the local level. In the Congress, we see the region as a bridge between local communities and central authorities, a link between citizens and national governments. Villages and towns occupying a specific territory appeared long before a national State, and these territories – regions – represent still today an important dimension of cultural identity references. A country is indeed more than just the sum of its territories.
Can strong regions development lead to separatism sentiments?
In the Congress, we are convinced that appropriate regional autonomy for a strong region is the best antidote to separatism as it strips separatists of their key argument – that the region with a specific identity has no freedom to uphold and develop this identity.
Of course, we are also aware of the risks that specific regional identity might represent. This is why the Congress also proposed the Council of Europe Reference Framework for Regional Democracy, endorsed by national governments in 2009 as a non-binding document to complement the European Charter of Local Self-Government. Aimed at providing guidelines for creating regional entities and their relationship with national authorities, the Framework establishes as the founding principles of these relations the respect for territorial integrity and national sovereignty of the State and loyalty to the existing national constitutional framework.
The Congress has been following closely developments with regard to regions in Europe, and its Chamber of Regions has reaffirmed time and again those principles of constitutional loyalty and territorial integrity. Regional representatives themselves have insisted on it during its debate in March 2015 following the September 2014 referendum in Scotland, United Kingdom, and again during its debate on regional identity in March 2018, in the wake of developments in Catalonia, Spain.
But at the same time, regional representatives have stressed the need for constant and effective dialogue between the State and the region, as well as the need for State action to improve territorial cohesion – better redistribution of resources and burden-sharing between the State and regions within a country. Instead of trying to impose strict control over regions, the State should be engaged in dialogue with them and provide support to regional efforts. With regard to dialogue, for instance, the Congress praised the example of the United Kingdom in its monitoring report for a successful partnership adopted in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that facilitated consultations with both local authorities and the central government – which was particularly important in the context of the referendum in Scotland.
We are convinced that when these conditions are met – constitutional loyalty, respect for territorial integrity, effective dialogue with the State and better financial equalisation – in these circumstances, greater regional autonomy does not pose a threat of secession but on the contrary, I repeat, represents an antidote to separatism.
A degree of autonomy is necessary both to ensure the principle of subsidiarity and to allow the region to maintain its specific regional identity, and such autonomy presents the best counterweight to the argument of separatists. Again, this was in particular the case in the context of the referendum in Scotland – which is why the Congress emphasised in another debate, on prospects for devolution in the United Kingdom, that the referendum results should mark the beginning of a new process leading to further devolution for Scotland and other parts of that country.
Yet allowing regional autonomy is not enough. Time and again, we see that regional problems flare up in places where the State ignores the economic conditions of the region and the region’s voice is not heard by central authorities.
In March 2016, the Congress adopted recommendations based on the report “Autonomy and borders in an evolving Europe”, which examined exactly the question of a required balance between the principles of State unity and sub-national autonomy, and the division of competences between the State and autonomous entities. Stressing that this balance needs continuous adaptation, the Congress called on regional as well as local authorities to develop effective and transparent dialogue with central government and to favour court proceedings to ensure compliance with the principles of regional self-government in cases of dispute. At the same time, the Congress called on member States to promote peaceful and constitutional solutions to disputes about territory and not to change the boundaries and territorial status of subnational entities without prior consultation of the population.
In the context of “multiplication” of borders in Europe since 1989, the Congress stressed that respect for the rule of law, the national sovereignty of States and good neighbourly relations had been the basic principles underpinning all European intergovernmental cooperation since 1945. These principles are a prerequisite for any changes to boundaries and autonomy statutes. The procedures applicable to the modification of territorial boundaries and statutes of autonomy in member States must be part of a stable, recognised and legally established framework. Any changes must be made in a transparent manner, with due process and by means of a sustainable political dialogue between central government, the regional authorities and all parties concerned.
More profound adaptation of the balance between State unity and sub-national autonomy may provoke changes in the distribution of competencies, or even regarding the legal/constitutional status of sub-national entities; frequently, controversy and conflict between national government and subnational entity is the inevitable consequence. When territorial re-organisation proves to be necessary, the Council of Europe, which has substantially developed its standard-setting competences in the field of human rights and the rule of law, is well-placed to promote appropriate democratic methods as a means of resolving tensions between its increasingly diverse populations.
Finally, the Congress underlined that a pluralist democracy must not only respect the ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious identity of individuals and groups but must also create appropriate conditions to allow them to express, preserve and develop those identities.
How can the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe make regions stronger?
The Congress, through its Chamber of Regions, advocates the regional cause and argues the case for stronger regions through the transfer of competences and finances to regional entities, greater autonomy in decision making and capacity to maintain a specific regional cultural identity – including through the use of regional or minority languages – as well as for dialogue and consultations between regions and the State, and a better territorial cohesion. The necessity of consultations is indeed another key principle of the European Charter of Local Self-Government, as is the principle of financial equalisation. This is why it is fair to say that full implementation of the Charter provisions contributes to making regions stronger – but also to making an overall system of local and regional self-government in a country stronger and more effective. By monitoring the Charter’s implementation, publishing its reports and discussing its findings with national governments and parliaments as well as with the national and the European associations of regions, the Congress contributes to this dynamic.
But at the same time, it should be kept in mind that the Congress’ Chamber of Regions in itself provides a forum for dialogue and experience-sharing between regions themselves, and a platform of co-operation in elaborating recommendations addressed to regional peers as well as to national governments. One example is our recommendations which I mentioned earlier, adopted in March 2016 and based on the report “Autonomy and borders in an evolving Europe”.
Another is our country-by-country study of regionalisation in Europe, undertaken in 2015 by the Congress’ Group of Independent Experts on the European Charter of Local Self-Government. With regard to Ukraine, this study pointed out back then that the institutional aspects of the regional governance reform had not been properly addressed, in particular the allocation of powers between regional state administrations and elected councils, and between councils of different levels; the budgetary process remained centralised; and key legal issues of regional reforms were not adequately entrenched either in the Ukrainian constitution, or in a set of laws necessary for the success of any reform. The study noted that in general, the fluctuations between centralisation and decentralisation in Ukrainian regional policy tended to incline towards the dominance of the centralist approach, and that Ukraine had still not completed the elaboration and implementation of a new model of regional policy, that corresponded to its European choice and the basic expectations of its society.
Based on this study, the Congress, in its Resolution 390 (2015) on “Trends in regionalisation in Council of Europe member States”, noted that, since 2008, there had been a trend in some countries to recentralise powers, and encouraged Member States’ policies on regionalisation that respect the principle of subsidiarity and the territorial cohesion of States. The Congress reaffirmed that regionalisation policies must keep in mind the need for territorial solidarity within the framework of national States, as well as the need for regions to have a legal status and clearly defined powers, anchored in their constitution or legislation, and to manage a substantial share of public affairs and be free to exercise their initiative in any matter that is not excluded from their powers or assigned to another authority. It also reaffirmed the need for regions to have resources that they can use freely, enabling them to effectively and efficiently exercise their powers, within the framework of national or federal solidarity and loyalty.
Does European Integration/Membership in the EU and in the Council of Europe minimize the risk of states fragmentation?
The opportunity to be part of this dialogue between peers at European level and to contribute to policy making through joint elaboration of recommendations provides integration through participation – and let’s not forget that regional representatives also become subject to peer pressure, as necessary, from their counterparts from other regions. From this viewpoint, participation in Council of Europe structures such as the Congress serves indeed to diminish the risk of State fragmentation – provided that regions, as well as national governments, follow the recommendations that they themselves helped to prepare and voted for.
By the same token, better dialogue and participation at European level leads to greater integration – because, as I said in my reply to the first question, fragmentation is in fact the result of isolation and a policy of isolationism.
The Congress itself has recently opened the door for the participation of Morocco as partner for local democracy, and has received a similar request from Tunisia. I should repeat that the only European country which is not a member State of the Council of Europe – Belarus – has shown willingness to strengthen its co-operation with this Organisation, and to integrate international experience into its domestic practice – in particular with regard to local self-government.
This is all part of a tendency for integration. But the State, on the other hand, must not isolate itself from its constituent parts at subnational level by not hearing their concerns – because this is what causes fragmentation in the long run. If the State ignores the region, the region will seek to ignore the State.
Andreas Kiefer, Secretary General of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe. He worked as Chef de Cabinet of Land Salzburg’s Vice-president and later President Hans Katschthaler (1984–1995) and was Director of the European Affairs Service of Land Salzburg regional government from 1996 to 2010. From 2000 to 2009, he represented the Austrian Länder in the EU’s Intergovernmental Conferences (IGC) negotiating the Treaty on a Constitution for Europe and the Lisbon Treaty at working level. He was elected Secretary General of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe on 17 March 2010 and re-elected in March 2015 for a term of five years. He is a member of the Scientific Committee of the Institute for Comparative Federalism of the European Academy of Bozen/Bolzano (EURAC), of the European Association of Researchers on Federalism.