Sunday, 22 April 2012
Understanding Europe from the inside (Part 1) - Does Damscheid need a Mayor?
Damscheid, a village of 640 citizens above Oberwesel in the Rhine valley, has a Mayor.
It was a pleasant and ideally situated place to spend a quiet week touring the Middle Rhine, but in the UK it wouldn't have its own Mayor and Council, where few local authorities are smaller than 50,000 inhabitants. Localism is deeply rooted in many continental European countries, and, in some, the powers of local and regional (sub-national) authorities are constitutionally enshrined rather than, as in the UK, deriving from statute. France has more than 35,000 communes, Slovakia (population 5.4 million) has around 3000 sub-national authorities and Austria (population 8.4 million) has more than 2,300 sub-national authorities.
There are different traditions, and they raise interesting questions.
1. Is the continental European approach more representative because it is more local and everyone knows the Mayor?
2. Is it more democratic, particularly when based on proportional representation electoral systems rather than "removal van" politics, proportional representation systems which encourage the growth of fringe, extreme or frankly frivolous parties (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/apr/11/pirate-party-german-politics)
3. Is it more effective because of the potentially greater ease of making decisions? Or, to use the context of PPP, is it very likely that a small municipality has the capability to negotiate an effective contract with a major multinational service provider?
4. Is it less corrupt, because the reasons for decisions are likely to be, at least informally, better known? Or, as one American political scientist once put it (referring to his assessment of State level government in the United States), a case of "the more local, the more venal"?
5. Have more layers of government or devolution of powers enhanced a European identity and thus contributed to a true union of peoples? Or do they sustain the failed EU idea - in clear conflict with the principle of "form follows function" - that a union of peoples will follow from creating institutional structures?
The present crisis in public finances within the EU has highlighted the tension between localism and the fiscal sustainability of having a structure based on a large number of often small sub-national authorities. Fiscal consolidation is proving to need determination and hard work even in essentially centralised administrations such as the UK.
This will clearly lead to difficult decisions needing to be made in some EU Member States but one positive benefit could be a re-assessment of the number and their powers. Spain, which has municipal, provincial, regional and national levels of government, has already launched this debate (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/financialcrisis/9207630/Spain-plans-to-strip-regions-of-powers-in-bid-to-calm-markets.html).
It will be interesting to see where this debate will lead and if it will reinforce the idea that it is in the nation state where democratic legitimacy rests.
Posted by Mike Burnett at 14:00